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.
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.
One 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.
On 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.”
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 master plan. “We are used 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
A version of this article first appeared in Design Anthology, Issue #3 (Hong Kong)
* As quoted in: “This Floating City May Be the Future of Coastal Living,” Noah Rayman, Time, June 26, 2014.