BUOYANT CITY: Amsterdam

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Holland is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It is highly urbanized and ultra sensitive to environmental conditions. For generations the country suffered the threat of inundation from the North Sea and learned to survive in a precarious balance with nature, learning a respectful stewardship for the dry land that they did possess. Large areas have been reclaimed–as much as one-third of the country is below sea level–protected and micromanaged within a complex infrastructure of dikes, sluice gates, pumping stations, man-made polders and artificial islands. Holland also has a tradition of tolerance, in both its social and cultural realms and continues to support a degree of experimentation in its public projects.

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Amsterdam, the largest city, with about 800,000 inhabitants continues to suffer a housing shortage with long waiting lists for subsidized housing, a condition that has forced public agencies to come up with makeshift and sometimes idiosyncratic solutions. The city expands outwards and inward at the same time, rediscovering and reinterpreting older, often derelict industrial areas. Former warehouses and factories have been converted and entire new neighborhoods have been transformed from former industrial parks and shipping wharfs into high-density residential zones. One new area called IJburg, has been built from scratch on a series of artificial islands in the IJ estuary. But still, it’s never quite enough.

S038_N597_mediumOne of the most successful efforts that set the template for future schemes to come, was Borneo Sporenburg, built in Amsterdam’s Oostelijk Havengebied (eastern docklands) on two large piers that had once been used for unloading ships coming from Dutch colonies in the Far East. During the 1980s, many of the warehouses in this neighborhood were populated by squatters and artists in search of cheap housing. The city government designated the entire area for housing in the 1990s; squatters were thrown out and most of the old buildings were demolished.

S038_N512_mediumOn the cleared land, the city mandated a density of 40 units per acre, which is high, even by Dutch standards. A master plan was conceived by Adriaan Geuze, principal of West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture (a firm based in Rotterdam), and Geuze’s so-called “Swiss Cheese” concept called for a high percentage of open spaces, “voids”, to be dispersed throughout the solid blocks of 2,500 dwellings with open plazas, gardens and parks. In addition, a 30%-to-50% void was required within each house in the form of patios and courtyards so as to draw in as much natural light as possible, making the relatively small interior spaces seem larger and more expansive, while simultaneously directing the eye out towards water views whenever possible, to help foster what Geuze called “a contrast between intimacy and cosmic open space.”

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“Sublmine Continuity”, Pieter de Hooch

His initial inspiration came from the kind of small, traditional villages that used to line the shores of the Zuiderzee, as well a painterly influence from 17th century Dutch artists like Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer, a sense of what he calls “sublime continuity” between inside and outside, a saturation of sea-reflected light, and a clarity of vision in which every brick appears to possess an almost mystical certainty of its place in the universe. The houses at Borneo Sporenburg are high density but low rise so the impact on the city’s historic skyline has been minimal. Only three stories are allowed but the first floors are extra tall, measuring 3.5 meters (11.48 feet) in height versus the standard 2.4 meters. “Greater height not only increases daylight penetration in the homes, and the quality of living, but also gives an urban atmosphere,” explained Geuze. (The extra height also allows the possibility of future alternative functions such as shops, cafés, studios and offices.) More than a hundred international architects submitted designs for the individual residential units, including top firms like OMA, MRDV, UN Studio and Neutelings Riedijk, so that each unit has its own distinctive character and together create an animated patchwork of varied colors, textures and materials. Each architect worked with a slightly different combination of internal spaces, proportions, variations in height and setback, sometimes with small porches, projecting balconies and alternating window treatments. A brick facade with small, steel-framed windows might butt up against an all-glass facade, or a facade of grayish-blue slate with pulpit and clerestory windows, or a facade of pale orange with large, wood-framed windows, etc. This kind of rhythmic diversity helped to create instant character and a grounded sense of place in what might have otherwise been another blandly uniform environment. Tenants further personalized their respective units with potted plants, banners and benches as well as small docks and moorings for boats along the waterside of the community.

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About thirty per cent of the 2,500 dwellings at Borneo Sporenburg are subsidized social housing while the rest are priced according to the current real estate market. This makes for a stimulating economic mix of low, high and middle-class tenants. Two large apartment buildings, known as “Meteorites” (the “PacMan” and the “Sphinx”), are set on the diagonal to break up the linear monotony of the low-rise units. These super blocks are much higher than the houses. They have public gardens, interior courtyards and are surrounded by large, open plazas. (A third housing block, called the “Fountainhead”, was never built as local residents wanted to keep the site for a park and sports field.)

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The Python, Borneo Sporenburg, West 8

To further embellish and help people navigate their way around this new urban landscape, West 8 designed three flamboyantly sculptural pedestrian/bike bridges that link Borneo Sporenburg to the adjacent peninsular communities. (One of the bridges called “the Python” was made from bright red steel and undulates just like its name implies.) The particular kind of spatial diversity and customized design strategy that made Borneo Sporenburg such a success, seems to have been difficult to perpetuate in later phases of development. After the first 250 units were finished, the developer asked the city to limit the choices to six standard designs to help lower costs and speed up construction, but Borneo still served as a role model for other peninsular developments in the Eastern Docklands, including KNSM Island, Java Island and Rietland that followed similar patterns, but with larger-scaled blocks that lacked the intimate scale and architectural diversity of Borneo Sporenburg.

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From across the waters of the Westerdoksdijk, Silodam looks like a stack of multi-colored shipping containers or giant Lego pieces. It is, in fact, a massive housing block that hovers on tripod-style pylons. The old dock upon which the building rests was originally used for storing and shipping grain, hence the name, “Silodam”. Two of the old grain silos are still standing on the site and the new structure was designed by MVRDV, one of Holland’s most innovative and playful architecture firms, who took a very different approach than the low, village-like clusters of Borneo. (The same firm designed the iconic WOZOCO housing block for the elderly in the Osdorp neighborhood of Amsterdam in 1997.) At Silodam, they created vertical “neighborhoods” within the ten-story block of 157 residential units, offices and public spaces.

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Silodam, MVRDV

The animated treatment of the exterior is reflected on the interior with a variety of apartment sizes and spatial configurations. Each neighborhood includes between four to ten units of the same type clustered together, each one color coded for ease of internal navigation. Individual living spaces are interspersed with patios, balconies, a small marina for boats and a rooftop communal terrace, called the “crow’s nest” that’s perched on the top floor and offers views of the harbor.

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Floating House, Ijburg, Marlies Rohmer Architects

As the city expands outwards, every kind of alternative has been explored. IJburg, one of Amsterdam’s newest neighborhoods, is a mixed-use development that reaches into the waters of Lake IJmeer with an archipelago of seven artificial islands. Reclamation began in 1997 and continues today as a work in progress with two of the islands being designated for single-family housing, divided into small plots that individual owners are encouraged to develop with an architect of their choice. Like Geuze’s Borneo plan, IJburg has encouraged architectural innovation. Marlies Rohmer Architects designed an entire floating community, or Waterbuurt (“Water Quarter”), for more than 1,000 residents and it’s unlike any other community in the world. Once again, necessity served as mother of invention and the Waterbuurt responds to two of Amsterdam’s most pressing issues: the chronic housing shortage and the threat of rising sea levels. “The main thing is to make a social structure where people really like to live and can put their own ideas into the project,” said Rohmer, who works out of an office on Cruqiuseiland, just across the water from Bonreo Sporenburg.

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House Boats, Sausalito, California

She was inspired after a visit to the alternative houseboat community in Sausalito, California, where she was fascinated by the wildly eclectic houseboats and the “social platforms” that had grown up, organically, and how the homes were connected by different kinds of ramps, boardwalks and jetties. “There was even a floating town square,” she recalled. She borrowed ideas from Sausalito and combined them with basic elements of traditional Dutch canal life–such as the relationship between the street, the canal, and the houseboats that are moored along the wharfs–and these gave her the basis for a 757-Waterwoningen-412-PL1op500totaalvoorwebsite-550x484master plan. “We are 757-TVN-032-363x484used to building on water,” said Rohmer. “It’s our nature.”[*] Climatology experts have predicted that sea levels may rise more than three feet (9 meters) by 2100, and since more than two-thirds of the country’s population live below sea level this has become a major incentive in Dutch planning. Instead of building dikes and dams to keep the water out, the tidal waters of the IJmeer have been “invited in” with canals and inlets interlaced throughout the new development. 

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Most of the floating houses are three-story, single-family townhouses. “I see them as a kind of hybrid, somewhere between a boat and a house,” said Rohmer. They are white, grid-like boxes–imagine a Sol LeWitt installation adrift–resting on precast concrete shells or “hulls” that are completely watertight and were engineered to submerge no deeper than five feet. There’s a minimum of rocking, although heavy furniture can make the houses list to one side. “When you put a big couch or piano on one side of the living room, you have to balance it with something on the other side,” explained Rohmer. All components were prefabricated at a boat yard forty miles to the north of IJburg, then towed along canals and through a series of locks to reach the Waterbuurt site. In a sense, the delivery process gave Rohmer her modular dimensions since the houses had to be less than 21 feet (6.5 meters) in width. “They had to be designed with the exact same measurements as the locks to fit through,” said Rohmer.

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The 275-square-meter houses were laid out in an elegantly triangular configuration separated by narrow jetties and anchored to the Kadegebouw along the Waterbuurt’s southern flank. All of the buoyant units are held in place by two steel mooring poles that keep them positioned close to the jetties but allow the structures to move up or down with changing tides. The traditional Dutch wijk (“neighborhood”) has become a stationary flotilla, a kind of modern-day Venice with small boats moored in front of every unit, children swimming in summer and skating on the ice that sometimes surrounds the community in winter. Rohmer even designed a “drifting terrace”, a kind of public event space that can be moved from place to place and used for parties.

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Floating House, IJburg, Hollands Zicht & SOOH

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On the east side of IJburg there are another 38 floating houses, much more eclectic in design than Rohmer’s minimal white cubes, and each one has been designed by a different architect. A handsome wood-framed black box with trellis stairway was designed by Hollands Zicht & SOOH.  In addition, a set of floating apartment blocks were designed and developed by Eigen Haard, a public housing association, while Anne Holtrop, a young Dutch architect, has proposed a hydroponic “garden/spa wellness island” in collaboration with French landscape designer Patrick Blanc that will float on the waters of Lake IJ and serve the needs of the island’s water-bound residents, providing a pastoral landscape of rolling green hills, something rare for Holland, even if it is completely artificial.

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Garden Spa Wellness Island, IJburg, Anne Holtrop & Patrick Blanc

Large-scale housing developments like IJburg and Borneo Sporenburg were made possible because of a well-lubricated infrastructure of economic, political and cultural systems that fostered innovation. “The city worked closely with developers and social housing companies,” explained Wouter Onclin, an urban planner based in Amsterdam. “The cities made money from selling land, the developers were able to build because of high demand. Banks would finance 100% of our homes with no down payments and mortgage interest was deductible from one’s income so the tax benefits made it beneficial to carry as much mortgage debt as possible.” According to Onclin, all of this changed with the financial crisis of 2007/2008. Now developers have to rely on private capital and less on debt financing. “The tabula rasa method of clearing entire areas will not happen anymore,” he said. “It’s smaller and more organic now. The role of the individual and consumer is becoming much more important.”

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Repurposed Shipping Containers, Houthavens, HVDN Architects

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Floor Plan of Houthavens Housing, HVDN Architects

Houthavens, in the northwest, is one of the city’s newer neighborhoods, mainly inhabited by students and young artists, still very much in organic mutation, transforming itself from a derelict dockland/industrial zone into a thriving residential/business area through small and sometimes guerilla-type actions as a larger development plan awaits approval and financing. Several clusters of modular housing were built as was a floating block of artist studios. Temporary housing was also provided in a former cruise ship. An abandoned ferry and a deep-sea oil platform were transformed into restaurants, and a new theater was built on a former factory site. HVDN Architects, a young collaborative, created an “instant community” with recycled shipping containers stacked three stories high and placed around two courtyards to create 715 student units and 72 larger apartments. It took only twelve months to realize from conception to completion. Facades were made from pre-fabricated molded plastic panels with a variety of window treatments, setbacks, and brightly colored Plexiglas inserts (something like a hipster reinterpretation of De Stijl modernism), all of it helping to soften and disguise the industrial rawness of the corrugated steel containers. Indeed, HVDN’s design was so well implemented that what had originally been considered “temporary housing” turned into a semi-permanent status and gave the neighborhood a sense of center and destination that it previously lacked. But everything in Houthavens is in continual flux, and HVDN’s container village is scheduled to be removed by next summer. Students received notices that they will have to vacate their apartments to make way for a new master plan that will include a series of islands similar to IJburg with housing designed by different architectural firms. The economy is beginning to lift and Amsterdam continues to reinvent itself.

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Rem Eiland

A version of this article first appeared in Design Anthology, Issue #3 (Hong Kong)

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* As quoted in: “This Floating City May Be the Future of Coastal Living,” Noah Rayman, Time, June 26, 2014.

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ORONGO STATION NEW ZEALAND

“The motorcycle was my drawing tool”.   – Thomas Woltz

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How often does a single design firm get the opportunity to turn a 3,000-acre property into a sprawling work of integrated art, architecture, agriculture, ecological and cultural reclamation, wildlife preservation and landscape design? That’s what Thomas L. Woltz and his design team at Nelson Byrd Woltz has accomplished at Orongo Station in Poverty Bay, New Zealand. The project includes the restoration of an old homestead that was already on the site, new out buildings and utility buildings, domestic gardens, re-configured wetlands, sheep paddocks, a reforested coastline, a ceremonial bridge and citrus groves, as well as the expansion of a Maori burial ground. It’s almost too much for the imagination to take in. Rather, it grows on you slowly, as does the level of care and integration that went into the property’s evolution.

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The decade-long  project grew in incremental stages, as the client’s program expanded from a relatively small house-and-garden restoration and remodeling to a vast and self-sustaining kingdom by the sea. “The vision grew after a great deal of research we did on the ecology and historic cultures of New Zealand,” said Woltz who is handsomely dressed in vest and tie and speaks with a passion and intensity that seem uncharacteristic for his profession. He makes the work sound more like a mission than another design commission. “‘What is this place?’ we asked. There is no such thing as a blank slate.” Indeed, Orongo was conceived at such a vast scale–it is six times larger than the city-state of Monaco–and with such complexity and natural diversity that it verges on spawning its own Creation mythology.

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Environmental conservation and sustainability often remain abstract concepts in the human imagination and it becomes the job of a holistic thinker like Woltz to bring all of the parts together into a readable narrative. While his team’s research includes everything from water tables, flood cycles, native plants, wildlife habitat and migratory bird flight to cultural history–and more besides–he still sees himself as a “designer” who takes all the complexities of a site and works them together into a highly integrated expression. “We want to encourage a responsiveness to the environment through artful designs and ecological narratives that connect people to place,” says Woltz. In other words, design with a capital “D” can play an immensely important role in bringing ecological awareness to everyday life, and Woltz emphasizes that his firm’s landscapes are meant to be “composed”, not simply intended to look like natural extensions of the existing topography. Indeed, his comprehensive maps and site plans resemble abstract paintings with swirling forms and colors, and in this project he cites the lyrical work of Ricardo Burle Marx, the great Brazilian landscape designer who was also an accomplished painter. “Modernist design sensibilities and rigorous geometry form a frame for place-making and restoration ecology at small and large landscape scales,” says Woltz.
Invasive animals such as rats, stotes, weasels, and Australian possum, had gotten out of control and were eating the eggs of the migratory birds, and driving them away from the property. An 87-acre tract on the northern peninsula, called the Tuatara Preserve, was re-forested with 45,000 trees and turned into a predator-proof enclosure, protected with high fencing from cliff-face to cliff-face, stretching across the entire peninsula.

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Steve Sawyer, a locally-based conservation biologist, made recordings of the endangered birds and created a solar-powered CD player and speaker system that plays their songs twice a day and lures the birds onto the preserve. “The birds circle around, attracted by the familiar calls,” explained Woltz. “Now there’s a massive population of sooty petrels, fluttering shearwaters and gannets who fly in to lay their eggs without fear of being attacked.” Existing wetlands ran through a valley near the head of the Tuatara Peninsula. They had been drained by a previous owner and during the wet season, the property turned into a muddy mire that made it an unhealthy place for grazing. “Why not dam it up and excavate a complex wetlands composition,” suggested Woltz who consulted with local conservation biologist Sandy Bull and created a weaving pattern of pathways, polders, islands, ponds and waterways to control the problem of seasonal flooding. S-curving earthen dams separate fresh-water treatment ponds from salt-water inlets to create greater diversity of habitats for both plant and animal species, as well as creating a bucolic landscape for animal grazing and human pleasure.

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The shape and size of the islands and waterways, the slope of the banks, the width of the channels, were all determined by wildlife needs and other considerations. “One bird species, for instance, needed a minimum of 1.6 hectares, so we made one of the islands exactly that size,” said Woltz. In other cases, a shallow slope was needed for foraging, while a steeper slope provided a certain species with a lookout for predators. “These are all measurable factors,” explained Woltz. “Then we could start composing a 75-acre painting.”

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He began to compose this 75-acre “painting” by riding a motorcycle through the tall grasses, making long and winding curvatures, and leaving the desired track in the grass. “The motorcycle was my drawing tool”. An excavator followed behind and started to shape the paths, dams and islands that took more than a year to build up into their final forms. A system of weirs can be lowered or raised to control the level of water. Narrow polders create separation of salt from fresh water while providing pathways and places for bird watching and the launching of kayaks.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 11.00.46 AM“We were intentionally not designing a natural wetlands,” said Woltz who sees the intervention as a work of art in the service of wildlife, a way to expand the range and diversity of wildlife habitat. The wetlands area is now brimming with oyster catchers, piping plovers, blue penguins, and the nectar-eating Tui, a bird that is native to New Zealand.

As one moves south on the property from the outer point and wetlands area through grasslands and rolling hills, one becomes aware of an open but willful organizing principle: a sweeping, spiral-curve geometry has been applied throughout the 3,000-acre property, from the road that runs from the beach to the domestic gardens and the layout of citrus groves. Some of the depleted, overgrazed land has been retired and stabilized with native shrubs and trees such as Ngaio, Taupata, Karo while the working sheep station is efficiently divided into paddocks. The wilder, less-defined expanses of land appear in the periphery of the property, while the landscape becomes more structured and consciously “designed” as one nears the central area where the historic homestead stands.

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A sequence of different gardens encircle the 19th-century private homestead and are, according to Woltz, a “portrait of the entire property, a microcosm of the greater landscape.” The “Earthworks Garden” has a spiraling bed of low, rounded Hebe, a native New Zealand shrub, and gently sloping mounds that pay homage to the ceremonial earthworks of the Maori people. “We had contact with Maori elders about the layout of this garden,” said Woltz. For the “Endeavour Garden”, Breck Gastinger, a Woltz associate, visited the Royal Horticultural Society in London to learn what kinds of plants English botanist Joseph Banks sent back from New Zealand aboard Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour in 1769. “We got that plant list and made a perennial garden from it,” said Woltz.

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The “Timber Garden” is planted with key species from the New Zealand lumber industry including Rimu, Totara, Kahiicatia and Sequoia that settlers first brought from North America, and the “Homestead Garden” is made up of both native and English plants that early settlers wrote about in their letters back to Great Britain. Right next to the house itself, Woltz added a 100-foot-long pool surrounded by native New Zealand tree ferns that droop down over the water and provide shade.

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The 183-foot-long Maraetaha Bridge was designed by NBW and built to connect the original Orongo Station property to a neighboring farm that was subsequently purchased by the client. The free-span, steel-truss bridge crosses the curving Maraetaha River and creates a kind of ceremonial entry to the heart of a highly composed landscape of citrus groves that have been laid out in a series of geometric configurations. “We listened to the needs of the citrus farmers–the turning radius of their trucks, for instance–and gave the grove an artful form,” says Woltz.

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cemeteryaxon_master_med The citrus trees themselves are protected from ocean winds and salt spray by a “shelter belt” of sheared alder trees that have been clipped into 34-foot-high hedges. A long, central allée is lined with native Kowhai trees that bloom with bright yellow flowers in Spring.  As if that weren’t enough, Woltz also collaborated with Maori elders on an expansion of the 300-year-old Ngai Tamanuhiri (a Maori people) burial ground that lies to the south of the grove. “It was a tremendous honor for our design team to help shape their most hallowed ground,” says Woltz. The bridge, roadway and allée are all oriented in alignment with the burial mound.

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Woltz expresses humility and hesitates to claim full authorship of such an all-encompassing enterprise that includes formal gardens, wetland reclamation, ecological and cultural reclamation programs, as well as an integrated farming system that has become a model for sustainable land management in this part of New Zealand. NBW, led by Woltz, has recently been hired to design a 100-year master plan for Cornwall Park in Auckland. The park includes a large working sheep and cattle farm and stands adjacent to the sacred Maori site One Tree Hill, the largest of Aukland’s nine volcanic cones. “This has all been a colossal collaboration with so many different people–biologists, horticulturists, historians, farmers, wildlife experts, and indigenous peoples,” says Woltz. But he also acknowledges that it takes a single person’s eye, a single overarching vision, to pull all of the disparate parts together and turn them into such a seamless work of environmental art. “The designed landscape can become a powerful tool for telling stories of the land as it helps to promote stewardship long into the future,” he says.

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A version of this story appeared in Design Anthology (Hong Kong) , May 2014