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VU Main Building: 50 years beacon of Buitenveldert

11 April 2023
The striking VU Main Building, loved and reviled, celebrates its 50th anniversary on 12 April next. Freek Schmidt, professor of the history of architecture and the living environment, talks about the vision behind the design and its significance for its surroundings. "Our residential culture is a reflection of who we are," he says.

"There will be few people who call the VU Main Building a beautiful building without hesitation," says Freek. "But architecture is not about beautiful or ugly, it's about how a building is put together and what it offers. If you look at the VU Main Building that way, you can see that it has been working for 50 years. It still fulfils its function after all these years. The composition shows that it was well thought out and designed for change and growth. We still benefit from that today. The university has changed a lot, but the VU Main Building was adaptable to that. Compare that to the Zuidas construction of today, where many of the office buildings are stripped or discarded after ten, fifteen years."

Presence felt
On 12 April 1973, the opening of the VU Main Building took place in the presence of the then Queen Juliana. Buitenveldert was in full development, the A10 ring road was not yet there, the Zuidas consisted mainly of grasslands and the tallest buildings in the area were the water tower on the Amstelveenseweg and a lonely radio mast near the current RAI. Until 1973, VU Amsterdam - like the University of Amsterdam - was scattered across the city, on the Keizersgracht and with laboratories on the Valeriusplein. The new building in that then barren location provided an opportunity for the university to make its presence felt. Freek: "The designation Main Building was used explicitly for a reason. It was conceived and designed as a beacon for the campus. The VU Main Building became the tallest building in the area. It has retained that monumentality to this day."

Cheap energy
Today, we look at construction methods and materials used differently. Energy was relatively cheap at the time, Freek says, and was used liberally in the manufacture of building materials and in construction. To the extent that the building would fit into a style at all, because of the emphatic presence of concrete, steel and glass, you could speak of Brutalism. Although Freek is cautious about such qualifications, as it is "always a retrospective label". "As architectural historians, we want to watch out for this. As soon as you start using such a designation, you actually start looking less closely but rather look for features that fit the label."

View of the living environment
Observing is essential for architectural historians. They don't just look at crazy, beautiful or unusual buildings, but are actually interested in the broader scope of the living environment. "That's what makes it interesting," says Freek. "The living space, the designed and built space around us, belongs to all of us. That space is a cocktail of (good) intentions and diverse ideas. People attach themselves to their environment because it is culturally determined. This makes living space not only a reflection of an era but also of our identity; it says a lot about our own cultural history and who we are. To understand that, you need knowledge. Architectural historians can provide and deepen that knowledge."

This makes the role of the architectural historian in spatial planning essential. Freek: "Architectural historians not only have the eye and knowledge; they also understand the importance of the living environment in relation to people, and the importance of the pace of change. If that change goes too fast, a person will literally get homesick because they will lose connection with their environment."

Characteristic part of Amsterdam
On 12 April, a series of lectures, a small exhibition, tours and a concluding discussion will highlight the Main Building from different perspectives, showing how VU Amsterdam has remained a characteristic and dynamic part of Amsterdam. See the full programme and sign up.

What does Freek want to achieve with the symposium? "I hope that many people will look at the Main Building very differently after our day. Beyond qualifications like beautiful or ugly, because hopefully they will understand why this special building was designed in this way and that it has proven to be sustainable." 

50 years of VU Main Building
The day is organised by the Chair of History of Architecture and the Living Environment and university historian Ab Flipse, in close cooperation with and support from the Faculty of Humanities, VU Association, research institute CLUE+, the University Library (Special Collections), the Document Management and Archives (DMA) department and the Facility Campus Organisation (FCO).