In each edition we will highlight a remarkable building in Amsterdam’s inner city. We explore its building history and the history of the plot that it’s on, while always beginning in the present and going back in time. Still, as in this case, you can often tell the most consistent story by jumping back and forth a few times in time. The third edifice that we are putting in the spotlight in this issue is the Zuiderkerk.
Text: Thomas von der Dunk
Image: Coen Pohl
Slowly but surely, the Zuiderkerk unwraps from its scaffolds, and within a month its clock could again be heard every quarter of the hour: the Zuidertoren (the Southern Tower), beacon of the New Market neighborhood. Completed in 1614 as part of the first newly built church in Amsterdam after the Reformation, during the first expansion of the city since the Middle Ages. The construction on the Zuiderkerk (the Southern Church), which had begun thirteen years earlier, is in architecture, a traditional church building.
The new Dutch Reformed Protestant worship service did not emphasize the altar and mass (which were abolished) but the sermon from the pulpit. The focus changed from seeing to hearing, which became more important during the church service. It would take a while, before a new church architecture was developed, which fulfilled the most important practical requirement, namely acoustics. The sermon had to be heard by everyone throughout the building. That could be a circle or polygon, such as in the Round Lutheran Church on the Singel, or a floor plan in the form of a Greek cross (a short cross with equally long arms), as at the Noorderkerk (the Northern Church). The latter was designed by the well-known builder Hendrick de Keyser, who also constructed the Zuiderkerk, where he was later buried.
The Zuiderkerk looks very different. It is not a central building but a basilica; a church type with three elongated naves side by side, the middle of which is a much higher than the others, so that there is room for its own row of windows. The Zuiderkerk does not feature these windows but De Keyser included them in his designs for his third church, the Westerkerk (the Western Church), which was built later. This is a medieval church type, with a clear longitudinal axis that extends from the main entrance at the western end to the choir where the altar is at the eastern end. The choir had lost its position and disappeared in Protestant churches, after the mass was abolished, and does not exist in the Zuiderkerk and Westerkerk. However, for the rest De Keyser stuck to the original design in the case of these two major churches in the city. This is a more common feature in the history of the building: a certain type has lost its function, but is not immediately replaced with something else or new. It usually takes a while, before an altered function can be found for something else.
Refuge and focal point
The purpose of the Zuiderkerk has changed a long time ago. As a result of the gradual decline of the population of the inner city and secularization, the Zuiderkerk became redundant as a place of worship almost a century ago. In 1929 the last service was held; after closing, the organ was moved to Aalten, a town in the eastern part of the Netherlands. After that, it was uncertain for a couple of decades how the building should be used. In fact, nobody was able to find a practical purpose for the building, and after the construction on the subway began in the 1970s and consequent demolition of surrounding buildings, the church seemed somewhat lost, standing on the edge of a large sandy building site. After new houses were erected in the surrounding area and the Zuiderkerkhof (it’s really the name of a small inner court adjacent to the church and also refers to its original function: the Southern Churchyard) was built, now the area has become an oasis from the hectic flow of tourists in the nearby streets. In the weekends, it is a focal point for the neighborhood, which was rebuilt in the early 1980s. After a renovation from 1976 to 1979, the Zuiderkerk was transformed into a municipal information center, where, since 1992, the municipal Urban Planning Department exhibited its plans. After that, the Zuiderkerk temporarily housed the planned National Historic Museum, which was supposed to be constructed in Arnhem, before the plans were finally scrapped by the national government because they were too expensive. Today the Zuiderkerk fulfills more of its former purpose as an important cultural and social center in the neighborhood.
Early 2012, the current tenant, Gerrit Key (59), the previous managing director of respectively the Jewish Historical Museum and the Old Church, took over. Gerrit Key for some time has been familiar with Amsterdam’s inner city. Today, the Zuiderkerk is used for about two hundred days a year as a venue for meetings for a wide variety of groups .Almost half of the time it’s open to the public, and events including open theaters, the Winter Parade, or lectures, such as the Association of Friends of the Amsterdam City Center (VVAB). Classical concerts are also regularly held. And since 2014 – the fourth century anniversary of the building – the Zuiderkerk is used again as a place of worship. A church service is held again every Sunday. The rest of the time, the Zuiderkerk is used as a venue for weddings, funerals, and receptions for associations or companies. At the time of this publication, the church is storing the equipment and supplies for a film crew for about one hundred men. Also in this regard, the area around the Zuiderkerk is a popular setting for movies. For such a large church building, for which sometimes it is difficult to find a suitable purpose, clearly has its advantages. In that regard, there is not a lot of competition for the building in its immediate vicinity.
Unfortunately, the future is not entirely without challenges. The current city council wants to scale down on as much municipal real estate as possible and hopes to make a profit off it. This will be more difficult with the Zuiderkerk, mainly because it’s a protected monument, but unfortunately, the town hall also wants to exploit as much money as possible from public properties it still owns, and demands outrageous rents. Therefore it would be a shame if the Zuiderkerk was forced to close. For the greater public it would be best if the city council would realize that the city is best served with tenants like Gerrit Key – people who are not only familiar and appreciate the heart of the city, but are also good custodians for it.