Architects usher an Enlightenment-era cultural venue into modern-day Amsterdam

Amsterdam – Happiness can be achieved through merit — or so believed the founders of Amsterdam’s Felix Meritis, engraving the Latin designation upon its façade. A true product of Europe’s Enlightenment era, the neo-classical building opened in 1788 as a meeting place for Amsterdam’s thought-leaders. Mozart played in its concertzaal. Rumour has it Louis Napoléon Bonaparte partied in its bejewelled chambers. Last Friday was set to be the historical cultural venue’s grand re-opening, the product of a three-year renovation by local practices Math Architecten and i29. Due to the global pandemic, the event will be postponed.

To operate (nearly) without break for more than 200 years is an impressive feat, and along the way the Meritis has played witness to the lows and highs of Amsterdam’s history: for 100 years the institution operated as intended, a venue for men and women of letters. Then it was converted to a lampshade factory which caught on fire in 1932, left to abandon until the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN) turned the building into a printing press during WWII; post-war, the building became a local theatre, finally re-institutionalized in 1990. In 2014, two rooms in it played host, even, to Frame's award-winning pop-up store — also designed by i29.

Meritis’ founders settled on five areas of study for its institution: music, commerce, literature, physics and drawing, departments spread over the building’s four floors. Interior-design studio i29 paid homage to the unique identities of these original departments wherever they could. In the reception area, an old etching from the original drawing studio now graces the textile walls. For the restaurant, an image of a typical Dutch sky was superimposed on wallpaper. A light installation — or, modern chandelier — connects the two rooms.

The concert hall was largely refinished in its original colour scheme, but updated sonically: it is now possible to host both acoustic and electronic concerts. In the Shaffyzaal — named so for famed Dutch singer-actor Ramses Shaffy — the palette references fashionable hues from the 1960s, when members of the Dutch avant-garde started to return to the Meritis. In the rooms that once hosted printing presses, bygone days are evoked through a graphic floor pattern and steel acoustic tiles posed as ‘sheets’ of paper. The wood-beam construction of the attic was completely refurbished.

For some spaces, i29 pursued a completely new scheme, such as in the case of the former CPN office. A large skylight now punctures the roof and its walls are painted in bright colours. Throughout the rest of its halls and in its new additions, the designers opted for simple interiors mostly finished in neutral and white tones, allowing the building’s historic features to take centre stage.

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Location Keizersgracht 324, 1016 EZ Amsterdam

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