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Publication date 24 May, 2022

Iconic Houses in The Netherlands - Het Schip

  • Entrance Model Home at Het Schip, Michel de Klerk, 1921. Photo Els Zweerink.
  • Kitchen in the Model Home at Het Schip, Michel de Klerk, 1921. Photo Els Zweerink.
  • The characteristic turret has no direct function. It indicated that this was the centre of the residential block, comparable to the spire of a church tower. Photo Els Zweerink.
  • Rich curves of brick in the sculptural facades. Photo Els Zweerink.
  • Couple by the fireplace in their apartment, photo Museum Het Schip.
  • Entrance Model Home at Het Schip, Michel de Klerk, 1921. Photo Els Zweerink.
  • Kitchen in the Model Home at Het Schip, Michel de Klerk, 1921. Photo Els Zweerink.
  • The characteristic turret has no direct function. It indicated that this was the centre of the residential block, comparable to the spire of a church tower. Photo Els Zweerink.
  • Rich curves of brick in the sculptural facades. Photo Els Zweerink.
  • Couple by the fireplace in their apartment, photo Museum Het Schip.

Palaces for the People – Model Home in Museum Het Schip

Natascha Drabbe takes us to the most iconic houses from the twentieth century. If there was one thing that revolutionized the interior of homes in the Netherlands in the 1920s, it was the need to build more homes for the common man, the working class. A world-famous example of this is the residential block 'Het Schip' in Amsterdam. This 'workers' palace' was designed by architect Michel de Klerk and built in the style of the Amsterdam School.

Photography | Els Zweerink

Michel de Klerk (1884–1923) was commissioned by the housing association 'Eigen Haard' to design the workers' homes on a triangular plot on the Spaarndammer park. Built in 1919, the complex contained 102 working-class residences, a small meeting room, a post office, and a school. The building was described as a workers' palace and was soon nicknamed ‘Het Schip’ (The Ship). The total composition and the great richness of form bear witness to De Klerk's design talent and the details in the masonry and carpentry work of the builders. The facades exude a festive atmosphere and consist of bright orange bricks, decorated with a multitude of artistic shapes, also in brick. The model home in the residential block that can be visited as a museum home is a member of Iconic Houses.

Michel de Klerk at work, photo Museum Het Schip.  

Architect Michel de Klerk
Michel de Klerk, who was only 39 years old, occupies a prominent place within the Amsterdam School movement. He died in 1923 from the effects of pneumonia. De Klerk grew up in poverty in Amsterdam's Jewish quarter. As it turned out at primary school that he had a great talent for drawing, he was given the opportunity to follow further education at the craft school. In 1898, architect Eduard Cuypers, a first cousin of the architect Pierre Cuypers, employed him as an assistant. Eduard Cuypers had a large office where crafts were practiced as well as architectural designs. De Klerk was barely fourteen years old at the start of his employment. He would continue to work at Cuypers' office for twelve years.

Since his assignment for a block of worker’s houses on the Johannes Vermeerplein his name would keep associated with public housing. Together with architect Kramer, De Klerk also designed the housing complex 'De Dageraad' for the social-democratic General Workers' Cooperative 'De Dageraad' on the P.L.Takstraat, also in Amsterdam. De Klerk's socialist views undoubtedly played a part in obtaining these assignments.

The building was soon nicknamed 'The Ship'.

Model Home
The apartments of 'Het Schip' are still inhabited by tenants. The former post office, the school and the house under the iconic tower are now used as a museum and house museum. The house museum shows how De Klerk accommodated all the needs of daily life in the working-class houses. His credo was: 'Nothing is beautiful enough for the worker who has had to live without beauty for so long.' The house museum provides insight into the living situation of workers who lived in the housing complex from 1920 onwards. It is difficult for us to imagine what an enormous progress in living conditions this was for the workers at the time. We think it's normal for everyone to have their own bedroom, a well-equipped kitchen, and a nice bathroom in the house. But the opposite is true.

"Nothing is beautiful enough for the worker who has had to live without beauty for so long" - Michel De Klerk -

Reconstructed slum dwelling
The Netherlands is famous for the Housing Act of 1901; it was the first country to take such a step. In response to the appalling living conditions of the workers, a unique collaboration was created between government, corporations, and architects with the aim of achieving the highest possible, affordable quality of life for everyone. This was badly needed, because the workers who moved en masse from the countryside to the cities, found their shelter in cellars, slums, and one-room houses, where they had to live with the whole family. Streets were built close together, leaving little daylight and fresh air. Unhealthy living conditions caused diseases and epidemics. Slowly but surely the slums were declared uninhabitable and made way for better homes.
On the former schoolyard of 'Het Schip', the museum made a real-size reconstruction of a slum house (16 square meters) to make clear what it was like to live in a slum with an entire family. There is hardly any daylight in the slum. Cooking, washing, and sleeping take place here in one and the same room. By looking into this slum through the eyes of the residents (a family with seven children), insight is provided into the history and importance of social housing in the Netherlands.

Workers' Houses
The furniture of the workers' houses of Het Schip was all in the style of the Amsterdam School: sleek oak with small dark-stained decorations. At that time, prominent furniture designers, such as Piet Kramer, set the trend. But the average carpenter translated that in this case into furniture for 'ordinary' people. This type of furniture was not suitable for machine manufacture. Because handicraft was expensive, a lot of it was made by residents themselves. There were even manuals for it. A good example of this home craft is a floor lamp with carved Indian motifs. The Dutch East Indies was one of the sources of inspiration for the Amsterdam School.
There were two bedrooms in the workers' house, which is not very much for a family by today's standards. Yet for many this was a huge step forward. In the past they had to make do with alcoves and box beds.

The great wealth of shapes testifies to the architect's design talent.

School and Post Office
When the socialist housing association 'Eigen Haard' ordered the construction of the housing complex 'Het Schip', a school was already located on this site. It had been completed a few years earlier, in 1914. Michel de Klerk integrated the existing school building into the new building. The school was intended for the children of the workers. The prevailing thought was that a pleasant living and working environment had a positive influence on the general well-being of the workers. There was also a brass band that had its own place to practice, and outings were organized, for example to the sea. The post office, part of the building, enabled the residents to participate in telephone and letter traffic. It was also the place where the workers received their wages and were encouraged to save money.

Portrait Fré Cohen, Collection Peter van Dam. 

Fré Cohen: Form and Ideals of the Amsterdam School
Until 30 October 2022, Museum Het Schip presents an exhibition about the Dutch artist and graphic artist Fré Cohen (1903-1943). Fré Cohen was a successful and iconic woman in the men's world of graphic design. She was of great importance to the Amsterdam School. In her work, both the formal language and the ideals of the Amsterdam School are clearly expressed. For more information, visit www.hetschip.nl

Pioneers of the Dutch Modern House
For those who are curious about more stories about the developments in Dutch residential architecture in the twentieth century, Iconic Houses has made a five-part thematic video series in which specialists discuss the following topics:

  • Hygiene and Health in the Modern Home by Hetty Berens, Curator of the Sonneveld House.
  • Palaces for the People by Valentijn Carbo, Architectural Historian at Hendrick de Keyser; Association.
  • A Woman’s Place: Clients and Architects, by Natalie Dubois, Curator of Design at the Centraal Museum Utrecht.
  • Experiments with Space by Robert von der Nahmer, resident of the Diagoon House.
  • Home as a Self-Portrait: Architect ‘s Houses by Natascha Drabbe, Architectural Historian and owner of the Van Schijndel House.

The video series lasts 1 hour and can be streamed with or without a keynote lecture on the same theme via www.iconichouses.org/shop.

About the author
Natascha Drabbe, architectural historian and resident of the renowned Van Schijndelhuis in Utrecht, is Executive Director and Founder of Iconic Houses, the international network of owners and managers of architecturally interesting houses from the twentieth century. They strive to preserve modern heritage. The iconichouses.org website serves as a platform for more than one hundred and fifty Iconic Houses around the world, of which no fewer than 24 are in the Netherlands. The houses can all be visited (by appointment) and in some you can even stay overnight.

This article previously appeared in Dutch Magazine Herenhuis #89, May/June 2022.

Publication date 24 May, 2022