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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Lai

A Brief History of the Museum Het Schip in Amsterdam

What is the Museum Het Schip

The Museum Het Schip is an early-20th-century housing complex in Amsterdam that’s called ‘The Ship’ and now also serves as a museum.

Exterior of the Museum Het Schip

Jvhertum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Museum Het Schip History

Tucked away in the cosy neighbourhood of Spaarndammerbuurt is the Museum Het Schip. This social housing complex and museum, designed by architect Michel de Klerk in the early 20th century, is a key example of the Amsterdam School aesthetic. The movement hit its peak at the beginning of the 20th century and continued to be heavily influential in mid-century architecture. Though highly stylised, the aesthetic did not punctuate Amsterdam with stand-alone glass buildings or towering cement blocks. By contrast, it took over whole neighbourhoods, filling them with solid, low-level red-brick structures alongside curving pavements, and fostering a feeling of warmth, playfulness and practicality. The quirky brickwork and human scale was in part influenced by the United Kingdom’s Arts and Crafts movement as well as drawing inspiration from the Netherlands’ Indonesian colonies in the form of stupa-like towers. The style is also considered to be an offshoot of German Expressionism due to its organic forms and attachment to brick as a building medium.

Towards the end of the 19th century, workers began to flood Amsterdam in order to man the factories cropping up all over the city. However, the housing sector could not keep up and many workers ended up crammed into slums where several households shared a single room. As disease and overcrowding took hold, the state rolled out the 1901 Housing Act enabling and financing housing associations to build homes for workers. A few years later, the city of Amsterdam hired Johann Melchior van der Mey, a key member of the Amsterdam School, to redesign working-class neighbourhoods and give the city aesthetic coherence.

Two key features of the Amsterdam School, therefore, are its socialist ideals and its focus on civic architecture and urban planning. Het Schip (or ‘The Ship’), designed by Michel de Klerk, a contemporary of van der Mey, is an excellent example of the movement’s ethos, a purpose-built habitation for low-income workers. The architects of the Amsterdam School believed in high-quality, low-rent habitation for the working class in configurations that encouraged a sense of community. The area’s low skyline and use of red brick, therefore, stands in stark contrast to other buildings built for the same purpose, which often consist of spiralling towers or 15-storey Brutalist blocks.

Born into a Jewish family in the late 19th century, de Klerk would have been familiar with the slums of Amsterdam and the poverty of the Jewish quarter at the time. At the age of 13, he was hired by Eduard Cuypers to work as a studio draughtsman where he met fellow pioneers of the Amsterdam School, Piet Kramer and Johann Melchior van der Mey. De Klerk’s work is known for its humour and precision, so look out for carved gnomes, little animals and secret symbols in his buildings. For example, you can find a ‘listening finch’ (a Dutch expression for eavesdropper) in the window of the phone booth of Het Schip’s post office.

The complex is made up of three blocks: the purple block, the yellow block and the orange block. Though they are all individually designed, the three blocks remain in architectural dialogue with one another. The complex originally housed 102 affordable apartments complete with a school, post office and community centre. Het Schip the museum can now be found inside the former post office and 82 apartments remain in use today. Het Schip offers guided tours of the complex, urban walks around Plan Zuid and a rotating exhibition space for those looking for a less touristic experience of this architectural treasure.

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