For centuries Amsterdam has been the centre of the international trade and cultural exchange. Historically, it all happened over the water and resulted in the famous system of canals in the inner city. This gave Amsterdam a clear identity that is organised and easily reproducible in images. Yet, the real wealth of Amsterdam is less its being shaped in the omnipresence of water but is the open and tolerant social character. This attitude formed the basis for the city as we know it: a relatively small population of 800.000 inhabitants representing 180 different nationalities. Russel Shorto described this in a most convincing and evocative way in his A History of the World’s Most Liberal City (2013): ‘Together, we maintain a society of individuals.’
This well-known history of Amsterdam is, however, just half the story. Literally half the story: the historic canals (Grachtengordel) are cut in a half moon shape by the IJ river on the North. Historically this proved extremely strategic: it attached the canals directly to the harbour in the IJ river, thereby establishing a strong connection between shipping and trade. When railroads came, a big mistake has been made by placing the train station in-between the port and the city with its canals. The result was a cut straight through the city’s most important connection and raison d’etre. The harbour started to develop separately from the historic city, and the canals were increasingly given an aesthetic and touristic function. They lost their original identity.
Characteristics of the city
A big change has taken place over the last decennia with the harbour moving further towards the sea, while the shores of the IJ river have been connected to the city. This resulted in internationally spectacular projects, including KNSM and Java in the East of Amsterdam, and more recently the development of the Houthavens in the West. With these developments, Amsterdam is again oriented towards the water and shifts its focus. One could even say that Amsterdam’s half-moon shape is being completed. The half-city is starting to become a whole city with the development of the North that kicked-off at the turn of the millennium.
The redevelopment of the North shore is happening at great speed. At first work spaces and ferry connections over the river were made. Now an increasing number of housing projects is being realised and the North – South metro line has just been inaugurated on 21 July 2018. In the coming years two bicycle bridges will further strengthen the connection between the North to the historic centre of Amsterdam. The development works are transforming one of Amsterdam’s most polluting industrial areas into a sustainable business and residential area based on the principle of the circular economy.
Preserving architectural heritage
Currently, the biggest challenge in Amsterdam is to answer to the large demand for housing through the transformation and densification of the existing harbour areas. One million new houses are to be realised before 2030. Even within this ambitious plan, the city’s social ambitions are obvious. To protect its inclusive character, the city Amsterdam requires that every housing project should include enough low-income housing. The rule that has been set foresees a 40-40-20 ratio: 40% for social housing, 40% for the middle incomes and 20% private sector housing.
It is from this perspective that we think about the different transformation projects, both on a large and on a small scale. At NEXT architects we aim at making meaningful places for encounters and connections. To achieve this we take an explorative and research-oriented approach wherein we regularly publish our thoughts and findings.
The potato plan
One example is the book The Potato Plan Collection, edited by Mirjam Züger and Kees Christiaanse from the ETH Zurich and published by nai010 Publishers (2018). The book celebrates Patrick Abercrombie and J.H. Forshaw’s renowned ‘Potato Plan’ and assesses its potential as an analytical tool for contemporary metropolitan territories. Originally drawn in 1943 as part of the Country of London Plan, Abercrombie’s ‘Social and Functional Analysis’ poetically illustrates the city as an agglomeration of distinct communities, clusters and centralities. NEXT was asked to reinterpret the original Potato Plan and to apply this to the city of Amsterdam in order to reveal a new perspective on the structure and configurations of the city.
For our potato plan of Amsterdam we distinguished a series of ‘potatos’, each symbolizing a neighbourhood or district that has a recognizable social and functional cohesion. In a systematically preconceived city like Amsterdam we quickly came to a distinction correlated to the period in which each area was constructed, like the aforementioned historic city centre with its canals and the newly developed Amsterdam North. But in addition to the classification according to ‘time’, we also emphasise the population’s ‘age’ and their different concentrations across the city, as a defining feature to understand the urban structure of Amsterdam. For instance, a higher concentration of youths and seniors are found on the outskirts of the city, where generally more space is available for a reasonable price. Amsterdam is a youthful city, but with relatively few children. More than half of the households consists of a single person, partly due to the many students in the city. These features are important to understand the city and each group has different needs and desires when it comes to what the city should offer and how the city should be shaped. This is exactly what interests us at NEXT: how to give form to these different needs.
Reshaping the city
To us, the city of Amsterdam represents a fertile ground for the development of unique projects that illustrate the diverse living and working environments in the Netherlands. It is with much pleasure that we are committed to expressing this diversity. Recently, the completion of the Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport provided us with the incentive to produce a travel guide in collaboration with MIMOA and embark on an architectural journey through a selection of our projects in and around Amsterdam. Schiphol, as an international hub, is perhaps the most literal example of a place that connects: a gateway to the world. But we find it even more rewarding to show the project at Schiphol next to a daycare centre in the Rivierenbuurt neighbourhood of the city – a place where children have their first contact with the outside world and lean to establish friendships. In Purmerend, you can see how a new bridge links the old and new parts of town and, at its highest point, brings people together; while in Almere Villa Overgooi shows how the lives of five different families intertwine through the building and the collective garden.
The way in which people interact and the surroundings in which they choose to do this varies greatly, depending on their stage of life. Students at Campus Uilenstede will seek out different qualities from those of young entrepreneurs in the Riekerpolder, where we contributed to the transformation of the old IBM machine park building into B.Amsterdam, Europe’s largest ecosystem for startups and creative entrepreneurs. Different qualities are also sought by families who settle in Amsterdam North. Here the Noorderkaap apartment tower, set for construction in 2020, is part of the radical transformation that is taking place in the Northern part of the city. The apartment tower offers spacious apartments with views over the water.
These apartments stand on a shared foundation of offices that breathe life into the surrounding park. We feel enormously privileged to be able to shape these different environments in and around Amsterdam.