Way back in 2005 we visited a snow covered Amsterdam to report on the newly redeveloped Eastern Docklands for Ulster Architect. The following year historian Jaap Evert Abrahamse published Eastern Docklands District Amsterdam: Urbanism and Architecture. He summarises, “The transformation of the Eastern Harbour District in Amsterdam was completed in 2003. More than 8,000 dwellings have definitively taken over from hangars, transhipment installations, rails, contains and goods trains. All of the Netherlands’ top architects have built here, as well as a large number of renowned foreigners.” So a revisit is long overdue. Particularly on a breezily sunny day.
Just about every city with a river running through it seeks to capitalise on its docklands with varying degrees of success. Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Cork, Dublin and Düsseldorf have all jumped on the bandwagon. Planning students of the late Nineties were treated to lectures and tours on the topic. The Netherlands, the country that gave us Van Dyke and Van Gogh and Van Rijn, now gives us fine art of another kind: housing.
Oostelijk Havengebied, the regenerated Eastern Docklands of Amsterdam, is built on four slim former island wharves. A €10 ride from Centraal Station, each island, or rather peninsula, is planned as a neighbourhood relying on an urban design strategy to provide a sense of local identity. Density averages 100 dwellings per hectare. If that all sounds like, well, first year undergrad palaver, go see the results. This is town planning progressing beyond glossy booklets and pushy press launches.
First, there’s KSNM Island. The initials stand for the Royal Dutch Steamship Company, the previous occupier of the site. It now accommodates 1,250 dwellings. Rows of harbour scale apartment blocks straddle the quaysides. Cars are confined to an arterial route which dissects the central strip of parkland. The plan is a result of collaboration between Amsterdam City Council planners and architect Jo Coenen.
Next comes Java Island, a former industrial area. It’s mixed use now: 1,350 dwellings and 500 square metres of commercial floorspace. Architect Sjoerd Soeter’s plan is like a photo negative of KSNM. Quayside roads encircle a cliff face of nine storey blocks that soars above pedestrian friendly courtyards.
Borneo Sporenburg is the third island. It’s really a pair of interconnected peninsulae linked by call girl red pedestrian bridges designed by Adriaan Geuze. A former railway shunting area, it has been engulfed by a sea of 2,500 three storey houses and apartments interrupted by three high rise blocks. Again, the public sector collaborated with private consultants, this time Rudy Uytenhaak and Adriaan Geuze and his firm West 8. The smaller units are designed by hip architects like Bjarne Mastenbrock, Christian Rapp, Dick van Gameren and Heren 5.
Hoop, Liefde en Fortun is one of the three high rise pieces of architectural eye candy. Designed by Rudy Uytenhaak, it’s a cascading ski slope of a building, clad on the north side with a gargantuan hole punched Norwegian marble screen produced in cooperation with the artist Willem Oorebeek. This multipurpose block is named after three windmills that once occupied the site: Hope, Love and fortune.
Anglo Swedish architect Ralph Erskine who died earlier this year could easily have had Borneo Sporenburg in mind when he wrote, “Architecture, like the shaft of an axe, must beautifully and precisely symbolise its own good reasons for its necessary existence. Insight and sincerity will tell you which reasons are good.”
Amsterdam has the funkiest street names of any European capital. You don’t have to spend the afternoon in a brown café either to appreciate them. Try Kattenburgerstraat, Regulierdwarstraat and Voorplein Spaarneziekenhuis for a start. Borneo Sporenburg continues the trippy tradition. Scheepstimmermanstraat is the name of the main drag. Lined with domestic temples to Mondrian modernity, it’s become something of a household name in planning circles.
Architect Sebastian Kaal from Dick van Gameren informs us, “West 8’s masterplan called for three storey terraced units. This usually results in a streetscape dominated by parked cars. Here the section has been reversed to create an internal street with garages. Patios have been slung on top of the garages so that even the north facing houses can enjoy the sun.”
Each plot is 30 to 50 percent void. Juliet balconies, car lifts, courtyards and roof gardens … they’re all here. Plots are a standard 16 metres deep, 4.2 to six metres wide and a maximum height of 9.5 metres. A delectable Dutch trend – that of impossibly high ground floor ceiling heights – is adhered to. Even the leggy Dutch moving around in their living quarters framed by double height windows look like The Borrowers.
Dick van Gameren has punctuated the corner of Scheepstimmermanstraat and Stuurmankade with nothing short of a translucent on white visual exclamation mark. Drawing on simple geometrical forms in a far from doctrinaire manner, coloured glass modules suspended mid air increase the cubic capacity of the apartments without encroaching on the footprint.
Innovative design is matched by avant garde materials. Take Kavel 37 on Scheepstimmermanstraat, designed by Heren 5. It lifts the Dutch townhouse to a whole new level, taking the concept of an Amsterdam vernacular and blowing it out of the water. “The rusted steel façade is in harmony with the surroundings of brick and the former harbour identity,” explains architect Jan Klomp. “Transparency and bringing the daylight inside is typical for Dutch canalside houses and also for Heren 5.” Glass floors in the upper apartment allow daylight to flow down to the ground floor and illuminate the entrance from above.
We spoke to Aaron Betsky, the recently appointed Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, about his views on Borneo Sporenburg. The former Architecture and Design Curator of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, Aaron is one of the big players in contemporary design discourse. His CV – architect, author, critic, curator and lecturer – has guaranteed him that position.
“As Director of the NAI, I oversee and coordinate the many different aspects of this active centre for architecture,” he says. “It’s the second largest architecture museum in the world and is the archive of all Dutch architecture post 1800.” Meanwhile, Aaron’s literary output includes: The Best Buildings by Young Architects in the Netherlands, Experimental Architecture in Los Angeles, Why Dutch Design is So Good, Zaha Hadid The Complete Buildings and Projects. The list goes on, 40 Amazon.co.uk hits to be precise.
Born in Montana USA, but raised in the Netherlands, Aaron reckons, “There’s no one correct way to approach docklands regeneration. Given the situation in the Eastern Docklands, this was a very inventive and productive planning strategy.” He believes, “West 8 have tried to make the new look familiar and the familiar new which is exactly what architecture should do. Many of the compositions, materials and proportions are based on traditional Amsterdam housing types, but they have opened up, recombined, slid apart and otherwise messed with them, to allow completely new constellations of living to appear.”
“The building at the end of island by Dick van Gameren,” Aaron confirms is his favourite. “I especially like the way the whole is decomposed into the open spaces of the River Ij. But it’s the variety, rather than one particular building, that is the great contribution of Borneo Sporenburg to the city of Amsterdam. The point is that all the buildings play with Dutch variations and discover new spaces within very tight economic and physical straitjackets.”
Is it perfect? Not quite. “I would have made the streets of Borneo Sporenburg less strong. As built, they tend to become wind tunnels that overemphasise the traditional 19th century slum layout that is the point West 8, I believe, were trying to make.” Finally, we ask Aaron if he would like to live in Borneo Sporenburg. “Absolutely!” he exclaims. “Especially if I could afford a house designed by Masterbroek or Van Gameren. What about Jan? “Oh yes, I’d like to live there. Along the watersides would be great.”
In 2023, Scheepstimmermanstraat continues to be the standout street in the Eastern Docklands. It is aging gracefully: the private amenity spaces of the 60 freehold adjoining sites are well used and planted. A couple descend from their canalside living quarters in the middle of the terrace into a speedboat for an afternoon’s riding the waves of the River Ij.