A Living Machine – Autopon

A Living Machine – Autopon


Made for the urban man, Salle Privée is itself inspired by cities and we see architecture as one of the vital organs that gives them life. Tall and proud, buildings work to shape the character of the metropolises over which they continually keep watch.

In this feature, the Autopon is explored as a marvel of purposeful design – an opinion that is supported by taking a detailed look at one of modern architecture’s most impressive set of guidelines.

To the great shame of his Amsterdam-based devotees, Le Corbusier (the Swiss-French artist, designer and a pioneer of modern architecture) never left them any actual landmarks. However, with his creation of a new architectural and urbanistic language having left a permanent mark on modern architecture, displays of his tremendous influence are never far away. One fine example is the former Autopon building at the end of the Overtoom in Amsterdam West. When entering the city from this point it is impossible to overlook the concrete colossus – now home to a luxury gym with swimming pool – yet its significance and even its allure is still often gone unrecognised.

Designed by J.B. Ingwersen at the end of the fifties, this structure was his first project after joining the architectural firm C. de Geus. The client: Pon Automobielen - the Dutch importer of Volkswagen cars. While the building’s upper section consists of a complex of maisonettes, its lower portion used to house Autopon’s showroom. One of its most eye-catching attributes – fortunately still in place today – was a suspended display above the showroom’s entrance, exhibiting VW’s latest showpiece.

Interestingly, a number of commonalities exist between the building and principles of automotive design – both being symbols of progress in the sixties. One of these is the scale and rhythmic organisation of Autopon’s facade. Consciously constructed to be seen from a distance and at a certain speed, it was designed to capture the attention of passing drivers. Another is the building’s gentle curve, allowing for a smooth transition from the Overtoom to Amstelveenseweg and for an easy flow of traffic.

Autopon Building Architecture Amsterdam

Ingwersen was an avid admirer of Le Corbusier, and his design for Autopon is largely based on the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille – arguably the world’s first and most influential example of brutalist architecture. Apart from the use of raw concrete, or ‘beton brut’ as championed by Le Corbusier, Autopon seems to be the result of a close reading of the master’s ‘Five Points of New Architecture’. These are the defining guidelines that Le Corbusier formulated, in as early as 1921, and those which would remain a major device for the rest of his life.

First of them is les pilotis: A set of columns that support the core of the building. Although they do not visibly lift Autopon, as with Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation which allows people to pass underneath, Ingwersen clearly modelled the building’s tapered legs after his great Marseillaise example.

Autopon Building Architecture Amsterdam

Second, le plan libre, or ‘the open plan’, achieved through a skeletal structure that should eliminate the need for any internal load bearing walls. This meant that within the maisonettes, occupants could add or move any walls as they saw fit. While we may be very used to free-layout plans today, adjusting the interiors of a building to the wishes of its inhabitants was still a revolutionary concept in the beginning of the 20th century.

Third, la façade libre: The notion that the outside walls are not load bearing either, and could thus be considered as a mere ‘curtain’. This allowed Ingwersen to use an immense amount of glass, both for Autopon’s showroom as well as the apartments above.

Forth, la fenêtre en longeur, or ‘the horizontal line of windows’ spanning the entire length of the building. In this case, even further emphasised by the curved line of the structure.

Autopon Building Architecture Amsterdam

Finally, le toit-jardin: Rooftop terraces and balconies form the transition between inside and outside. And just like l’Unite d’Habitation, every of Ingwersen’s maisonnettes has at least one balcony. Brilliantly, the geometrical pattern they form on the outside of the building simultaneously functions as ‘brise soleil’ – another of Le Corbusier’s inventions – again clearly resembling its predecessor.

In this regard, Ingwersen may have well have applied ‘The Modular Man’ – a measurement system developed by Le Corbusier that combines the proportions of a six foot tall human figure with the ancient mathematics of the Fibonacci series and the golden section.

It is likely then, that the building’s expression of the spirit of its time – championing progress while connecting commerce and enjoyable living, and incorporating the human scale as its measure – has granted Autopon a place on The Netherland’s list of National Monuments since 2013. A ranking certainly well deserved.

“Une maison est une machine-à-habiter”, Le Corbusier once said. And perhaps, first and foremost, it is this famous quote that Ingwersen wished to make concrete by creating this machine worthy of inhabiting.

Autopon Building Architecture Amsterdam

Le Corbusier’s Fourth Dimension, an exhibition with drawings, paintings, tapestries and objects from the renowned architect, is on view until 07.01.18 at the Cobra Museum of Modern Art in Amstelveen, The Netherlands.

salle privée architecture photography

Teaming up with Dariusz Jasak – a young and talented photographer – this is the first in an ongoing series of features through which Salle Privée will explore and observe some of our cities' greatest modernist constructions. Pictured above, Dariusz wears the Art virgin wool rollneck sweater and our Ives overcoat.