F. Ottenhof

The news (January 2011) that housing association Rochdale wants to sell the block of flats ‘Kleiburg’ in Amsterdam Zuidoost for the symbolic sum of one euro, because it would be too expensive (70 million euros) to renovate, has provoked dozens of reactions. The Heemschut Society and the Bijlmer Museum Foundation have called for the flats to be preserved because, they say, the building is an important element in the cityscape and a symbol of the social ideals on which it was premised.

In the city’s cultural field an alternative transformation plan was immediately put forward. After a basic facelift, the 500 or so dwellings could be sold individually or in series. They could then be completed and fitted out by the various buyers: an entirely new flexible structure with a wide variety of users. Each ‘unit’ would exude a different aura, giving rise to a cheerfully varied housing block with the looks of a Silodam in the Bijlmer. (See a similar scheme by the architect Bas van Vlaenderen for the transformation of postwar porch-access flats).

Little mention was made, however, of the fact that a single building can scarcely do credit to the strength of the urbanistic concept on which the entire Bijlmer district is based. This ‘Stadsgezicht’ is therefore about the Bijlmer as a whole.

The urban design scheme by Amsterdam’s public works department (1956) provided for 40,000 dwellings, ninety per cent of which was to be housed in high-rise built in an ‘industrialized way’. The plan was based on the modern ideas of C.I.A.M. (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, set up in 1928). In the Bijlmer, there was a radical separation of residential, work, recreational and traffic functions, the idea being that, in contrast to large cities since the industrial revolution, this would give rise to a hygienic, green, spacious, light and thus healthy city. The strict spatial separation of functions would moreover produce a functional city. A rectangular system of raised roads was constructed, within which honeycomb-shaped, ten-storey flats were erected in green space.

However, criticism of the Bijlmer was being voiced long before its
completion. Its massiveness, uniformity and the strict separation of slow and fast traffic excited negative comment. The raised roads came in for particular criticism, because they created unsafe areas where surveillance was difficult. The spatial problems were moreover aggravated by a number of socio-economic problems and problems with the project’s realization.
For example, during construction cutbacks were made, as a result of which facilities such as lifts were scrapped. The social and ethnic composition of the Bijlmer was not as had originally been envisaged, partly because skilled workers moved to overspill towns and the streams of relocatees from the urban renewal districts came to a standstill. Moreover, when Dutch Guiana became independent in 1975, a large number of Surinamese from the former colony moved to the Bijlmer. The Bijlmer became an area where the less fortunate in society came to live.

In 1990, the district council, the city council and the housing corporation Nieuw Amsterdam launched an integrated regeneration operation in which the district was dealt with spatially, socially and as regards management. This approach was the result of a lengthy study into and debate on the future of the problematic district. It was generally recognized that the flats should be demolished and replaced by new-build so that greater variety could be introduced in the housing market (more owner-occupied dwellings) and in the building development. The aim was to create vibrancy, urbanity and greater public security by, for example, providing commercial space in the flats, by creating new urban centres and by reorganizing the public space.

Now, urban renewal is everywhere in evidence: the avenues have been lowered, flats have been demolished and replaced by new-build and there is greater variety in the development. As a result, the radical break with the original ideas of the Bijlmer’s designers is also clearly visible. The modern vision is gradually giving way to new urban design visions. As the first area to be completed, G district serves as a model for the entire renewal operation in the Bijlmer. When this operation is complete, the Bijlmer will be a fully-fledged city district, but not full grown. By that time, a collage of urbanistic ideas will have evolved in the Bijlmer, which will also be a collage of ideas about the city.

Perhaps Kleiburg will become a symbol of the spirit of our age and will epitomize creative thinking in difficult times. (ARCAM/BU)