Michel de Klerk, in collaboration with his colleagues and in his own brief, but prolific, practice, was the creative inspiration for the Amsterdam School, a name first given to a group of young architects advocating an Expressive modernism in the years around 1915. Unlike other early Modern movements, the Amsterdam School was not an organized movement. It had no manifesto, journal, or official spokesperson. Although de Klerk wrote almost nothing, he was widely recognized as the leader of the movement through the aesthetic and visionary examples of his competition entries, built projects, graphic design, and furniture design.
During a brief period, corresponding to the years of his independent practice from 1911 until his death in 1923, the Amsterdam School radically changed the city’s urban landscape. These architects, including de Klerk, J.M.van der May, Piet Kramer, and others, contributed an architecture that expressed the personal aesthetic visions of the architects, advanced the conditions of modernity, and contributed to an extension of Amsterdam’s urban, architectural, and construction traditions.
Working-class housing in Amsterdam became de Klerk’s most well known and projects. Especially important are his three housing blocks (1913–15, 1915–16, and 1917–20) in the Spaarndammerburt, a west Amsterdam working-class district, built for the Eigen Haard (Our Hearth) housing association. The third block, Het Sh ip (The Ship), is the most widely recognized and has become the iconic project of the Amsterdam School. The working-class housing for the De Daggerad (The Dawn) Association in Amsterdam South (1919–22) in collaboration with Piet Kramer is also widely recognized.
Born in Amsterdam’s Jewish district to a family of 21 children, de Klerk grew up in poverty after his father died in 1886. Apparently more interested in drawing than in school, his work was accidentally discovered by the architect Eduard Cuypers, nephew of Petrus J.H.Cuypers (1827–1921), the famous neo-Gothic architect of Amsterdam’s two monumental 19th-century buildings, the Rijksmuseum (1876–85) and Amsterdam Central Railway Station (1882–89). At age 14, de Klerk entered Cuypers’s office as an apprentice in 1898 and remained until 1910 with interruptions for travel to England, Germany, and Scandinavia after 1906. While in Cuypers’s employment, he also attended evening school in the Architecture Department of the Industrial School of the Society for the Working Class. Although there is little evidence recording de Klerk’s influence in Cuypers’s office, he gained increasing responsibility, supervising the building of major projects and preparing designs for publication in Cuypers’s journal, Het Huis—Oud en Nieuw (The House—Old and New). He began his independent practice in 1911, soon after his marriage to Lea Jessurun, an administrative assistant in Cuypers’s office. Several of de Klerk’s initial projects—the second prize entry to the Water Tower Competition (1912), his collaborative work with the Kramer and the architect Van der May on the Scheepvaarthuis (1912–16) and the first housing block in Spaarndammerburt (1913– 14)—became lasting inspirations for the later work of the architects of the Amsterdam School.
De Klerk’s architectural projects occurred in two very different settings: urban and suburban. His suburban work, influenced by a variety of vernacular and folk sources— Dutch farmhouses, Scandinavian wood buildings, and German half-timber houses—were joined with his inventive combination of building plan, facade and detail into designs for picturesque cottages and villas. Few, however, were built. Exceptions are the Bileken House (1914) in Hilversum and the Barendsen House (1923) in Aalsmeer. These are far less fantastical, however, than the villas designed by other architects associated with the Amsterdam School. Just as his suburban work revealed inventive combinations of sources, his urban projects, especially his working-class housing, flowed from equally diverse sources but were formed within the context both of Amsterdam’s urban traditions and of the emergence of the modern city.
The clients for de Klerk’s most important urban housing were the housing associations Eigen Haard and De Daggerad. Formed after the adoption of the Dutch Housing Act of 1901 and Amsterdam’s adoption of the first municipal building code in 1905, these associations not only sponsored the construction of working-class housing but also encouraged participation by architects to contribute to the aesthetic qualities of Amsterdam and the living conditions of the working class. With his projects in the Spaarndammerburt and in Amsterdam South, de Klerk provided a counterpoint to the emerging dogma of modern housing and modern urbanism, which culminated in the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne’s Athens Charter of 1932, advocating the functional city. Like his suburban cottages and villas, his stylistic sources for urban housing were farreaching, including the English Arts and Crafts, exotic motifs from the then Dutch Indonesian colonies, and other folk traditions. However, these are extracted from their rural sources and compressed into the traditional urban block structure of Amsterdam’s expansion plans. In contrast to emerging conventions of modern housing and modern urbanism, he submerged repetitive individual housing units into larger compositions of formal parts derived from his personal interpretations of local context. Finally, he applied Amsterdam’s bricklaying traditions to the elaborate detailing of the street wall. Rooflines, roof drains, doorways, windows, mailboxes, and stairwells became sculptural celebrations of everyday urban life of the street and formed the visual symbols of collective residences of the working class. None of de Klerk’s housing projects referred even indirectly to Amsterdam’s mannerist architectural traditions. Instead, he, along with his colleagues in the Amsterdam School, expanded the 17th-century rings of canals and elegant merchants’ houses by building equivalent modern symbols of working-class urban identity.
The expressionist and anticlassical stance of de Klerk’s projects explains his disappearance from modern architectural history. Modernism found its lineage from Karl Friedrich Shinkel’s Berlin, composed of the classical layered orders of column and beam, to Hendrik P.Berlage’s masonry arcade and rationalistic pure skeleton building, expressed potently in the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. De Klerk’s alternative Modern expressionism, like Bruno Taut in Berlin, became only a footnote in the treatises of modernism. Only since the 1980’s have de Klerk’s projects been reexamined to find the evidence of not only a parallel stream of anticlassical Modern architecture but also a vital modern urbanism that favored local conditions, context, and expressive urban form.