A love letter to the P.C. Hoofthuis: finding a deeper meaning in the unaesthetic

A love letter to the P.C. Hoofthuis: finding a deeper meaning in the unaesthetic

On the 17th of February former YOUvA Today writer Matthew Uy published an article detailing a critique of the P.C. Hoofthuis, one of, if not the most divisive building the university has to offer. The article consisted of the usual flak the PCH endures some but not all of which are: it’s ugly, the way the space is laid out is confusing, and it’s cramped. I’m here to offer a rebuttal, not only is the PCH one of the best buildings the University of Amsterdam has to offer, but it might also be the last pillar left standing in the fight against the commercialisation of the UvA.

Back in March, I followed a course on the urban history of Amsterdam, taught by an urban historian. The course was partially hosted in the PCH; an immediate point of contention among me and my fellow students due to it being ugly and illogically laid out. Instead of being greeted by the usual ‘Suck it up’ remark you would have excepted, we were instead explained why the building came to have its current form. 

The building which is named after famed writer, poet, and historian Pieter Cornelius Hooft, was designed by the architectural duo of Aldo van Eyck and Theo Bosch but later Just Bosh after the pair split. The building played into the spirit of activism that held much of Amsterdam by the throat in the 70s and 80s. Van Eyck and Bosh were well known for playing a big part in the design of the ‘Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood’, an area that at the time was being remodelled for the expansion of the metro network but ran into large pockets of local resistance. Van Eyck and Bosch who, at this point, were the UvA’s architects of choice, as they had previously designed the ‘Bunghuis’ (now the Soho house). They played into their reputation of activist adjacent design, stating that ‘a building should give back to the city for the space it took.’ They set out to design a building that wouldn’t exclude the non-student population but include them into the formerly public space the UvA had now privatised. Much of this can still be seen in open parts of the building’s side exterior, parts that have now largely been fenced off the building were also supposed to have a walkway for urban traffic, but that idea was scrapped relatively early on. 

The building emphasises community building in yet another way though: its interior, the hallways, lifts and especially the staircases are cramped on purpose so students run into one another more frequently. The idea is that if you awkwardly step by someone when coming down the stairs you might find the situation funny, strike up a conversation as a result and make a new friend. The, now closed balconies had a similar idea in mind, a place for students to relax, smoke a fag and hang out between lectures. The lecture rooms of PCH weren’t even meant to have doors, so students could freely see and experience other lectures and learn together with other students in other courses. 

It’s no wonder that a place so deeply entrenched in a local culture of activism and one that emphasises community building would house a student occupation. In late 2018 a group of students who called themselves the Autonome Universiteit Postcolonial House occupied and barricaded the building. Protesting the decreasing levels in education quality, the increasing amounts of stress students had to endure, diversity at the UvA and the recent firing of Rudolf Valkhoff. The students joined a long line of occupations and protests at the UvA, not dissimilar to the ones the university was enduring around the time of Van Eyck and Bosh.

Yes, the building isn’t the prettiest, and yes it needs renovations, but do we really want it scrapped completely? With the news that the UvA is selling a fair few buildings around the city and moving more and more courses into the campuses in the eastern part of Amsterdam, we risk losing a sense of uniqueness our university used to hold. The identity of architects like Van Eyck and Bosch, cultivated in their design, and those communities of students meeting in and occupying the university are at stake. Do we really want the remainder of our studies to be held within places like Roeters? Massive ant-farm like buildings, where we neither interact with nor learn from other students? Scuttling to and from lectures, while actively excluding the non-UvA public, creating even more of a veil draped over the world of academia, one that has already been described as excluding and elitist?  No, I’d rather have to squeeze past a literature student in a unique building and make a friend. Roeters is too big to occupy anyways.