Amsterdam School of Music

Species: American red oak
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Architect: Frits van Dongen
Photography: AHEC  


Amsterdam School of MusicThe Amsterdam School of Music has been described as a school and concert hall in one.  The construction has three distinct elements - the -Performing Heart- made up of five auditoria for different kinds of performances with the foyer annex canteen, the school building with classrooms and the study building with study rooms, the library, the lecture hall and offices.   

The design follows these three elements by organising the vertical components in three distinct clusters.  The foyer on the ground floor is designed to be welcoming to students and visitors who come here in the pursuit of education and the performance of all kinds of music.  

The architect Frits van Dongen (de Architekten Cie.) calls himself a 'tinkerer'. While this may well be so, his new school of music is a masterpiece. The wide use of FSC certified American red oak in various applications provides the light touch in a design dominated by concrete, steel and glass which glows on the Oosterdock skyline.  


Amsterdam School of MusicLooking from the Prins Hendrikkade over the water to the Oosterdok, Amsterdam's new School of Music of Amsterdam immediately catches the eye.  While it is smaller and more compact than the imposing Library of Amsterdam, its ingenious use of glass demands attention. Neon side walls reflect every colour of the rainbow, depending on the viewing angle, making the building literally brilliant. The saw tooth arrangement of glass panels on the front and side walls in three different designs define the vertical organisation of the building into the Performing Heart, the classrooms and the study building and offices.  In the words of Van Dongen: 'Plinth, body and architrave'.  

According to the urban development plan of architect Erick van Egeraat, the Oosterdokseiland (Eastern dock island) has to form a kind of fan of buildings, intersected by radians or alleys. From a distance this echoes the ring of canals around the inner city. Twelve internationally renowned architects were commissioned for the development. The scheme design inspired Van Dongen's use of  the sawtooth device. He says "A flat wall will give no perspective of the alleys and surroundings from the inside.  By dividing the walls into segments you always have a view over the city and Oosterdok." What he has created can almost be described as a series of mini bay windows.  


Amsterdam School of MusicThe plinth is accentuated by transverse slim line columns of PEFC certified sapwood free gluelam Siberian larch (125 x 435 mm; 13,67, 7,70 and 1,96 m long), finished with a transparent Drywood wood stain. They support the curtain wall and the glass. Half of the side walls of the second plinth are slabs of natural stone and clean concrete, below and above a row of windows with larch posts.  The glass structure creates the rainbow colours with rectangular golden foils glued at the edges of the outer walls for a glowing effect. The architrave resembles the peak of a hilly landscape of little glass Lego towers.  

This glass palace is completely lit by night.  During daylight the glass maximises light. The goldfoils are attached to elements which contain sensors that record interior and exterior  temperatures. These open to allow cold or warm air to balance the temperature of the building. This process also allows the penetration of light which casts a kaleidoscope of  colour across the building's epoxy flooring.  


The ceilings above the entrance and the mini bay windows provide a preview of the most widely used wood species in the building - American red oak. It is used for ceilings, walls, floors, stairs, and pieces of furniture, interior window frames and doors. A particular showcase for the wood is the foyer, the central area of the 'Performing Heart' of concert halls, where it appears over large areas in high and lowered ceilings, entresol, floors and stairs. The contrast of the wood with the glass outer walls, steel stair constructions, concrete walls and impressive concrete columns (straight, diagonal, asymmetrical V-shaped) provides a strong visual impact. The use of timber for wide expanses of the building was something of a formality  for Van Dongen for whom wood would express the warmth of the art from to which the building is dedicated - music. But the search for the right wood proved to be a challenge.  


Van Dongen's preconceptions about oak as a traditional, rather unexciting wood changed when he designed the staircase for his own house. He says: "I thought of steel, but then considered oak. But I wondered if it would be strong enough. I now have 1,5 m of risers and steps in laminated oak, attached to each other with hidden steel dowels and it is so beautiful! Consequently I have learned to appreciate and understand this species."

As a result of that very personal project he chose oak for the School of Music, looking for a particular species which he wanted to apply untreated, similar to what has been done in Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ with untreated cumaru floors.  He also wanted to create the effect that he had come across in French and Spanish cafes. As he says: "It's wonderful how these floors look, totally weather-beaten by many years' use."  That the floors laid throughout most of the Performing Playing Heart in rough-sawn boards of 9 x 90 mm turn filthy with the footfall of students and visitors in all weathers is, for Van Dongen, a delight. "Wear and tear creates perfection" he says.

Amsterdam School of MusicFINDING THE RIGHT OAK  

After reviewing many samples of different oaks, the choice fell on American red oak because Van Dongen felt that this species had the best characteristics for what he wanted. He did not want the floors and other applications to be 'chic', but tough, because it is a school building with all the comings and goings of students and visitors.  He also believed that the use of what he calls 'exuberant' transparent glass fulfilled the required impact for an impressive public building.  There were, however, some real concerns about the differences in colour and finish of the red oak as it began to come through in various batches from a number of different suppliers.  This is clearly evident in the marked contrast between the untreated floor in the foyer and the enormous fine-sawn ceiling surfaces and walls which have undergone a fire retarding treatment, after which they were oiled, resulting in a beautiful reddish brown tone.   


In the 'Performing Heart' each of the halls has its own character and own timber. Behind the magnificent foyer lies the Main or Bernard Haitink Auditorium (450 seats). Van Dongen calls this hall 'fresh-classic'. The shining white side walls, in which stunning windows offer city panorama to the audience as they sit on their red chairs, are structured with two balconies between colossal round columns.  

The concrete building, made up of 13 storeys, of which two are underground, needed powerful support. Moreover, all the halls hang in the building, box-in-box structures of springed-off steel in concrete to guarantee acoustic mass. The white relief walls can be given colour like the outer walls. Lengthwise a broad 'conveyor' of varnished or coated OSB moves around: floor-wall-ceiling-wall. Van Dongen loves basic, practical materials which he uses for maximum cost effectiveness to stretch budgets.  

He says: "The double construction of the building swallowed up fifty percent of the budget, which inevitably meant cutbacks in other areas.  OSB is relatively inexpensive and distinctive bringing a warm effect to the hall." The raised platform consists of oiled FSC certified European oak, cased in a rim of OSB.  

Amsterdam School of MusicMUSIC SETS THE TONE

Opposite, on the first floor, the Small or Blue Note Auditorium (200 seats) is situated. The walls of this jazz-/pop space are of drawn steel. Criss-cross blue lights in walls and ceiling create an urban nightclub atmosphere. The platform, the hall and the U-shaped balcony feature oiled FSC Keruing (6 x 70 mm)  

On the second floor, behind the Blue Note Auditorium, the Recital or Sweelinck Auditorium offers intimate chamber music (120 chairs). Its windows provide views of the alleys and the city. The simple black chairs are standing on oiled Plexwood (okoume) parquet strips with Keurhout certificate that continue in the platform. The edges of the windows are in concrete plywood, a material about which Van Dongen is very enthusiastic. "The effect is breathtaking" he says. The rectangular is creating a subtle effect with the smaller four-forms of the white lamps on walls and ceiling.  

At -1/-2 level, besides storage, maintenance and recording studio, the small Theater (50 seats) and Ensemble Room are located, both covered with on end European oak.  


The project budget was relatively low and there were strong controls to prevent it increasing. In this respect  Van Dongen, who calls himself a house rather than a utility builder, hit upon the idea of giving the lesson and study storeys the same kind of cost efficiency that has to be applied to house-building. He says: "As a 24-hour building the entrance had to be attractive and inviting while above it's actually a block of flats, a house-building structure of classrooms. The auditoria are organized length-wise, the rooms breadth-wise, with corridors alongside them."  These storeys are in an H-shape, with the stairwell on the crossbeam with the lift and toilets. This is 'The engawa principle,' in which, according to a Japanese colleague, - The corridors function not only as passages, but also as meeting places with views over the city. Moreover, they exclude the outside sounds, so that the teaching can go on quietly and the rehearsals frenetically."  

Amsterdam School of MusicPRACTICALITIES  

All the stairs up to and including the tenth floor are in untreated laminated American red oak, but from the fifth storey the floors, walls and ceilings are no longer in this wood species. They become entirely functional in pale grey epoxy, clean concrete and technics (installations behind curved-woven wire gauze). Only on the eighth/ninth floor does the more luxurious effect return. The space in the two-storey library/study is open here and the American red oak returns in, among other things, the library counter. The floors are of blue epoxy.

From the fifth floor all interior walls of the study and classrooms in the corridors feature storey-high window frames of varnished American red oak, with the double acoustical doors in American red oak veneer. There is a clearly perceptible colour contrast here as the doors are redder than the window frames to the minor annoyance of the architect!


An approach which makes the most of the budget and of the space has led to a very convincing building, which exudes Van Dongen's love for people, architecture and materials. Everyone involved has co-operated to achieve his vision of a building devoted to music of all kinds for many generations to come.  

Written by Hans de Groot for AHEC
Editor Het Houtblad (The Wood Magazine) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands

First published in Het Houtblad, issue 5/2008 (August 2008).


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