Now, on the face of it, a factory making yeast and methylated spirits may seem an unlikely, even inadmissible candidate for ArtsTalk Magazine – even for our Extracurricular column. The sprawling industrial complex that is the Nederlandsche Gisten en Spiritusfabriek lies between the railway and the canals is not the most beautiful sight in Delft but nevertheless it has a fascinating history and an aspect that justifies its inclusion in this column.
The main office building of the factory is an architectural gem despite its rather forbidding exterior. The building is accessible to the public on occasional open days and is well worth a visit if you get the chance. Inside there is also a small museum. The Agnetapark model village, on the other side of the railway tracks, was created for the workers and their families and is readily accessible and a pleasant place to walk around.
The fabriek, covering a very large site to the north of the city, is a significant presence if you live in that part of town. If you can’t see it and its tall metal chimneys, you will probably be able to smell it.
The factory was founded in 1869 by Jacques Van Marken, who had studied in Delft, together with his wife Agneta Matthes. The company produced, as the name implies, yeast (used in bread making), penicillin and methylated spirits.
Van Marken left an important mark on the company in more ways than one. As an enlightened entrepreneur he strived for social entrepreneurship: “The factory for everyone, everyone for the factory!” In real terms this meant, among other things, a profit sharing scheme for the workers, a pension fund and a participation body set up in 1878 called De Kern, the first of its kind in the Netherland. It also set up its own in-house magazine called De Fabrieksbode launched in June 1882 which was also the first company magazine published in the Netherlands. It continued until the final edition in September 2001. The model village, named after Van Marken’s wife, has rows of attractive cottage-style dwellings all with gardens as well as some larger house and blocks of flats, a lake, lots of trees and a community centre.
The site, with its numerous chimneys, collection of steaming pipes and metal clad buildings, is what it is, an unattractive industrial site – but the company’s main office building, overlooking a little side canal, is something very special indeed. Opened in 1906 the building, although unprepossessing from the outside, is typical of the Dutch style of the time known as Um 1800 which culminated in the period 1905-1914. The beautiful coloured tiles, fittings and stained glass windows and panels are not quite Art Nouveau nor Art Deco but are unique to Holland. The office building’s main, central hall has an ornate glass arched canopy and the balconies, reminiscent of cloisters, are supported by superb carved stone pillars.
The building was designed by Karel Muller and Bastiaan Schelling but sadly Jacques van Marken was not to see it finished having died the previous year. The overall impression is reminiscent of the Kunstmuseum (formerly the Gemeentemuseum) and the Hollands Spoor railway station, both in The Hague.
On the occasion of its eightieth anniversary, in 1950, the Nederlandsche Gisten en Spiritusfabriek was awarded the Royal designation. The company, which employed 1,741 people in 1954, was given a new department where antibiotics and related products were manufactured. In 1968 the company merged with Brocades to form Koninklijke Gist-Brocades NV. In 1998 that company was taken over by the chemical multinational DSM and consequently had its Royal appellation withdrawn.
The building is open once or twice a year when the public can have a wander around. Watch out for these rare opportunities as a visit will provide an insight not only in to a unique style of Dutch architecture and design but also into the innovative and ground breaking approach to industrial relations and workers’ rights and welfare.
The 2018 exhibition Art Nouveau/New Objectivity at Prinsenhof in Delft contained items from the Nederlandsche Gisten en Spiritusfabriek. You can read a review of that show here
Photos by and © Michael Hasted 2021
Much of the information in this article was gleaned from J. Muntendam’s 1971 book Loon naar werken : enkele sociale aspecten van het werk van J.C. van Marken, Kluwer, Deventer (Pay for work: some social aspects of the work of J.C. van Marken, Kluwer, Deventer).