Cruz y Ortiz - Internationally renowned architects

Cruz y Ortiz – Internationally renowned architects

The Ambassade Hotel is made up of 14 canal houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, nearly all of them connected. Over the years, the internal structure had lost something of its original character, so in 2014, Cruz y Ortiz were commissioned to remodel the public areas and create more unity. The design was to incorporate a brasserie and lounge/bar, and give pride of place to the extraordinary collections of signed books and COBRA art.

For Antonio Ortiz, a loyal guest, the commission had a special significance. He knows the Ambassade Hotel’s unique character well: stylish yet homely, both classic and timeless, with impeccable service from approachable staff. ‘Remodelling historic buildings is a challenging process,’ Ortiz says. ‘What function should go where? How do you harmonise the interior with the architecture? What’s more, according to planning law, individual buildings have to remain recognisable as such from the outside. To bring this all together in a good design requires a lot of careful tuning. It makes the process an exciting journey of exploration.’

The design
To reveal the original layout of the houses, Cruz y Ortiz reduced the size of the existing openings in the dividing walls, and added a new one. The passages were aligned along a single axis to create unity and coherence among the different spaces. ‘With historic buildings, this is the desirable and respectful approach,’ Ortiz says. ‘The connections between the buildings were actually reduced, so they are more individually identifiable, but still form a whole.’

The Ambassade Hotel’s inextricable association with art and literature is evident throughout. Guests are welcomed at the entrance by a COBRA sculpture in a gold niche – a subtle but telling prelude to the rest of the rooms, where art is beautifully integrated into the interior. The extensive collection of signed books has been given the space it deserves in the fittingly named Library Bar and Library Lounge.

A column from Arnon Grunberg - "Magic Show"

A column from Arnon Grunberg – “Magic Show”

‘“As other men long for hearth and home, or wife and child, he would always return to neon light and reception, chambermaid and porter,” is how he puts it in his serial ‛Hotelwelt [Hotel World],’ Mark Schaevers notes of the writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939) in his excellent book ‘Ostend, the summer of 1936’ (Oostende, de zomer van 1936).

Although most hotels no longer have a porter, and it is a long time since neon light has been a feature of the hotel world, I share this idiosyncrasy with Joseph Roth: I long for hotels. A good hotel combines familiarity, a certain sense of security, with the temporary, the indefinite. A hotel is a halfway house.

Since I left Amsterdam in 1995, I have regularly returned to the city – work, mother, lover etcetera, there have always been reasons, too many reasons in fact.

Via a couple of detours, among them the ‘Flowering Radish’ (Bloeiende Ramenas) on Haarlemmerdijk and the Amstel Hotel, I ended up at the Ambassade Hotel, where I found what I was looking for.
It would be too much to recount my history at the Ambassade Hotel, and it would also be indiscreet – a hotel owes its existence in part to secret and clandestine meetings, although the clandestine nature of the meeting is often only a product of one’s own imagination – but in particular I would like to mention my godson’s eighth birthday, which he celebrated there in the summer of 2012, with entertainment by the magician Falicanto.

I had given birthday parties for him at the Ambassade before – after all, the hotel was where I lived when I was in Amsterdam – and after the first of them, Wim, who more than any other member of staff is to me the personification of the Ambassade Hotel, had confided that they had found confetti all over the hotel for days afterwards. So I had gone in search of other sources of amusement – he was a little old for confetti anyway – and with some help I had found Falicanto.

The magician agreed to come, some 15 boys and girls were invited for the show, and I eagerly played the role of host and surrogate father to my godson.

The children had installed themselves in the breakfast-cum-reception room with cake and soft drinks. A proportion of the cake had swiftly been rubbed into the carpet and some of the chairs, but that’s the advantage of a hotel: people expect stains. All guests make stains, only some less than others.

The children, who by this point had been informed that the magician was coming, had the air of spectators at the Colosseum, interested to see people being mauled by wild animals, the only difference being that a few of my godson’s friends were keen to play the role of the wild animal themselves.

One boy said to me, ‘I don’t like magicians, can I go and play at the back?’

‘No,’ I said. If one of the boys went to play ‘at the back’, they would all go and play at the back, and the magician would be left to perform his tricks for a couple of stray adults, I couldn’t do that to him.

The magician arrived, a thin, shy man who said he might have to cut the performance short because his girlfriend was ill. I became even more concerned that my godson’s sweet little friends would metaphorically tear him to pieces. The opposite happened, and diffidently he won their hearts, or at least their admiration.

A hotel, I realise, is also a conjuring trick. The staff do the magic, if all goes well the guests don’t see how the tricks are done, and they go home satisfied, wanting nothing more than to come back soon, because although there is a lot at home, there generally aren’t any real magicians.

Home is to a good hotel as sliding doors are to a wide stage.

The view on the row of canal houses comprising the Ambassade hotel and Brasserie Ambassade as seen from the other side of the Herengracht canal

Amsterdam Sinfonietta – Passion for music

Anyone who has ever been to a concert by Amsterdam Sinfonietta will have been struck by the musicians’ energy and enthusiasm. They play standing up, without a conductor. This calls not only for rigorous rehearsal, but also for intense interaction on the part of the orchestra members. The approach to performing gives the orchestra its unique signature: a perfectly coordinated ensemble, bursting with passion for music.

The Netherlands’ only professional string orchestra, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, has seen its popularity grow in recent years. Artistic director and violinist Candida Thompson puts this down to changes in society: ‘Music is always connected to social circumstances. For a long time it was fashionable to impress people with big orchestras in concert halls. These days people are looking for more personal and intimate experiences, without such a distance to the audience, in the way that chamber music used to be played. We’re actually a large chamber ensemble.’

Amsterdam Sinfonietta’s repertoire incorporates a wide variety of genres, from baroque to contemporary. As well as performing mainstream repertoire, the orchestra champions lesser-known or new works and participates in crossover projects. ‘We collaborate with artists, actors and dancers, and we experiment with lighting as it’s used in theatre, but then very subtly,’ Thompson says.

When it comes to the current musical climate in the Netherlands, however, Thompson has her concerns: ‘Musical tradition is an incredibly important part of our culture and for years it’s been neglected because of cutbacks. Music education is important. It’s like football or drawing: you only get interested if you come into contact with it.’

This is why Amsterdam Sinfonietta is committed to music education, and gives 50 performances a year for children aged four to six. The orchestra also offers conservatory students the opportunity to play with the ensemble, and runs an annual Sinfonietta String Players Day for musicians aged seven to fourteen. The Ambassade Hotel sets great store by these activities, and not only sponsors the orchestra, but also provides financial support to the talented young violinist Svenja Staats.

For more than 30 years, Amsterdam Sinfonietta has been the only professional string orchestra in the Netherlands, and it ranks among the best in the world. The ensemble is made up of 23 string players with a variety of nationalities, all of whom play at soloist level. Amsterdam Sinfonietta works with celebrated musicians such as Barbara Hannigan, Sol Gabetta, Janine Jansen, Isabelle Faust, Jasper de Waal, Martin Fröst, Alexander Melnikov, Christianne Stotijn, Bobby McFerrin, Wende and Blaudzun.

Wouter Schopman - Cobra Stole My Heart

Wouter Schopman – “COBRA stole my heart”

The Ambassade Hotel is synonymous with art. There are artworks to admire throughout the building, even in the guestrooms. How did this come about? The man behind it is Wouter Schopman, passionate hotelier and inspired art collector.

It was in 1988 that Wouter Schopman wandered into De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, curious about the exhibition COBRA 40 years after. He took one look at the art, and it was love at first sight. Schopman couldn’t get enough of it, and he revisited the exhibition several times.

‘COBRA stole my heart… It took my breath away to see so much surprising work,’ says Schopman as he looks back on that decisive day, 31 years ago. ‘The colours, the freedom, the playfulness, the unconventionality, the experiment, the intuition… it was overwhelming, the passion flew off the canvas. I was rooted to the spot, covered in goose bumps. What passion and courage these artists had – and in the years just after the war, too! Even after all that time, their work had lost none of its power.’

From hotelier to art collector

It wasn’t long before Schopman bought his first COBRA work: a print by Eugène Brands. It was the start of a collection which – thanks to contributions by Schopman’s friend Mieny Pes and her husband Luigi – now comprises more than 800 works, making it one of the largest private COBRA collections on public display in the world. It includes work by Constant, Karel Appel, Corneille, Eugène Brands, Lucebert, Anton Rooskens and, last but not least, Theo Wolvecamp, whose work is central to the collection and with whom Schopman developed a special connection.

Theo Wolvecamp

Schopman met Theo Wolvecamp (1925-1992) in Ascona while visiting a close friend, the art collector Alice de Jong. She and her late husband had assembled an extraordinary collection of contemporary art. From the moment Wolvecamp set foot in Alice’s home, Schopman hung on his every word. They talked about art for days and went on to see each other frequently at Schopman’s own Ambassade Hotel. Over the years, Schopman bought various works from Wolvecamp, who is known as ‘the quiet strength of COBRA’.

Quiet strength

Wolvecamp is rarely the first of the Dutch COBRA artists to be mentioned; Karel Appel, Constant and Corneille tend to steal the show. This is understandable in the light of Wolvecamp’s personality: he was introverted, critical and somewhat ponderous. Is this the reason he is less well known? Were the other COBRA members simply better at ‘selling themselves’, while actually looking up to Wolvecamp?

Wolvecamp enrolled at the art academy in Arnhem in 1947, but soon abandoned the academic lessons. He moved to Amsterdam, where he made a series of improvised compositions. It was COBRA work avant la lettre, which was appreciated by Corneille, Appel and Constant. Wolvecamp continued to draw and paint in this free and spontaneous way for the rest of his life.

To Wouter Schopman, his work still embodies the power of COBRA, the movement he fell in love with on that day in 1988.