What Should Happen to the Old Sint Nicolaas Lyceum Building?

From November 23rd to December 3rd, 2012 we lived in the former Sint Nicolaas school building as participants of the Kunstvlaai Festival of Independents, the largest forum for alternative, experimental and non-commercial art in the Netherlands. As an underground arts festival and independent arts biennial, it has always challenged established norms. 2012 was the first time international artists were invited to take part, and we spent an incredible time conversing with the city of Amsterdam through a new art research project.

 

The Festival

Our exhibition at the Kunstvlaai was a first for Partizaning. We transformed a room full of cabinets to represent our art research and urban interventions.

 

Photo: Lost Painters. More photographs of the exhibition here, here and here.

The Festival has been operating in a time of severe budget cut for arts in the Netherlands, which is perhaps why there was an interest in international, independent projects as examples of how to survive without institutions. There is a recognized and growing need to work with people to advocate their interests and to make art useful for them.

The other artists and collectives we met were nothing short of amazing—challenging established notions of art with their independent, interdisciplinary, collaborative and participatory practices—The Unicorn Union Project, Absurd Therapy, The Barbershop, Expodium and the Arbour Lake Sghool, which we will talk more about in future posts—and whose works challenge the norms and boundaries of art, personal and public space.

 

The Building

During the Festival, we began a new, site-specific research project. Based on our findings, we expressed community views in a public advocacy campaign to save the unique, iconic and functional 50's style school building.

 


The former St. Nicolaas Lyceum Building and site of the Kunstvlaai Festival 2012.

The St. Nicolaas Lyceum complex in Amsterdam-Zuid was a former Catholic school with a monastery and a chapel. Originally a Catholic boys' school, it had lost its function because of a newly constructed building, and was officially nominated for demolition. Heritage experts protested this saying that the fifties style is unique. (If you speak Dutch, you can watch a short documentary about the building). To take a look inside, check out Paul van Riel book of beautiful collection of photographs of the school's classrooms taken during the 2012 summer break.

The complex was designed by architect Peter Lau, in collaboration with J.Th. Peters and B. Spängber. The first part of the school—A & B wings—was completed in 1955. In 1960, the C & D wings were opened, and in fact for several years, the D wing has been abandoned and remained unused. In total there are 3 floors (excluding the semi-underground basement). It is one of few large postwar Catholic schools complexes in modernist style, influenced by the spirit of functionalism in the Netherlands. Partly for that reason, the Cuypers Heemschut Society and the College of Mayor Aldermen have asked that it be designated a municipal monument.

The school was set to be demolished for an expansion of the Beatrix Park or to build future apartment buildings. In November 2012, the former Sint Nicolaas Lyceum building was transferred to the municipality, following the inauguration of the new school building, and demolition is expected to be completed in 2013. Some reports indicate that one problem is the presence of asbestos. Asbestos removal was to begin at the end of 2012, and the demolition is now expected to be completed by mid-2013.

 


The new St. Nicolaas Lyceum building, a typical example of contemporary architecture.
 

The new building is recognized for being energy efficient and more sustainable than the older building. This is part of the argument for demolishing the former Sint Nicolaas Lyceum building—that it is energy inefficient and too large to operate as a school. Interestingly, the environmental impact of demolishing instead of reusing the former building seems less of a consideration in comparison to the sustainability performance of the new building.

 

Artists Occupy Sint Nicolaas Lyceum

International artists from India, Canada, Bangladesh and Moldova lived in former classrooms, and were given free reign to live and exhibit their works in different allocated spaces.


We cooked in what used to be a science lab, and showered in communal bathrooms probably used after gym classes. The walls still had tape, old posters and writing all over them. We found secrets and remnants of childhood experience on the walls and behind cabinets. The interiors made us feel like scenes out of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. We did experimental yoga in the gym. The kitchen was our de-facto public space. We became a temporary community, working to support each other; whether buying materials, attending lectures about each others work or even cooking meals together. The space was ideal for interaction and creative exchange. We discovered, through our experience, that there was immense functional potential to the beautiful school building - especially in a district that lacked vibrant arts and culture, and for creatives who did not have this kind of space but could re-imagine its various uses.

 

Arts Research

We wanted to challenge the idea of completely destroying something beautiful and functional simply for the sake of real estate. So, we decided to re-instate a conversation about the future of this building in the community, and among the artists who were using the space. It was rumored to be broken down and replaced by high-rise apartments because it was located in the heart of Amsterdam's most expensive real estate and next to its World Trade Center. Our aim was to explore how the festival might be an opportunity to explore and promote alternatives to its destruction. And to use our time there to discuss with people how they felt about an alternative vision for the role of this building in the district: as an artist-run space.

 


Destruction around the school had already begun towards the end of the Festival.

The festival became not just as an opportunity to exhibit our mailbox project and interventions, but also to set up a temporary urban intervention 'bureau' or office, where we talked to people, and invited them to fill out our surveys. Interestingly, we realized that this may have been one of the first instances in which occupation by artists was not adding value to the building—and we actually wanted it to do so in an effort to preserve the space. Our 'Save the School' campaign took shape as we began to poster different areas in the building, neighborhood (including a local coffee shop, bus stops and the new school).

 

What We Found Out

 

We realized cycles were dominating the city and that we needed to reconnect to the space by walking (that, and the fact that renting bicycles for two weeks was too expensive.) So, we walked around the district to observe and understand it. We didn't install public mailboxes as we had initially planned, because people would probably cycle right past it. Instead, we decided to put up larger posters in areas where people would spend a few moments.

We discovered that there were few coffee-shops in the area, that it was generally very expensive, and devoid of most arts and culture. The Kunstvlaai was in itself an interesting presence for the community. The area seemed to lack character, creativity and density—which could be solved by using the space in an alternative way, rather than completely destroying it.

There was also a surprising lack of community discussion or action about the suggested demolition, or the problem with the asbestos. It seemed like the city was taking too much trouble to take apart something that had so much potential. Maybe we came too late in the game, or did not fully understand the context? Former students were happy in their new, high tech, steel and glass school; people in general people trusted their decision-makers, and leaving things up to authorities.

 

Save the former Sint Nicolaas Lyceum Building!


We designed and put up posters in Dutch all around the district.
 
   
  
At bus stops, printing houses, walls etc.
 
  
  
Some posters were taken down or torn off, including the one we put up outside the new school building.
 

We put up English and Dutch surveys throughout the building for festival goers to consider the future of the space, and to raise awareness about what would happen to it.
 
  
People loved the idea of an artist run space—and using it as a place for parties, laser games, exhibitions etc.
 
There was general support for art studios, galleries or even photography studios instead of apartment buildings.
 
 
Overall, these surveys gave a voice to the people and started a public discussion.
 
and a drawing board—more coffee shops, clubs, ice cream and KFC!

 

So

Responses showed that there was a lack of cultural and leisure activities for people in the area; whether clubs, bars, coffee-shops, video game arcades or fast food chains like KFC. And that these were things people wanted. The idea of programming the building as a space for artists was overwhelming supported as a great use for the building. And based on our research, we think that the area could benefit from supporting arts and culture. To promote the idea of saving the school and turning it into an artist's commune, we created signs in collaboration with local print artists.

 


The sign was placed around the school
 
and ultimately installed outside, in front of the former Sint Nicolaas Lyceum school building.

 

***

A week after the festival ended, we heard the building was ready to be dismantled. Then last week, we heard that directors of the Festival are in discussion to preserve and possibly program the building for another 2 years.

 

A final message on the walls of the school and on behalf of the building.
 
*Addendum: Read the latest updates by Mark Minkjan on Failed Architecture.