Tag Archives: city

In praise of Buitenveldert: prequel

Amsterdam always has been lucky with its city planning. The famous canals (the “grachtengordel”) were designed as part of a comprehensive plan that provided the city with new defence works and made the city four times as big as before. The canal belt was devised and built in two stages, the first part in 1611, the second in 1660. My father would marvel at the fact that the strict geometric scheme of the canals was continued across the river Amstel. Which is something to stop and think about. There are innumerable cities that owe their existence to a river, yet that river nearly always presents itself as an insuperable barrier. The Rive Gauche looks nothing like the Rive Droite. But for the Amsterdammers of 1660 there was no doubt that the canals should continue on the other side of the Amstel in perfect alignment with the earlier ones. And they built it exactly as planned.

Amsterdam Zuid, seen, high up, from the Amstel bridge

Three hunderd years later the Amsterdam city council agreed on another plan. After a period of decline and half-hearted attempts at planning the next ring around the city, the city had expanded piecemeal, and these expansions quickly became infamous for their shoddy building and congested housing quarters. The plan for a the new extension, on the south side of town, was designed by H. P. Berlage. Berlage was what you could call the “National Architect” of the Netherlands. He is the only architect to have earned his own public statue. When my grandfather learned that I was going to study architecture it was perfectly natural for him to wish that I would become “a Berlage” – the byword for a good architect. Berlage provided Amsterdam with an Ideal City. Grand boulevards – borrowed from the Paris of Hausmann – ended in vistas of great public buildings. In a radical gesture, a new station on the South side would give Amsterdam a new entrance on the other side of town, and the boulevards went stubbornly east to west, ending in a bridge over the Amstel and leaving the old city by the wayside. The tree-lined boulevards defined large irregular areas that were layed out in a more picturesque manner, with ensembles gathered around squares, enlivened with curved streets, gates, shopping streets – a kind of lay-out derived from the writings of Camillo Sitte, whose “Der St├Ądtebau (…)” Berlage read and admired.

Academy of the Arts or Hilton Hotel?

Amsterdam Zuid was never built as Berlage had it in mind. The “plan Berlage” (as I new it when I was a kid) turned out to be a city of masks. Berlage didn’t care for masks – his architecture strove for rationality and transparency. The architects that actually built the housing blocks of the new plan had other priorities. They didn’t look for a rational connection of a facade with the living quarters that it protects. Instead, the facades became actors on the stage of the city and the story they told was of streets and squares, not of the humble little apartments they hid: like masks on the Greek stage.

billowy…

But what masks you’ll find in Amsterdam Zuid! They seem to be taken from a fantastic dream made up of images from colonial Indonesia, bits of Wiener Secession and Macintosh, medieval fantasy, and an astonishing handling of the humble brick. The streets are lined in symmetrical arrangements of rhythmically ordered windows, lanterns that indicate communal staircases, balconies. At the street corners it all erupts – there has to be a tower, or a stack of billowy curves, or an embroidery of enmeshed balconies or bay windows. It is so constently present in Amsterdam Zuid that this kind of architecture became known as the “Amsterdamse School”. Architects like Johan van der Mey, Michiel de Klerk, Piet Kramer (who did the building in the photo above), J. Staal, H. Th. Wijdeveld lined the streets with their fantasmagorical designs. Wandering through Zuid – which I loved to do as a kid – you’ll find in every street its own treasure of fun and ingenious details that shape entrances, porticos, window frames, house numbers, post boxes.

The great public buildings of Berlage never materialised. The academy of arts became the Hilton Hotel, whose only claim to fame came when, exactly 50 years ago, two artists decided to stay in bed for a few days.

John and Joko got it right: why not stay in bed?

In Praise Of Buitenveldert

When I think of Buitenveldert, I think of continuity. We have lived here for more than three years now. I did my last entry on this blog a few months before we decided to move here. Does it mean anything if I say that the world has changed since then? Meanwhile, we are here, in Buitenveldert, and it feels incredibly good – things can, indeed, sometimes change for the better.

Moving to Buitenveldert, when you have lived in the picturesque old center of Amsterdam, was something that needed explaining. Buitenveldert is modern – in the progressive, revolutionary, sense of the word. It’s outside the ring road that encircles the older part of Amsterdam, and is therefore often seen as somewhere out of town, not really part of it. It Buitenveldert! “Buiten”: outside, “Veld”: field. Out in the fields. It’s true, in one way. We are only a short bike ride away from the actual fields, cows and all.

But otherwise, Buitenveldert is very much part of the jolly old metrop. Going from the center to here is an uninterrupted, rather pleasant, bike ride (which I do every work day; my work place is still in the old centre). The buildings change from the white and dark green of the canal houses, to the brick-lined avenues of 1920-ies Zuid, to the large glass windows and tree lined streets of Buitenveldert. The A.U.P – the development plan that is the origin of this area – was established in 1935, and it meant to expand the existing city, not to build a new series of satellite towns separate from it.

Another aspect of this plan, which surprisingly still defines the shape of this city, is that the extensions reach out from the center like the fingers of an open hand. The spaces in between are a catalogue of what defines Amsterdam: the river Amstel, the IJ (the body of water that was the origin of the wealth of the town), the Noordhollands canal and the fields in the North, the Amsterdamse Bos, a wood-like park. Which means that, out here, you’re never far away from the aforementioned pastures and those cows.

So what about this thing with continuity? It is there, in the way Buitenveldert is connected, and part of, the city. It is also in the way that people here seem to have no urge to move to elsewhere. In our apartment block (the photo above shows how it looked when it was just finished, in the mid-sixties) there are a surprising number of people who got a place in, say, 1974, and never moved. This is reflected in the permanence of the buildings and the public spaces – there are some new additions, but overall the buildings are the same as they were when Buitenveldert was finished. The wispy branches of the young trees have all grown into reverend canopies.

There’s another instance of continuity, more subliminal. It’s in the way the whole of Buitenveldert is a clever weave of interlocking patterns, made by the repetition and shifting of groupings of building blocks and court yards. Walking in our neighbourhood, as we often do, we are impressed by the way Buitenveldert is a whole, not a archipelago of isolated neighbourhoods.

I’d like to more fully explore the things that make me delight in living here: a good subject for a next blog post. Let’s hope it won’t take another 4 years to write it. Meanwhile, to end, another wonderful instance of continuity. I remember feeding the squirrels, when I was a child, in the Amsterdamse Bos (some ten minutes walking from here). Then they disappeared, for a long time. It was a disease, or maybe something else, I’m not sure. But in Buitenveldert they still are here.

don’t go by first impressions

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This is a design for a metropolis (in fact, Berlin) by Ludwig Hilbersheimer from 1927. It is a radical proposal for a solution of the problems of the exploding cities of the early twentieth century: bad housing conditions, congested traffic, unequal division of land and assets. As described in Manfredo Tafuri’s ‘Design and Utopia’, where I first met with this surprising design, the architectural object has simply disappeared. The living unit, the cell, and the city are one and the same thing. There is no notion of a traditional city space. Starting with the cell, the city is simply a multiplication of this basic unit and vice versa; the buildings are habitation and workplace and street as well. This city has no boundaries. It is a pattern that can be replicated endlessly, as needed. The blocks stand on a plane on which motorized transport moves, without differentiation, without streets or squares. Five floors of workshop are accessible from this level. On top of the workshops there is a grid of walkways, from which you enter the fifteen floor appartement buildings. These buildings have the rigorous layout of a rental office: elevators, stairs, corridors. Off of these corridors are the apartments, the living cells, defined by the number of bedrooms – from one to six.

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I was struck, revisiting this project, with how much this design actually reflects in a way how a large, and increasing, part of humanity lives. Nowadays it seems that most people live a fleeting life, their living place in a state of flux. So they may become home owners, but, next to the agreeable living quarters they wished for, their house is also a commodity. The type of wall finish, the amount of rooms, the way the kitchen is laid out, are for a considerable part dictated by the inevitable moment that the house has to be sold, and its inhabitants move to the next place. In Hilbersheimer’s project the final consequence is faced: you enter these appartements with nothing but your suitcase and leave it the same way. Beds, kitchen, cabinets for storage of your belongings, are already present.

Hilbersheimer’s plan may look like a cartoon image of the way of living of today. But this plan has also a striking difference: the places for work and those for living are on top of each other. This, surprisingly, harks back to the oldest way of living, your home next to or on too of your shop or atelier. So there is room form traffic to go around but there is no need to commute. Here a pre-modern arrangement is at the heart of an ultra modern city.

Heidegger wrote (in Bauen, Wohnen, Denken) how building and living are at the heart of our existence on earth. The German word ‘bauen’ points to ‘raising’ as in raising crop. ‘Wohnen’ is being in a space, a place that is created by living. Not a space in a technological sense. He says “space and men are not across from each other though. She is neither an external object nor an inner sensation”. “Space is included in the designation ‘man'”. Living (‘wohnen’) should provide for the receiving of the foursome, heaven and earth, mortals and gods. This notion of the ‘geviert’ (which I translate with foursome) is a very complex one that I’m only beginning to explore. But for now I think I understand that with this notion he provides a space for the spiritual, or whatever is beyond the subject, as well for the subjective world – and without pulling these apart.

Is there room for such a space? Heidegger presented his thoughts in a lecture right after the war, and the housing shortage was an urgent issue. He points out though, that even with the building of new housing there is moreover a longing for the actual ‘living’ – and this living is not confined to the home but also present in the workspace, everywhere where man and place are present. Looking at the rigorous plan of Hilbersheimer I thought that at least one thing was right, which is that it suggests how living and working can be combined. It may not be necessary to reach for the suburban alternative to make a place. It may be a way to reconsider the new megametropoles, the multi million inhabitants cities that are now an unerasable given, and look for the possibility to create a place for humans to truly live there. A huge leap of faith is necessary.

Of course, the chilly uniformity, the absence of even one blade of grass, the total lack of fun, shouldn’t be replicated. The ‘Hochhausgrossstadt’ is a schematic proposal that is very much concerned with the production side of how to build a good city. I think it can open up the thinking about cities into a perspective to an alternative to cities that are still laid out in a wasteful and inorganic way, needing too much traffic to function, taking up too much space. Maybe this inhuman looking city may provide a way to a truly human city.