Amsterdam – They used to call it the Widow of the Zuidas. The plain-looking building, located in the budding business district on the south side of Amsterdam, had been vacant and forgotten for nearly a decade. That was until Boudewijn Poelmann, a man known for his visionary endeavours, saw beyond the rough concrete columns, the grey walls and the uninspired atrium.
Poelmann is the founder of the Goede Doelen Loterijen, a multi-lottery organization that has turned the Dutch love of random numbers into donations for charity programmes in developing countries – since 1990, its contributions total more than seven billion euros, making it one of the largest private donors in the world. He also came up with the then-preposterous concept of the now crazily successful Postcode Lottery: bet on your neighbourhood and split any winnings with your neighbours. Poelmann has built a small empire based on creative thinking, collaboration and an ethos of sharing with others.
So, when he used a company-wide breakfast in 2014 to announce that the 600 employees dispersed throughout 11 houses along the lush Vondelpark would be moving to a single location, the staff were ready to follow his lead. And, oh, did they ask for as many as 600 impossible things after that breakfast. There was a rainwater-collection system for the toilets. An energy-positive building. Solar panels everywhere. An auditorium they could share with the neighbours. A proper restaurant open to the public. Studios and newsrooms for Koffietijd and 5 Uur Live, the TV shows they sponsor. An Italian piazza. A yoga studio with a view of the city. Oh, and they wanted to take the Vondelpark with them. ‘And we gave them almost everything they asked for,’ laughed Saartje van der Made, the Benthem Crouwel Architects partner who oversaw the renovation.
We are architects and we know what to do with a building, but we need you and we will involve you in the design process
Benthem Crouwel is better known for its massive public projects, such as the celebrated Rotterdam Central Station and the giant bathtub on Amsterdam’s Museumplein – a building officially known as the Stedelijk Museum. The Zuidas project was the first time Van der Made worked with a client who was also the end user. ‘Normally we present a vision straight away,’ she explained. ‘But in this case, we thought this was so personal that we really had to get to know them better, so we held several workshops to get their input on what their ideal space would look like. We promised them: we are architects and we know what to do with a building, but we need you and we will involve you in the design process.’
Take, for instance, the Vondelpark request. To tick that box, the architect and her team turned the former atrium into the much-awaited Italian piazza, featuring a gargantuan tree-shaped column and organic insulation. The employees themselves drew by heart the façades of the pre-war villas that had been part of their identity for so long. Their sketches were transposed onto the metal surfaces that line the new courtyard – panels that sometimes become the background of a live TV show.