‘Amsterdam has changed… I don’t recognize it anymore, it stinks and it’s confusing and it’s not what it was’
I walk into the room at the elder house and find Louisa sitting by the coffee table in her wheelchair bathed in a strange artificial bright light. Two people are busy pouring gravel into an aquarium, which they will later fill with water. I describe the scene to her because her eyesight isn’t what it used to be. She says
‘How sad for those birds’.
I laugh, then she laughs too, realizing her mistake:
‘They must all think what an idiot, doesn’t she knows an aquarium is for fish...for locked up fishes who don’t even want to be there? ‘
I tell her how the aquarium builders continue with their task by adding stones and raking the gravel on the bottom into a tidy underwater Zen garden.
‘Stones, too? How sad for those stones to be locked in there’.
I agree and ask her if everything is alive.
‘Yes,’ she says as I help her on with her jacket, ‘Everything. And they feel to’.
I push Louisa in her wheelchair over the canal bridges in the mid morning light, radiant in her bright red motor jacket. The narrow sidewalks thread their way past dimly lit basements and cellars. She tells me not to get too close. I reply that we’re safe –they’re fenced off with railings so pedestrians can’t fall in-it’s the law.
‘Fences!’ she yells as I bend over her to hear what she’s about to say ‘How horrible!’
She continues in a quieter voice: “It’s getting worse and worse here in Amsterdam. Everything’s fenced in… even my bed has a fence round it to stop me from falling out or so they say…or wandering off at night’.
Finally, we turn into the Dam Square, buy a coffee in a bar and as I sit down next to her we start talking about music, meditation and the past.
You lived in Amsterdam in the sixties and seventies and hung out in alternative spaces like the legendary De Kosmos Meditation Center. What do you remember?
‘De Kosmos was small, the entrance was low and narrow and you had to pass through many little doors to get in. We did meditation, breathing exercises, yoga… stuff like that – the place was always full of fit, healthy people. We’d have dinner and then sometimes take another lesson afterwards. I don’t remember exactly what we did or how we did it any more but we also did meditation.’
Where was it located?
‘...Let me see… De Kosmos was right in front of Centraal Station. It also had a parking lot for bicycles under it. It wasn’t so expensive; it was basic and cheap.’
(Actually Louisa is mixing up the locations of De Kosmos and the Oibibio New Age Center here. See note below).
Was it a squat?
‘No it was just a normal building. I will try to remember...’
Yes, I thought it would be good to write down your memories from those days. It was a special period, an interesting time in the city’s history, and it could also be instructive/inspiring for people who are trying to set up alternative spaces today.
What about the food at De Kosmos?
‘We always ate soup, almost always it was vegetarian, and it was tasty. I remember lots of pumpkin soup (I think)…’
Was it macrobiotic?
‘No, not in the beginning that came later... sometimes we peeled potatoes.’
Did all the lessons and sessions happen at the same time?
‘Yes, several big rooms with yoga or something and we also did massage.’
Did you massage each other?
‘No, for the most part we got lessons in massage. There was also a very plain simple sauna. We didn’t wear clothes in it, of course. We were all naked and then afterwards or in between sessions we’d jump into a cold bath outside in the yard to cool down and there was also a smaller room where you could lie down on mats. Here I’d fall asleep some times. We’d go there mainly on Friday nights. There were also many concerts going on till midnight or later. There was always music in the building..’
What kind of people visited De Kosmos?
‘People from school and the university... many students. I studied law.’
So other law students also visited De Kosmos?
‘Yes, many of them did.’
I wouldn’t think such an alternative space would be a typical hang out spot for law students...
‘(emphatic/annoyed) But it was! … it had more to do with age than what you were studying..’
Was De Kosmos the first place you got to know people doing yoga?
‘No. I already knew a woman in my neighborhood in the Scheldestraat who taught yoga... After yoga and dinner there’d be dancing...’
What type of music did you dance to?
‘The Beatles, live music... I don’t know... Indian music…chanting mantras.. I don’t remember it so well. It’s all so long ago… it’s sunk so deep inside my memory. But it was a beautiful time. It’s great that you were there to’.
Actually, Louisa I wasn’t there, but its good to go back in time with you.
NOTE: De Kosmos was located at Prins Hendrikkade 142 in the building now occupied by De Appel Arts Centre. Some confusion also from my side since even Wikipedia mixes up the two locations on the Prins Hendrikkade. The site Louisa refers to in front of Centraal station is the ornate fin de siècle Mercurius building designed by Dutch architect Yme Gerardus Bijvoets which opened in 1883. In the 1990s the Mercurius building was home to the Oibibio New Age Center, which Louisa may have visited too.
In the late 70s De Kosmos with its sauna facility and yoga, psychotropic drug and rebirthing sessions together with other alternative therapies made Prins Hendrikkade 142 an important spiritual hub in Amsterdam’s counter-culture. Lectures, film screenings, concerts and dance nights made the location one of the most progressive spaces in Amsterdam. The Center opened in 1967 as a clubhouse or youth center and was initially called Fantasio but its name was changed to De Kosmos in 1969. The Oibibio New Age Center, which ran similar programs to those offered at the Fantasio /Kosmos.was set up in 1991 by spiritual entrepreneur, Ronald Jan Heijn whose family founded the Albert Heijn supermarket chain. In 2000 he filed for bankruptcy and the building now houses an Albert Heijn supermarket.
Ruchama Noorda is an artist whose work is inspired by counter cultural movements and Life Reform ideas. Her research led her to Louisa who has told her many stories about Amsterdam in the late sixties and seventies.
Photo: Lennart Bugel