All Hail Ajax
The Ajax Experience museum in Amsterdam scores a giant goal: sculpting architecture, graphics, and experience to tell the story of the legendary soccer club.
AFC Ajax (pronounced EYE-ox), Amsterdam’s hometown soccer club, will always hold a hallowed place in the annals of soccer as a three-peat winner of the Euro Cup from 1971–1973. But the club’s greater claim to fame is not the trophies in its display case, but its legacy of creating “giants” who have gone on to dominate the global soccer field. So when Ajax envisioned an experience museum for the 112-year-old club, the goal was to give visitors an insider’s look at how Ajax heroes are made.
While there was already a small museum in the Ajax arena outside Amsterdam, the club saw the need to build a larger, more experiential museum in the city center—maintaining ties to the club’s roots and keeping fans engaged between matches, says Henri van der Aat, Ajax Chief Commercial Officer. “Nowadays, people need to be in touch with the club 24/7. We had so much content to share with the fans and wanted to reuse that content to get closer to them. That was the drive.”
The building is located in the Rembrandtplein, the city’s most popular square and close to where the club was founded in 1900. Although at 1,000 square meters (11,000 square feet) the former bank space met size requirements, Montreal-based Sid Lee Architecture’s design vision was to transform it into something sculptural and dramatic—a total immersion in the mighty Ajax.
Amsterdam-based Fiction Factory, which started out as set builders in the late 1980s, was responsible for translating Sid Lee’s vision into reality. Fiction Factory CEO Oep Schilling likened the creation of that experience to building a boat and ultimately producing “more than 1,000 square meters of stealth.”
Bringing history to life
The Ajax Experience is divided into seven sections, beginning with the free-to-the-public, 1,600-square-foot History Hall at the entrance, where tickets for the remainder of the experience are purchased. “We decided early on to give part of the space to the city,” says Jean Pelland, Architect and Principal Partner at Sid Lee. “It was a way to reconnect Ajax with Amsterdam in a bold way.”
Taking advantage of the floor-to-ceiling storefront windows, the light-filled History Hall is literally carved out of the space, with sculptural triangulated surfaces covered in black, white, and red graphics representing the team colors. Pelland likens the graphic imagery to a large fresco—like a grotto where you find prehistoric drawings—that tells the story of Ajax, including its history, timeline, and most iconic players. Each triangulated surface is essentially a page in the Ajax storybook.
The challenge for Fiction Factory was collaging oversized inkjet graphics—printed on opaque white adhesive-backed vinyl—seamlessly onto the 26-foot-high walls. “It was about millimeters,” says Schilling. “If the text on one triangle continued on the next triangle, there was no room for error. Even changes in temperature could cause issues.”
In History Hall, Sid Lee introduced not only the bold graphic language that runs through the space, but the architectural details that unify the museum: faceted wall planes, the team color palette, and dramatic reverse-bleacher elements that recall stadium seating.
“We Build Giants”
Sid Lee envisioned the museum as an enfilade of experiences: once visitors purchase tickets in the History Hall, they proceed on a prescribed path leading to the peak experience at the heart of the space.
Leaving History Hall, they ascend a flight of stairs to the Ajax Academy, which focuses on the team’s actual Academy—called De Toekomst, or “the Future”—where local youth are handpicked and trained to become professional soccer players. Dimly lit with an emphasis on audiovisual and experiential elements, the Academy explains the club’s TIPS (technique, insight, personality, speed) model used to train players. Table-mounted graphics printed on steel explain how young players are recruited locally, trained, and then go on to play for soccer clubs around the world.
Glass table-mounted backlit graphics wrap around a 65-foot-long display case that features players’ apparel and trophies. Three interactive steel tables with LED screens offer insightful analyses on some of the greatest games in Ajax history.
The Academy also contains three 10-by-10-foot tempered glass-enclosed interactive technique stations designed by Montreal-based gsmprjct. Here, visitors can learn about the technical aspects of soccer by demonstrating their own skills and having them analyzed. The Speed station, for example, allows visitors to test their agility and reflexes by dribbling the ball, while the Technique booth analyzes ball handling and kicking. Archways illuminated in green light reference the soccer field and lend a futuristic “tron” feel, according to Pelland.
After being immersed in the dark Academy space, visitors head to a partial replica of the Ajax locker room. Like the club’s namesake, “The locker room is very mythical, and we wanted to relay a piece of that experience,” says Pelland. In this lighter red and white space, looped videos of speeches by the Ajax coach—during both winning seasons and losing streaks—are retroprojected onto a mirrored wall, while visitors sit in seats labeled with actual Ajax players’ numbers and names. “You sit there as if you’re a soccer player, the lights go out, and then the coach comes in and yells at you,” Schelling explains. “It’s not a hologram, but it’s pretty close to that.”
After the Locker Room, visitors walk through a 23-foot-long tunnel to reach the museum’s climax experience, the Stadium. The darkened passage features a wall treatment of full-height players’ silhouettes. Comprising cut-out metal with a pixelized effect, the static silhouettes are backlit with red light to give visitors the impression of walking alongside the players. An audio track with the mounting sounds of a crowd roaring and chanting builds excitement as fans enter the arena.
In the 2,000-square-foot Stadium, four 20-by-12-foot projections on the walls create an almost 360-degree effect of being in a stadium. Steps act as seating for the visitors as they watch moments of triumph and defeat in Ajax’s history. Black Astroturf underfoot extends the stadium feel, while round red lights projected onto the flooring loosely indicate player position.
From the Stadium, visitors enter the Ajax Around the World exhibit, which showcases all the soccer clubs that have benefited from the great players originating in Amsterdam. A red wall with a map of the world pinpoints where players have gone, while black and white imagery on a freestanding glass display gives general information about players who trained at Ajax and moved to other clubs around the world.
The Ajax Experience culminates with a trip back down the stairs to the Retail area, where sculptural red and white walls literally and aesthetically close the design loop from the entrance area. In fact, the checkout counter in the retail area also functions as the ticket counter from the other side.
Getting it right
As with any project, the Ajax Experience had its fair share of challenges, including budget (about $5.5 million Canadian). Because of the one-off nature of the design, much of the building budget went toward 3D engineering, says Schilling.
Getting the historical facts spot-on also required a great deal of time and research, as did finding imagery from the club’s key moments. “Soccer clubs are not specialists in archiving history, so we had to dig deep,” says Pelland. “Now Ajax has a very cleaned-up version of the most important historic moments.”
Of course, in a hallowed club such as Ajax, there was much discussion about which giants to highlight in the public area, says Van der Aat. Instead of highlighting 11 players as originally planned, the team went with 17 and left enough wall space to accommodate future giants. And finally, the museum’s summer 2011 opening was pushed back to the fall—after prime tourist season—so museum attendance is not meeting Ajax’s goals. But Van der Aat is optimistic for 2012: “It’s running, it’s running correctly, and we’ve had a great response from visitors.”
--By Jenny Reising, eg magazine No. 01, 2012
THE AJAX EXPERIENCE
Client: AFC AJAX N.V. Netherlands
Budget: €4.2M/$5.5M CDN
Project Area: 1,000m2 (10,764 sq. ft.)
Opened: November 2011
Design: Sid Lee Architecture (architectural design), Sid Lee (branding and graphic design)
Consultants: gsmprjct (interactive and museum exhibition and multimedia), Jimmy Lee (video production)
Fabrication/Construction: Fiction Factory
Photos: Ewout Huibers