Written and Photography by Marije Peute
De slopers zijn de laatste bezoekers, en zij ruimen nu definitief de galerij en de weemoed van zijn herinneringen op. Met lege ogen zien de beelden van de galerij nog korte tijd neer op de drukte van het Frederiksplein. Wij (…) zullen spoedig het oude plaats zien maken voor het machtige gebouw van de Nederlandse bank, dat met zijn vooruitstrevende architectuur ook voor dit gedeelte van de stad Amsterdam een nieuwe tijd zal inluiden. 
This passage is from a video recorded in 1961, when the last bit of the Paleis voor Volksvlijt that was still standing, the gallery, was taken down to make room for the new building, the Nederlandse Bank. The rest of the Paleis voor Volksvlijt burned down in a fire in 1929. This was a big loss for Amsterdam, as it had functioned well as a popular theatre and as a home for exhibitions. When the architect Sarphati made the plans for the Paleis voor Volksvlijt, this part of the city wasn’t developed yet. The green countryside began here. This changed rapidly and by the time it was burned down, it had become part of one of the poor neighborhoods at that time: de Pijp. This was still the case in 1961. As can be read in the statement above, the bank was supposed to bring more wealth into this part of the city with its modern architecture; similar aims as the ones Sarphati had in the nineteenth century.
The interesting history of this site could be examined further than in the ideologies around it. In what other ways is the history being memorized in the new landscape? And how is the memory of this disaster present in people’s lives who are living or working around this area? and change?
Experiencing the site
Designers have made different plans for the site of disaster after the fire. At first, the plan was to build the Stopera here (situated at the Waterloopplein now) but eventually in 1968, the Nederlandse Bank was built here. This big square building is still a dominating factor in the close surroundings of the Frederiksplein. The design of the building is typical for its architect Marius Duintjer, because of the structure of blocks within blocks upon smaller or bigger blocks. The ground floor of the bank is the most functional part. This part serves to protect it from thieves or destruction. Guards surround the building, along with many cameras. It is fenced off from the outside world with a metal construction of squares. The building seems, at first sight, intimidating and not quite welcoming. The surroundings are also built to prevent outsiders from hanging out for too long but in a more subtle way. This space seems much more open than the building itself. It is characterized by fancy plants, grasses, flowers and trees with little pathways which follow the building's footprint and connects to the rest of the street. On such a big street as the Sarphatistraat, it’s a pleasant green area. Apart from being recreative, these parks function to hide the unusual size of the stones placed in front of the bank. These stones, which go as far as the park on the other side of the street, should prevent people with bulldozers from entering or trying to destroy the building. Besides the open park look, the area doesn't function as a park. An important aspect of parks is to provide a place to relax for people who visit them, such as chairs or benches. These are completely absent. Opposed to the close surroundings on the other sides of the street, with plenty of benches.
When I started observing the site of the disaster, I was being held back by this absence. As I had no place to sit and observe, I decided to walk in circles around the building. I noticed how the greenness attracted me more than the intimidating ground floor of the building. In my imagination, this was the complete opposite case for the Paleis voor Volksvlijt. The aim of the previous building was to attract outsiders, instead of scaring them. The imaginative openness of the Paleis voor Volksvlijt has been destroyed by the disaster. The new building is the opposite of open in its look, for the aim is to keep outsiders from entering.
In more subtle ways, though, the disaster is still present. While the safety measures are different in the surroundings of the current bank, the spirit of the old building has been kept alive in other ways. When the Paleis voor Volksvlijt was built, it was on the edge of the city, surrounded on all sides by green countryside. This green spirit is still present in the parks around the bank. The sculptures in and around the bank are also referring to the old function of the site, a site of culture. Even the safety measures could hint the history of a disaster. The Paleis voor Volksvlijt was a vulnerable building, as I will discuss later on, which has contributed to the chance of a disaster like a fire. This vulnerability has been brought to a minimum in the new, modern design of the bank. Helped by new technologies to prevent disasters or destruction happening by fire, the bank is prevented from any kind. The fire created space for a building guarded by modern technologies to provide as much safety as possible. It’s difficult to claim that the experience of the fire is the only reason to protect the building so well, for its character is fragile. The function of the building (a lot of money and other valuable stuff, plenty of reasons to destroy it) makes the risks higher and the prevention of it more necessary.
This abstract way of looking at the site of disaster is not wholly shared by the people who come to this area often. They barely remember the building or the fire. Most people I spoke, who worked or lived around the area of disaster, responded in a surprising way when I told them about the disaster and the history of the place. Most mentioned that it was too far from their everyday life to be aware of such an event. None spoke of the fear of the risk that it might happen again. There are also more instruments and means to prevent this in the future, which gives a secure feeling.
However, some people do still care about the history of the site. Such as the artist Wim T. Schippers. He, along with other citizens of Amsterdam, had pleaded for the rebuilding of the Paleis voor Volksvlijt. He is of the opinion that the bank is ugly and the Paleis voor Volksvlijt would suit this site better. He claims that the bank is not profitable anymore and that rebuilding the Paleis voor Volksvlijt would attract many tourists here and brighten up the square. This growing appreciation of the historic building could be explained contextually. When the Paleis voor Volksvlijt burned off, it was mainly associated with low culture and pleasure for the common people. I will explain this better later on. Over time, this association has died. The way it is remembered now is different from the memory of the building when it was still there. In its absence, and in the presence of a different building, it has transformed in meaning. People, such as Wim Schippers, highlight the aesthetic side of the building, in contrast with the bank, something that may be appreciated more nowadays than when it was built.
In short, on the one hand, the old building and the disaster are not part of the memory of most visitors or inhabitants of the neighboring area. On the other hand, the way it has been remembered is more positive than the way it was experienced by the people who were actually visiting it.
I will explain this experience further and will begin by placing the building and the disaster in its historical context. Sarphati was inspired by the Crystal Palace in London after visiting the industrial exhibition in 1851 there (Feddes 2012: 173). Like some seven others around the world, he decided to build his own version of this groundbreaking palace. His aim was to educate the common people, by uniting industry and arts in one building. This would take place in exhibitions, a bar and several genres of theatre such as opera. By providing this platform for knowledge and meaning, he wanted to influence the process of industrialization (Wennekes 1999: 73-74). The Netherlands at that time was far behind their quickly developing neighbor, the United Kingdom.
At the beginning of its life, the Paleis voor Volksvlijt did quite well to keep up its status and achieve the goals its architect had set for it. Many exhibitions were a success and the theatre was good entertainment for the middle and higher class citizens. At the end of the nineteenth century, this changed. It attracted more lower-classes, because of its change of shows. Besides, other new venues such as the Stadsschouwburg and the Concertgebouw won in popularity. By this time, the elite members of the organization behind the building had already given up and withdrawn from their chairmanship, including their money (Wennekes 1999). From this point on, the building and its surroundings became more vulnerable, for example for fire. The initial aim of Sarphati to cultivate people through this building was completely lost. It could be argued that the fire was only the last, material blow that destroyed the aims and dreams of idealist Sarphati. This is not to say that it was the rightful ending, that is not up to me to claim, but it could be argued that the disaster was indirectly caused by the loss of meaning of the building. A video recorded in 1961, when the gallery was taken down as well, spoke of it as a long forgotten past. A building that had had its glorious time, only remembered by the eldest in society.
Old dreams make room for new. Sarphati’s idealism and design suited his time well, just like the Nederlandse Bank suited its environment back when it was built. Just as the Paleis voor Volksvlijt lost its symbol for development, the bank is passé now as well, in my opinion. Because of the euro, national banks have become less important. Money is regulated regionally now instead of nationally. Its decay is not just functional, but also aesthetic. The design now seems somewhat dated, instead of ultramodern as it was once meant. Creative shapes such as of the EYE or the OBA dominate the view of what is now considered to be modern.
Do I favor the opinion of those who would like to rebuild the palace, then? The answer is no, although I do understand the nostalgia people can have with older buildings. One of the main questions after destruction, both in the material and nonmaterial sense, one could ask is: are we going to build back or build back better? This question offers the chance for a disastrous event to become positive. For destruction is followed by construction, and the lessons we have learned from the process of destruction can again be used during the construction. In my opinion, it isn't possible to build back again. Perhaps in a strict material sense, but not in the way a neighborhood or site is experienced. The experience will always be colored by the lessons learned, or grieve felt, from the disaster. As is the case in any kind of disaster or destructive action, be it personal or just involving the mind instead of matter, regret is the only loss of time. By desiring to build back exactly what used to be, such as the Paleis voor Volksvlijt, we stay stuck in the phase of regretting. But what can we do, if it has already happened? Can we not better accept the fact that it has happened, and enjoy what chances it may offer us to do something differently?
Use your own imagination, and dug into your own experiences of loss. Let's say, something most people have experienced, you fall in love with a person, but discover that this person will not love you back the way you love him or her. In the beginning, this feels like the biggest tragedy imaginable and you feel like you will never find anyone as lovely as them. Gradually, this experience of loss is turned into a lesson. You learn, hopefully, to be glad the way everything is settled. Either by finding someone else who is definitely much better suited for you than the other or by finding some more love for yourself. Every time this happens, whether it is a friend, a lover or your dog, this lesson transforms into new lessons. The more you get to know loss, the more you get to know yourself. Then why regret these experiences, if they made you happier in the end?
In my imagination, people go into similar emotional relationships with the places they like or call their homes. When these relationships end very quickly and unexpectedly, like this beautiful woman or man who suddenly says no, the feeling of loss is enormous. This is also apparent in the radio interviews with people who had witnessed the fire. One woman mentioned the good relationship she had with the building, because she had seen her first theater show here when she was a child, and the great loss she felt when the fire happened. This loss also creates space for new kind of relationships with other places. Just as this event came unexpectedly, people can gain from a difficult experience in a way just as unexpected.
The last period of the life of the Paleis voor Volksvlijt was like a long relationship gone sour. At first, everything was all merry and nice, many people loved the building the way it was supposed to happen (as Sarphati planned it) and they took well care of it. As this plan started to break down, people loved it in a different way than before and stopped taking care of it in the way they used to. Or, as is told in this video: ‘everything dreamed of the past’. Just like people who stop working on their relationship, because it’s going ‘ok’ (neither good nor bad). Until something explodes. The wife is running off with someone else. The Paleis voor Volksvlijt had quite enough of it and the fire started. From this perspective, the fire has become a relief of the tension between the people and the place. The tension between the people and the new building of the bank has gradually reached a peak as well. If it wasn’t so well guarded with many important things inside, I would almost suggest a fire as the natural outcome. As the neighborhood of de Pijp has completely transformed, again, into a wealthy hip one, this site also needs a new purpose. A new relationship to blossom.
Returning to where I started, the disaster has both been made invisible and visible by the new inhabitant of the site: the Nederlandse Bank. Some aspects in its surroundings such as the green parks and the sculptures refer to the old building, whereas other aspects such as the cameras and big stones that function as protection give the building a different atmosphere than the Paleis voor Volksvlijt presumably had. The way the disaster is remembered, if at all, is in a sense of nostalgic longing for the return of what used to be there. As the citation with which I began speaks of hope in the new and nostalgia towards the old, I would like to end as well. This statement reflects something that has been present in every time frame. When the plans were made for the Paleis voor Volksvlijt, it was just as exciting and new as the bank was in the sixties. But what will come of it now? Let's hope new dreams and idealism may come again.
Nieuwe verklaring voor brand die Paleis voor Volksvlijt in de as legde 29-07-2016, 12:46 Binnenland door Pauline Broekema Een brand verwoestte in 1929 het Paleis voor Volksvlijt aan het Frederiksplein in Amsterdam. Het bezit sindsdien een bijna mythische reputatie. Het lichtvoetig vormgegeven tentoonstellingsgebouw, met onder meer een theaterzaal, een restaurant en twee winkelgalerijen verrees in 1864 naar voorbeeld van het beroemde Crystal Palace in Londen. Lees meer...
 http://www.npogeschiedenis.nl/speler.program.30470505.html, last seen at 05-11-2014
 http://www.npogeschiedenis.nl/nieuws/2013/oktober/Paleis-voor-Volksvlijt-herbouwen-Crystal-Palace-Wim-T-Schippers-Nederlandsche-Bank.html, last seen 23-10-2014 and http://www.npogeschiedenis.nl/speler.segment.8365482.html , last seen at 05-11-2014