‘Circularity has always meant designing a building that people love for us’

You don’t need to tell architect Max van Huut anything about circularity. Together with his partner Ton Alberts, he designed iconic buildings that have stood the test of time in glorious fashion. An icon from the past, the Zandkasteel in Amsterdam Zuidoost next to the Bijlmer Arena station is given new life as a mixed-use building. From next year you can live, work, learn, eat and drink there. Van Huut thinks it’s amazing what Wonam and Zadelhoff are making possible here, saying with pride: ‘For us, circularity has always been about designing a building that people love. If people like a building, it should not be demolished’.

This article is in ROM September. The trade magazine ROm is free for officials within the physical living environment. Take a home subscription.

In the 1980s, Alberts & Van Huut pioneered organic architecture. Zandkasteel in Amsterdam, head office of the then NMB and later ING, and the head office of Gasunie in Groningen were the most talked about and successful examples. When asked about the precise meaning of organic architecture, he also finds it difficult to define. “I’m still working on a book about it,” he says with a smile. At its core, architects draw inspiration from natural forms and materials, and design revolves around beauty and harmony. “Ton Alberts and I were always looking for a balance between rationality and intuition in our designs.”

Feeling and intuition

Then follows a short lecture on the development of architecture since 3,4,5 the seam, or the Pythagorean rectangle. “Since then, buildings have primarily been based on conditions in their design. And it has brought us a lot. The construction must be correct. Great builders, however, have always sought a symbiosis with the spiritual, whether religiously or anthroposophically determined. Besides being a physical being, a human being is also a spiritual entity. We have equally good feeling, intuition.’

Sometime in the last century, Van Huut marked that after the Second World War, in his view, the emotional aspect had completely disappeared from architecture. ‘Art Nouveau was still aesthetic architecture that appealed to an emotion. Then it was over. I don’t want to be overly critical of that either, because it had to be built quickly, affordably and functionally. We needed housing and new work buildings.’

To his satisfaction, Van Huut sees a return of the desire for beauty in architecture. He was recently in Reggio dell’Emilia, the capital of Emilia Romagna, Italy, to admire the Mediopadana station building. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. ‘Beautiful to see. I admire the technique he uses and have taken I think 400 pictures. Still, at the end of the day, I had to admit that it had not touched my heart. I think that’s the point of architecture. You should immediately get a good feeling about it, make you happy. The planet and people are our greatest sources of inspiration. We must create a loving environment where people like to stay, nature is everywhere and treated with respect.’


Van Huut shows what he means in the old head office of NMB and later ING Bank on Bijlmerplein in Amsterdam-Zuidoost, commonly referred to as Het Zandkasteel. You feel the space, even though natural stone floors and wooden railings have been screened off during the renovation, temporary partitions and wallpapered columns have been installed, the corridors are filled with building materials and construction workers come and go. A wide and in most places high inner street of five hundred meters in length connects the building’s ten towers like a river flowing between the rocks. It is noteworthy that there is little light, which makes the building very cool in summer. But there is little glass in the facades.

“Back then, a maximum of 27 percent glass was chosen in the facade due to energy management. But by creating voids in the towers, light entered the rooms from within. We have ensured that you have contact with the outside within 6 meters everywhere in the building.’

Creating a sense of seclusion has been a starting point for the architects, explains Van Huut. “The search for a balance between open and closed parts allows people to feel safe in the space. The Eastern wisdom of feng shui teaches us this, but we also feel it ourselves.’

Van Huut points to the modern bank buildings with a lot of glass in the facade, such as the ING office on the A10, which has now also left the bank. ‘So much to radiate transparency. I don’t like it at all. The vision behind it is wrong: because the moment a ray of sunlight hits the facade, a sun curtain slides in front of it. Then you see nothing more. People need places to hide. In buildings with a lot of glass, all the energy, including the people, goes outside.’

The curved lines of the building enhance the sense of seclusion. “It has now been proven that inclined columns that support the construction work just as well as straight ones. Then why are you setting everything right? Nothing is true in nature. Play with it, make sure people have some kind of surprise when they walk by it, connect with it.’

Sustainability avant la lettre

Alberts & Van Huut were way ahead of their time. Although Van Huut mainly talks about appreciation in terms of circularity, during the construction period from 1984-1987 concrete thought was also given to sustainability. In this way, the rainwater is collected for various purposes. The theme gardens and roof gardens with green areas designed by Jørn Copijn ensure biodiversity and a pleasant indoor climate.

An ingenious system regulated the indoor temperature according to changes in the outdoor temperature. Van Huut: ‘With all the bricks, solid outer walls and some glass, the building is very massive, it retains heat for a long time, which is an advantage in winter. For spring and summer ventilation, we have made slits in the facades that open as soon as there is sufficient coolness outside in the evening or at night. In the morning people come back inside a cooled building.’

‘If people love the building, it won’t be demolished’

Now that the monumental Zandkasteel has a new destination, Van Huut comes to visit regularly. He is happy about the mixed functions that the building will have. Some of the towers are rented by an international school. On the ground floor, adjacent to Bijlmerplein, there is space for catering, and on the inner street there will be spaces for coworking, studios and exhibition opportunities for artists and meeting rooms. The floors above will mainly have a residential function, with a few hundred owner-occupied apartments. “I never expected that people would start living here, but we have always taken into account a transformation in the design. I knew the bank would fail one day.’

Loving embrace

It is thanks to the initiators Wonam and Zadelhoff that the building is again being ‘lovingly’ embraced, as Van Huut calls it. He recognizes the attitude of the first customers in this, where NMB director Wim Scherpenhuijsen Rom was previously skeptical. ‘During construction, he became so enthusiastic that we were given the task of completely renovating his house,’ says Van Huut with joy in his eyes. ‘I think it’s a great customer, just like Robert Kohsiek from Wonam and Cor van Zadelhoff now. They provide space to jointly design a building that is future-proof. Designing and realizing a building is a process that you shape together from start to finish. If people – clients, designers, construction workers, local residents, the licensing authority and users – love the building, it will not be demolished. It is sustainability, ultimate circularity.’

Visit Sandcastle Heritage Day

The transformed Sandslot can be seen at Open Monuments on Saturday 10 September from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Those interested are welcome to take a look behind the scenes in a part of this iconic bank building that will now have more functions. Part of the ground floor is publicly accessible. You can register on site for a tour of a larger part of the building.

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