Jan Frederik Staal (pictured here in the 1930s) started his career at his father’s construction company Staal & Haalmeyer and by the age of just 31, he had already built a very impressive CV and ran his own successful architecture agency. In 1911, he designed head offices in Amsterdam for tile merchant Arnold Heystee and in 1915 Heystee approached him again, this time to design a villa park on a wooded plot of land in Bergen. It was a project of prestige for Heystee, a business man who liked to rub shoulders with art’s elite, and except for the instruction to make liberal use of his tiles in the interiors of the villas, he gave Staal free rein to design a residential park that would really stand out and make the headlines.
Amsterdam School Architecture
Staal, a pupil of Dutch architecture giant H. P. Berlage, was by 1915 part of a movement that was in actual fact breaking away from Berlage’s rational work, most notably his famous commodity exchange on Damrak in Amsterdam (Beurs van Berlage): the Amsterdam School of Architecture. When Staal was commissioned to build Park Meerwijk, a project referred to at the time as Park Heystee, he enlisted the help of four similarly minded young architects: Margaret Kropholler, the Netherlands’ first female architect, who would become Staal’s second wife in 1936; Cornelis Blaauw, who never actually studied architecture but learned his trade on the job and is remembered most for his early Amsterdam School work; Guillaume la Croix, a carpenter’s son who worked under Eduard Cuypers, the founding father of the Amsterdam School due to the fact that notable pioneers of the style spent the early years of their careers working for him; and Piet Kramer (also a Cuypers student), who is remembered for his Bijenkorf in The Hague and the many bridges he built in Amsterdam. Together, the five architects, who saw themselves not as mere designers of functional buildings but as artists, drew their plans for 17 country villa’s almost organically set into the woodland where Studler van Surcklaan intersects Meerweg. (Staal’s blueprint of the park is pictured right.)
When the go-ahead to build was given by the municipal council in 1918, seven detached, two semi-detached and two three-in-one country villas and cottages were soon completed for the sum of 350,000 guilders (approx € 2.3 million in today’s money). The complex also includes a number of smaller buildings and delightful little bridges, like this one by the hand of Kropholler.
The result was singularly unique and is seen by some today to represent the Amsterdam School’s manifesto. Undulating thatched roofs almost touch the ground in places, geometric playfulness combining contours alternately symmetric and asymmetric, details that clearly see Art Nouveau heeding to the up-and-coming Deco, master-masonry that adventurously mixes bricks to create striking patterns and tangible textures… And yet form is most definitely at the service of function, for the new houses afforded their occupants lots of naturally illuminated space, practical niches and in-built storage, vistas onto pathways and ornaments, balconies and patios on which to relax in the sun: nothing like it had ever been seen before and nothing quite like it has really ever been seen since. That’s why architects from all over the world visit Bergen to see Park Meerwijk for themselves. (Unfortunately, Kramer’s Tamalone, Mevena and Rogier, seen here on an old picture postcard, were lost to fire in 1922. The rest of Park Meerwijk still stands.)
Park Meerwijk’s success and veneration today stands in sharp contrast to some of the fallout from its construction. Principle architect Staal, for instance, distanced himself from the project because the architects hadn’t been allowed to oversee and influence construction of their designs. Once completed, the new villa park received some rather unfavourable press, as did the Amsterdam School as a whole, with critics citing a lack of coherence and consistency. And Heystee, who had of course financed the project, suffered substantial losses because at the time, the Great War was ending and nobody had the money to purchase the new properties. Mercifully, as the years went by, the beauty of Park Meerwijk and its importance to the history of architecture became greatly appreciated across the board.
When you wander around Bergen, you see the distinctive style of Park Meerwijk in houses and buildings everywhere (just look across Studler van Surcklaan from the entrance to the park). Even just a few years ago, a large, four-storey apartment building with ground-floor shops was erected in the centre that could easily feature in an Amsterdam School of Architecture textbook.
Park Meerwijk is well worth the 5-10 minute walk from the village centre, and you’ll get to take in quite a number of other notable villas along the way. Follow Ruïnelaan due south from the Ruïn Church. At the T-junction, turn right onto Studler van Surcklaan and then, after about 150 metres, left into Meerwijklaan. Personally, I prefer entering the park from the south to take advantage of sunlight on the façades. To do so, follow Studler van Surcklaan a little further, turn left into Meerweg, left again into Lijtweg (one of the most beautiful villa’s of the park is on this corner and pictured left below: “Meerhoek” by Blaauw) and then left again. Pictured right is the semi-detached residence with no name by La Croix.
Finally, do remember that the houses in Park Meerwijk are homes. The residents know, of course, that their properties are on many a to-do list, but like everybody else, they value and deserve respect for their privacy. Please be discreet.
[Pictured above is Staal’s “De Bark” at the Studler-van-Surcklaan entrance to Park Meerwijk, with on the left the little garden house that belongs to “De Ark” (not pictured). The villa pictured at the very top of this article is by the hand of Blaauw and called “Boschkant”.]