In 1788, on a canal in Amsterdam, the Enlightenment society Felix Meritis—Latin for Happy Through Merit—built a namesake clubhouse where members, pursuing knowledge for their own intellectual betterment, studied music, the natural sciences, drawing, commerce, and literature. Neoclassical architect Jacob Otten Husly’s building—a Corinthian-style-temple facade fronting rooms shaped as pure geometric volumes—was itself a case study in rational Enlightenment thinking. After the society dissolved a century later, its splendid home survived incarnations as a printing factory, the Dutch Communist party headquarters, and a 1960s cabaret. Worse for wear, it nonetheless remained architecturally intact over the decades.
In 2014, Amerborgh, an investment company with an interest in the arts, bought the landmarked Felix Meritis for use as a cultural center with programs to be supported by renting out its renovated rooms as event venues. Charged with transforming the 50,000-square-foot interior, i29’s motivating idea was to bring the storied building “into the now,” co-founder and partner Jeroen Dellensen says. The firm would respect the original architecture yet dial up the design heat to make it cool for a younger generation.
Refreshing history but making it contemporary necessitated a delicate balance of deference and surprise, conservation and invention. The i29 team found a solution to the paradox in the way the building had been used by the Felicians (as its founding occupants were known), who organized it by departments. “Different rooms had different functions and stories, which we decided to evoke,” co-founder and partner Jaspar Jansen adds. Working alongside MATH Architecten, which oversaw structural matters, Dellensen and Jansen would cultivate the individual character of each space.
A grand, wooden staircase surrounding a five-story void divides the long building roughly in half, with the main rooms on staggered floors in the front and back—11 levels in all. One city requirement was the faithful restoration of two historically important spaces: the oval Concertzaal, one of Europe’s most celebrated small classical-music halls, on the rear ground floor; and the Zuilenzaal, a colonnaded reception room on the front piano nobile.
In the Concertzaal, where Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had its Dutch premier, a chromatic study revealed the walls between the white pilasters encircling the room were originally brown-tinted beige, a color that gives the restored space an unusual serenity. But along with reinstating such historical niceties, i29 had to update the hall for contemporary music. Dellensen and Jansen hung discreet, pivoting wall panels that modulate the acoustics while concealing electronic equipment, and MATH wove new mechanical systems throughout the shell, achieving complete invisibility in the auditorium.
When it came to the majestic Zuilenzaal, beyond stripping bare the elegant boiserie and cracked wood columns, i29 left the room in its found condition, turning it into an un-Photoshopped selfie celebrating the building’s age. Such raw authenticity did not come easily: All the fragile woodwork was carefully dismantled and then just as carefully reassembled so that the room could be retrofitted with modern ventilation and sound systems. The Zuilenzaal has proved one of the most popular venues.
The interior architects ramped up visual diversity in the remaining rooms, using color and texture as primary tools to differentiate the spaces, and creating crisply geometric, built-in cabinetry and furniture, often mirrored, to contrast with the classical surroundings. “We gave the rooms a sense of identity and importance that rivaled the two better known historic spaces,” Dellensen explains.
A pair of superbly proportioned rooms flank the main entry: to the right, reception with a mirrored front desk, ticket counter, and sitting area; to the left, Felix, a 100-seat restaurant. In the former, two walls are covered with a luxuriant, tufted-shag textile that reproduces an 18th-century etching of a Felician meeting, so that 21st-century visitors are greeted by a ghostly rendition of their Enlightenment counterparts. Walls in the adjacent restaurant are wrapped in equally tactile woven textiles replicating photographs of the skies over Amsterdam, as if diners were in the middle of a Dutch landscape painting.
Originally a physics lab, the domed, oval room directly above the Concertzaal became a hip nightspot in the ’60’s when flamboyant Dutch singer Ramses Shaffy and his theater group regularly performed there. Named the Shaffyzaal in his honor, the balconied space evokes its psychedelic past with perforated-steel acoustic wall panels that fade, ombre-style, from deep to pale blue. “We set the contemporary and the historical in contrast to give more energy to each,” notes
Jansen, who could just as well be referring to the attic Koepelzaal, where timber roof beams are
left exposed, lending the room a modern angularity.
Narrative is a differentiator, too. “We like to hide stories in the design that give the interior another dimension,” Dellensen reveals. In the Teekenzaal, formerly the club’s drawing studio, rectangles of filmy fabric hanging from the ceiling not only diffuse strip lighting but also recall the sheets of paper on which the Felicians once sketched—a diaphanous image that brings the spirit of the Enlightenment to life.
Project Team: Nina Van As; Joep Esseling; Egle Jacinaviciuze; Evelien Kranstauber: i29. Math Architecten: Architect of Record. Verlaan & Bouwstra: Restoration Architect. Sookha Company: Conceptual Consultant. De Fabryck: Historical Consultant. Easy Controls; Huisman & Van Muijen; Mega Elektra: Installation Consultants. Lichtconsult: Lighting Consultant. Level Acoustics & Vibration; Peutz: Acoustics Consultants. SID Studio: Structural Engineer. B3 Bouwadviseurs: Project Manager. Jurriëns: General Contractor.
Product Sources: ICE Carpets: Custom Rug (Reception). XAL: Pendant Fixtures (Reception, Restaurant). Saint Gobain: Mirror (Reception, Restaurant). Studio Belèn: Custom Wall Covering (Reception, Restaurant), Custom Paneling (Zuilenzaal). Hay: Coffee Tables (Reception, Husly, Teekenzaal). Hoogstraten: Custom Doors (Reception, Restaurant), Custom Balustrade (Staircase). Zilio: Armchairs (Restaurant). Magis: Side Chairs (Restaurant, Husly, Patio). Moooi Carpets: Custom Carpet (Anteroom, Balcony). Through M4four: Custom Vinyl Flooring (Shaffyzaal). TDE-LightTech: Spotlights (Husly). Ege: Rug (Husly), Carpet (Teekenzaal). Casala: Tables (Husly, Teekenzaal). Through Bronnenberg: Custom Chandeliers (Concertzaal, Zuilenzaal), Custom Lanterns (Patio). New Works: Lounge Chairs (Teekenzaal). Gabriel: Lounge Chair Fabric. Bolon: Flooring. De Ploeg: Ceiling Panels (Teekenzaal), Wall Covering (Zuilenzaal). Throughout: Lensvelt; Stooff Interior Projects: Custom Furniture. Kvadrat; Ohmann; Paloma; Vyva Fabrics: Upholstery Fabric. LED Linear: LEDs. Seasons Project Parket: Oak Flooring. Nora: Rubber Flooring.