share this article

Failed Architecture is collaborating with Amsterdam’s Academy of Architecture and Reinwardt Academy in a design project. The case study for this 16-week studio is Felix Meritis, a 1789 building realized as a collective effort by affluent citizens to create a place for arts and sciences. It was later used as a printers for a communist daily, the headquarters of the Dutch communist party and during the past 25 years as a centre for debate about European culture. Coincidentally, in the first week of the design studio it was announced that Felix Meritis is officially bankrupt, making it all the more urgent and relevant to think about the building, its heritage and the cultural ideas it housed over time.
The design studio gives students the assignment to work on an existing, public building within the theme of re-use and the notion of heritage. It is up to them to make engaged and well-informed decisions. Failed Architecture is guiding the students in the research phase in order for them to be able to contextualize the building – spatially, culturally, economically and over time, so that they can formulate a well-founded concept for re-use, renewal or renovation.

The Case
The building of the former society ‘Felix Meritis’ (Happy through Merit), which was set up with the aim of promoting the arts and sciences, is a typical monument of the Enlightenment. The building at Keizersgracht 324 was inaugurated by the affluent citizens of Amsterdam with an interest in the arts and sciences in 1788. The various rooms of this ‘Temple of the Enlightenment’ were used for concerts, literary meetings, debates and other functions. Concerts given in Holland’s oldest purpose-built concert hall, set the tone for musical life in the Dutch capital until late in the nineteenth century.

felixtoenA 1791 drawing of the Zaal der Natuurkunde (Physics Room) in Felix Meritis by Pieter Barbiers Pzn (source: Amsterdam City Archives)

After the dissolution of the Felix Meritis society in 1889, the building was purchased by Holdert and Co printers, who demolished a large part of the interior. A fire destroyed much of the front façade in 1932. However, the building was restored, and after the war the Communist Party of the Netherlands moved into Felix Meritis, where the Communist daily De Waarheid rolled from the presses.

56Protesters attacking Felix Meritis in 1956 – then headquarters of the Communist Party of the Netherlands – as a response to the Soviets crushing the Hungarian Uprising (source: Amsterdam City Archives)

During the turbulent 1960s the building was turned into a cultural palace under the name of Shaffytheater. It was the venue for many performances of experimental dance, mime, theatre and music by artists such as Ramses Shaffy, Liesbeth List, Freek de Jonge, and many other well-known and lesser-known Dutch personalities.

Since 1988 the Felix Meritis Foundation has continued these activities in a contemporary form as a European Centre for the Arts and Sciences. On 1 February 2006 the way was cleared for the third stage of the restoration to commence through the provision of a local authority guarantee. However, it proved to be no longer technically possible to implement the original plan and to carry out the whole restoration in one operation. It was therefore once again decided to opt for an approach in stages. Priority was given this year to the renovation of the central staircase because that would increase the possible ways in which the premises can be used. In recent years the Foundation has increasingly been renting out spaces for corporate and private events.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAA recent event in Felix Meritis

Due to a combination of decreased revenues, partly as a result of the financial crisis, and the rising costs of maintenance, the Felix Meritis Foundation, which is renting the building, could no longer pay the monthly rent and had to file for bankruptcy at the end of 2013. The municipality, who is liable for financial losses, is now forcing the owner of the building, Felix Meritis Beheer, to sell it. A future buyer can use the building for non-cultural functions, e.g. by renting it out as an office space and turning the ground floor into a self-sufficient bar/restaurant.
The project
The studio started early February. Failed Architecture applies their workshop format, adapted to fit the education programme of the academies. Another partner in the project is Stadsherstel, an organisation with a lot of experience in the assessment, re-use and renovation of monumental architecture.
Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 13.18.111797 diagram of Felix Meritis (source: Amsterdam City Archives)

Students in this project will do research into the possibilities and opportunities for the Felix Meritis, based on the narratives and changes that make up the history of the building. From there, they will determine and project the building’s position within the social, physical and economic urban fabric and the possible social and cultural roles that could be reached within the locality and the region. The design brief requires the minimal preservation of 20% to 80% of the existing building.
foto (1)First hours of the research, with students diving into the history of the building, based on FA’s timeline methodology.
We will frequently update this page along with the research and design progress.