University of Amsterdam

Amsterdam. 2018

  • Project Details
  • Completion: 2018
  • Cost: £77 Million
  • Clients: University of Amsterdam

The University of Amsterdam explores large-scale reinvention. Two utilitarian buildings from a previous era – part of an incomplete masterplan by Norbert Gawronski – are stripped out, sliced open, reconfigured and then knitted back into the city’s fabric to regenerate a post-war university campus in the heart of the Dutch capital. A forty-metre section of low-hung, canal-spanning building is cut out and replaced with a four-storey void. Physically and visually opening up the campus behind and the zoo beyond, the void is bridged by a glazed double-height space and five storeys of workstations, all with new views across the city. A previously solid wall is punched through to create entry into a new triple-height passage connecting the two principal blocks of accommodation; this passage permits the building’s users to gather and orientate themselves while efficiently distributing faculty members to the vertical circulation cores Outside, a new pedestrian bridge draws into play the city’s canal-scape, the neighbourhood streetscape and the campus’ half-realised secondary axis. Inspired by Amsterdam’s historic canals, the bridge connects to a series of public rooms and commercial spaces that activate and open the buildings’ edges. Internally, elements have been removed to accommodate the university’s relocated Amsterdam Law School and the Faculty of Social & Behavioural Sciences by providing seven lecture theatres, seven seminar rooms, 86 tutorial rooms, a Law Library, a Moot Court, research offices, meeting areas, study landscapes, breakout areas, a roof terrace, 1,700 square metres of catering environments and 2,260 square metres of ground floor public gathering space.


RIBA Award for International Excellence 2018 WAF New and Old: Completed Buildings - Highly Commended 2018 WAN Education Award 2015 AIA International Region: Merit Award for Architecture 2014 AJ Retrofit - International Innovation 2014 AJ Retrofit: Overall Winner 2014

The University of Amsterdam (UvA) project remodels an uncompleted post-war academic campus in the heart of the Dutch capital, knitting its megastructural buildings back in to the city’s fabric, improving legibility and amenity for users and animating the street scene. The drama of an existing block spanning a canal is exploited by reshaping its form and opening up fresh views. Connections are made at ground level via a new bridge over this canal and a generous passage unifying disparate building entrances. Public rooms throughout further unlock its potential, whilst wholly new, carefully modulated facades assist navigation and identity and re-contextualise the buildings within their distinctive urban setting.    

Masterplan 1957-64  

The Netherlands’ largest university traces its roots back to 1632. It attained national status in 1961, but had already engaged Dutch municipality architect Norbert Gawronski to design a new complex in Roeterseiland, to the south east of the city’s Centrum district, to house facilities for chemistry and mathematics. In 1964 Gawronski’s revised masterplan envisaged a long L-shaped slab block, extending over the Nieuwe Achtergracht canal, with a tower to its north and west. In common with the prevailing architectural orthodoxy for a development of this scale, all were to be linked at first floor level by a system of walkways reached by grand stairs rising from open piazzas.  

Ultimately only part of Gawronski’s scheme was realised: a single tower, today called REC (Roeterseiland Campus) A, and the slab block, built in two stages and now known as REC B/C as a result. Lecture theatres were contained within the tower podium and underground parking was provided.    

Masterplan 2006  

By the early twenty-first century, the issues caused by Gawronski’s design being only partially realised needed to be addressed. The slab block cut the campus in two and was perceived as a barrier, the low opening over the canal not proving enticing to those using the towpath. Alongside was the solid wall of the podium, entirely blank due to the auditoria inside and symbolising what was a rather internalised group of buildings. Technically the chemistry laboratories were outdated, spurring a move of the entire faculty to a new science park on an out-of-town site.  

Decline and complete desertion might have followed, but rather than expending effort on replacing these large, robust buildings situated on a valuable central waterside site, the University decided to investigate the possibility of redeeming them. A new masterplan by Palmboom & van den Bout was drafted that aimed to revitalise the complex through new construction, refurbishment and a particular emphasis on repairing the streetscape. The canal would thus come alive through having each building’s front door open onto it, and links would be made to surrounding streets.  

To achieve this an international competition was launched, calling for creative design ideas stopping short of an actual scheme.    

Competition ideas  

Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) re-examined the Roeterseiland complex in light of the new masterplan to determine how it could be made to work more effectively within the city. Building on a level of permeability already present, it was clear the original Gawronski scheme could be reinforced but enhanced, legitimising a second axis through the campus along the length of REC B/C by forming better connections at street level.  

Key components of this proposal were a new bridge over the canal, continuing the journey from the existing main entrance; projecting this deep into the site through a new passage between the two blocks; a major intervention or cut into REC B/C to alleviate the dark, compressed space over the canal; and creating active edges to the podium, through commercial uses and catering outlets. Accessible, connected rooftops made the most of the height of the buildings as the city’s ‘living room’. Interiors would be reshaped as needed to better serve occupants and facades addressed to improve identity and performance and aid orientation.  

By the time AHMM was declared winner of the competition the overall UvA masterplan had changed to take on some of the practice’s ideas. Eventual occupation of the renewed Roeterseiland buildings by the UvA’s Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FMG) and Faculty of Law (FdR) was proposed. There was however an added suggestion to extend the public route through the site, from a nearby Metro station, out across Sarphatistraat and to a second institutional campus located to the south.    

Strategic moves  

In engaging with the client and other members of the project team over several months, AHMM produced a vital strategic design direction that would cope with the inevitable change encountered by such a project during its life. The key issues needing resolution were identified and the competition ideas for the buildings developed. Substantial changes to some elements of the brief did occur and had to be responded to, a process which will repeat as the scheme continues to evolve.  

Giving the complex as a whole a positive identity to be read from a distance was explored, as was breaking down what is a very large built mass into comprehensible sections. Differentiating REC A by modelling, colour or facade treatment was a starting point. Assuming the stripping of both buildings’ cladding down to the structural frame due to asbestos, a recognition of the pattern of the existing concrete columns began to drive the design of a possible replacement. What size and shape the cut over the canal could afford to have and how might it be supported structurally were tested, along with the profile and footprint of the bridge. This and the passage were seen as key to stitching together the city at ground level. The passage became internalised after the UvA considered it capable of being inhabited for events. The number, form and arrangement of lecture rooms to release space and further articulate a public datum was also critical. Using the underground space as a vast (2,000+) bicycle store in a manner that users would embrace was a special challenge in a city where riders prefer to casually abandon their bikes on the street.  

Nine strategic moves emerged from this process as simple actions that all parties could buy in to: the cut, the bridge, the passage, the concept of ‘houses’ within the buildings, mini atria, public rooms, lecture theatres, rooftop amenity and the facade.  

The cut

A four-floor, 40 metre section of the underside of REC B/C is removed and a double-height catering space glazed on both sides inserted, to give views across the city. Its floor is suspended on four rows of steel rods from a new exposed concrete box girder which also forms the ceiling. A reflective lining to all three sides of the opening further dematerialises the block when seen from pedestrian level, especially along the canal.  

The bridge

Contributing to the enhancement of the canal’s status within the campus is a wide, low-profiled bridge that acts as a plaza, a link to the passage and as an intersection of the two through-routes. Discovering precedents from amongst Amsterdam’s historic bridges assisted approval of this design.  

The passage

A penetration through a previously closed wall, this is a triple-height covered space between Blocks A and BC that works to guide users directly to the circulation cores within both buildings. It integrates with a ramp to the bike store, and has translucent rooflights to further emphasise its openness and navigational function.  


For the slab block a strategy of ‘Six houses (departments), three addresses, one building’ is identified. Working from a core giving access to one or two houses simplifies navigation across a long floor plan by making sure users understand the building from the outside but also where they are trying to go once inside. Stacking these houses vertically also allows re-organisation, within the limitation of working with existing lift cores. Buffer zones act as loose departmental boundaries and useful additional capacity.  

Mini atria

These occur alongside vertical circulation cores, presenting users with a space to orientate themselves before entering a department. They also encourage movement by stair and hence incidental meetings. Lift lobbies now face outward, through the exterior glass, so those arriving can see where they are in the building and the city.  

Public rooms

These open the building to the outside and bring activity to its environs. Catering facilities are provided in the double-height space in the cut, on the ground floor overlooking the canal and spilling out onto the roof terrace of the podium. Commercial spaces wrap around the podium’s edges at ground floor.  

Lecture theatres

Two suites of lecture rooms are provided, split between two sides of the podium; all are reached by the newly defined circulation route. Much to Gawronski’s delight his favourite circular auditorium is retained, out of respect for the original architecture as well as for pragmatic reasons of space and cost.  

Rooftop amenity

A terrace on the top of REC A’s podium is complemented by a green roof for visual amenity and ecological benefit.  


The size of REC B/C is accepted and REC A is treated as a point block against that backdrop. The vernacular period architecture of the city is also considered. Together these drive a theme of horizontal and vertical emphasis and discreet colour highlight detail. Gloss and matt surface contrast provides subtle differentiation. The podium is rendered more transparent, with layered glazed panels bringing richer visual interest.    

Users’ journeys  

The mix of users who will experience the revitalised campus will enjoy varied journeys through buildings that are now legible and welcoming. The route to your final destination will be clear from the point of entry.  

This wayfinding strategy is derived from an understanding of the buildings’ programmatic functions and users. Within the restriction imposed by an existing structure, the largest spaces with the heaviest traffic are placed closest to ground level with generous circulation to distribute people quickly and intuitively. The more private spaces are found on higher floors. Access routes to these are more discreet but still apparent to those who need them.   

All users enter from the passage, which gathers, orientates and distributes efficiently but considerately. Public journeys to the lecture rooms are completed easily. Already given hints from afar, students and lecturers continue to their destinations aided by coloured doors and cores. The administration counters, catering outlets and terrace also await, clearly visible and prominent. Private journeys to offices follow the coloured route to its conclusion. And those who simply pass through Roeterseiland cross the canal on the new bridge, contemporary yet grounded in the locale, or pass beneath the mirrored cut.  

The colour strategy employed sees three levels of recessive greys – pale, mid, dark – calm the broad surfaces of floor, walls and doors, except in the atria where doors are colour-matched. Window frames are mid grey.  

Much signage has been eliminated as a result of this approach. What remains relates only to the UvA’s own identity, safety matters and information. These last are grouped and located in specific places. Provision for temporary information is economical and practical.

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