Projectteam Berlage Lyceum goes on a studio visit

Last week, a group of architects from our team visited the studio of visual artist Olphaert den Otter, who is working on an impressive site-specific artwork for our school project the Berlage Lyceum. Den Otter showed us the work-in-progress and told us more about its background - and that left us silent.

Since 2020, atelier PRO has been working on the renovation and redevelopment of the Berlage Lyceum, a secondary school in Amsterdam which is housed in a monumental complex from the 1920s. The complex, which is part of Berlage's famous Plan Zuid, consists of two mirrored symmetrical buildings in the style of the ‘Amsterdamse Schoo’l.

One of the guiding principles of the ‘Amsterdamse School’ was the relationship between architecture and art - which is also reflected here, for example in the use of façade sculptures and stained-glass windows. In addition, two artists were asked to create a mural: in 1929 Joop Sjollema painted a trio of frescoes for what was then the three-year HBS, and in 1932 Peter Alma painted a four-panelled mural for the adjacent five-year HBS. Both chose themes that corresponded to the type of school: for the more practical-oriented three-year course, Sjollema worked on the 'Cycle of the Seasons: an ode to labour', for the five-year trade school Alma chose ‘Trade and her means of Transport: an ode to transportion'.

Both these murals are and will remain in their original locations, in the halls on the first floor. But a modernized, contemporary school - with completely different teaching methods and principles than in 1924 - calls for a contemporary artwork, and Den Otter's site-specific mural is just that.

As an artist, Olphaert den Otter is known for his technical skills, but above all for his social engagement - both when it comes to societal issues and to the climate crisis. He has been working on a series about the human impact on the world, using the four elements as a guideline, from as early as 2009. At the same time, his paintings also often focus on natural phenomena we do not (yet) seem to have any influence on - cloudscapes, day and night.

With his work for the Berlage Lyceum, 'Een onvergetelijke dag', he responds to the existing two frescos, but also reflects on our present situation. A frieze of cloudy skies will extend over the four walls of the entrance hall, following the course of the day, containing a number of tondos. In these tondos, Den Otter looks at the natural world, from the smallest to the largest scale, from insect life to ocean currents. At the same time, he also takes a look at the downside of our activities - with burning zeppelins, blast furnaces, Amsterdam seen form above - and thus takes a closer look at our lives.

Two of the tondos address the future, focusing on both the dreams of the students as well as those of the artist himself.  The result is a layered artwork that encourages the students to think, without passing judgement. At the same time, the work can also play a role in the schools educational program, for instance in art, geography or biology lessons.