Berlage in London

This sculpture is on the corner of a building in the City of London designed by the Dutch architect, Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934). It is by Joseph Mendes da Costa (1863-1939). Born in Amsterdam, his father sculpted tomb monuments and Joseph worked in clay and stone. He specialised in figurines and sculptures like this one, on buildings. He also taught draughtsmanship. Here is a photo of him in his workshop. 

photo Sigmund Low public domain

 The positioning of the sculpture is very unusual for the period, it is not a decoration over the entrance or on a roof gable but at ground level on the corner of the building. It’s not even visible from the front, it is on a corner near the rear entrance. Like cave artists, da Costa uses the position as a feature, the sharp corner is the bow of a ship. It ploughs through the some very neat, crisp waves which are balanced by the smoke curling out of the ships funnel.

The building is Holland House, built in 1916 for a Dutch shipping and mining company, WH Muller & Co.  Nearby is the Baltic Exchange, the world’s biggest market for trading ships and their cargos. Until 2001 the Baltic Exchange had a trading floor so you needed to be based nearby if you were in that industry.

Hendrik Petrus Berlage was an important town planner and architect in Holland. This is his only building in the UK and in it we see all of his ideas on architecture. He used both modern and traditional materials and he didn’t try to dress them up, so oak will look like oak, not given a treatment to make it look like ebony. His buildings had to be functional and he liked geometric shapes. Sometimes his buildings give a nod to historical styles but they do not try to reproduce what was built in the past. Where he used ornamentation, it is part of the building, as we see here, not merely added as decoration.

Above the black marble base the outside walls are covered in greenish-grey ceramic tiles. The windows are narrow with bosses underneath. You can see from the close ups that the bosses protrude and the tiles shine. The Gherkin stands in front of Holland House and I love the way you can see its reflection in the windows

I can’t show you any photos of the interior because they are copyrighted but if you google: interior holland house bury street london, you should be able to see some of the tiled rooms with fabulous Tiffanyesque ceiling lights. The boardroom is mahogany panelled and is reminiscent of some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interiors. Berlage left the project before the interior fittings were completed so they are not all his but the work of a Belgian designer, Henri van de Velde. 

In 2016 the building was bought by Stena Reality, the property branch of Swedish shipping line, Stena so our ship sculpture is still relevant to the current owner.

Hendrik Petrus Berlage is best known for the Beurs Van Berlage in Amsterdam, a brick building completed 1903. It stands in the centre of the city and is built on reclaimed land where there had been a harbour before. It was used as the commodities exchange until 1998. He is recognised as the father of modern architecture in Holland. An architectural post-graduate study centre there and a crater on the far side of the moon are named after him.

About the author: Gail Jones