Using the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning as a springboard, Naomi Steijger, theatre and radio director, will discuss the green areas in the Bijlmermeer with curator Eline de Graaf and landscape architect and planner Han Lörzing. This is the second in a series of podcasts entitled Green in the City.
Het Nieuwe Instituut’s archives contain a number of photographs and design drawings of the Bijlmermeer, a suburb to the southeast of Amsterdam that was developed from 1962 under the direction of Siegfried Nassuth. Landscaping always played an important role in the various design issues that the Bijlmermeer has raised over the years. This podcast investigates the sociological ideas at the basis of these green spaces, and how they were viewed by architects, urban planners and residents in later years.
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Archive Explorations: Green in the City
Since the introduction of the lockdown – a measure used to combat the spread of the coronavirus – we are more aware than ever of the relaxing and healing power of being in green spaces. The idea that ‘nature’ has a positive effect on our physical and mental health is not new: many of the green spaces in the Netherlands are based on this idea. In the series of podcasts Green in the City, part of Archive Explorations, Naomi Steijger seeks answers to the questions: how have garden and landscape architects and urban planners approached the concept over the years? What were their ideas and how do we view them now?
The Bijlmer: The City of Tomorrow
The Bijlmermeer or simply the ‘Bijlmer’, southeast of Amsterdam, is one of the largest and best-known housing estates in the Netherlands. It was promoted in the early 1960s as ‘the city of tomorrow for the people of today’. It was ‘the most modern place to live’, with residential complexes with a daring design in an innovative environment.
The design, comprising high-rise blocks situated in the midst of large parks, was intended to provide large, comfortable homes, privacy and ample greenery. The uniformity of the set-up with numerous collective facilities and a strict separation of cars, bicycles and pedestrian traffic attracted a lot of discussion. Most remarkable was the focus on green areas. Nearly 80 per cent of the Bijlmer’s design was to consist of green space, which today still play an important social role.
Although Het Nieuwe Instituut does not have an integral file on the Bijlmer, several archives in the collection contain drawings, models and photographs showing Bijlmer’s green spaces. In addition, the institute also has part of a file from Siegfried Nassuth’s archive that have not yet been catalogued. The file concerning the Bijlmermeer was not acquired following Nassuth’s death in 2005; it may have been lost.
In 1938, the Amsterdam City Council drew up a plan for the expansion of the city. The population was growing exponentially, and Bijlmermeer was seen as a potential location for new housing. But the location was not ideal, since it had virtually no connection with the city centre and was therefore fairly isolated. Cornelis van Eesteren (1897-1988) and T.K. van Lohuizen (1890-1956), the leading fugures in the Department of Urban Development, considered it impossible to integrate the area within the city of Amsterdam. The city therefore invested in bus lines and metro stations to open up Bijlmermeer. The area was modelled on the idea of the functional city, an urban planning concept that dictated a separation of traffic, housing, recreation and work, of which Van Eesteren and Van Lohuizen were fervent adherents.
The Functional City
The principles of the functional city were established in 1933 at the fourth annual meeting of Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). This collective organised a series of conferences and events between 1928 and 1959 with the aim of disseminating the principles of Functionalism and Modernism within various design disciplines, such as architecture, landscape design, urban planning and industrial design.
CIAM was a dynamic force for change and counted numerous leading architects and urban planners among its members. In 1935, on the occasion of CIAM IV, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam mounted the major exhibition The Functional City. For the first time in the history of modern urban planning, the exhibition presented a comprehensive vision of ‘the functional city’, which aimed to provide a solution to the (traffic) problems of chaotic, overcrowded inner cities. Only by separating the four primary functions of a city – traffic, housing, recreation and work – could they come into their own.
Siegfried Nassuth (1922-2005) was very familiar with these ideas. After the Second World War, he moved from his native Indonesia to the Netherlands, and studied architecture, specialising in urban planning, at the Delft University of Technology under Van Eesteren and Van Lohuizen. Their vision of urban planning and the modern city, an integral approach to the city’s most important functions, had a major influence on Nassuth.
In the early 1960s, Amsterdam City Council again began to consider an expansion plan for the Bijlmermeer and asked Nassuth to design it. He may have been awarded the commission because his former teacher, Van Eesteren, was a member of the Department of Urban Development and Public Works. Nasruth presented his plan in 1965. His starting point was the organisation of urban life and his design incorporated virtually all of CIAM’s ideas about modern living: the separation of functions (housing, working, traffic and recreation), ample space between the apartment blocks, lots of greenery in the form of large park-like landscapes, and the separation of traffic flows by an orthogonal system of elevated roads, three meters above ground level. The distinction between the privacy of the individual home and social contacts outside it was an important aspect of the plan. Contrary to individualisation and the emphasis on one’s own family, the Bijlmermeer Plan stimulated ‘the collective’ through, among other things, the use of communal facilities.
Because the Bijlmer was intended to help solve the enormous housing shortage that Amsterdam faced in the 1960s, Nassuth designed large apartment buildings of five to six storeys, arranged in a honeycomb pattern. That was not enough for the Department of Social Housing, which wanted at least ten storeys in order to accommodate more people. They and Nassuth struck a compromise at nine storeys per building.
The Importance of Green Spaces The design of the Bijlmer presented a clear view of future living. In the presentation booklet from 1964, the mayor of Amsterdam wrote: ‘Nowhere in the world has a more beautiful and more modern city of this size been built. This is the change: the most pleasant place to live you can imagine’. The communal green zones were presented as one of the main advantages of living in high-rise buildings. In the Bijlmermeer, the ratio of private to public areas was 1:9, which had never before been achieved in the Netherlands. Most of the public spaces consisted of the green zones between the residential blocks.
Nassuth, who grew up in the countryside and loved the outdoors, envisaged an ideal of living outside in the city of Amsterdam: not a city that incorporates greenery, but green spaces that incorporate a city. The blocks of apartments, each of which has a balcony with a view of the greenery, are surrounded by sunbathing areas, playgrounds, walking paths and ponds for canoeing. Motor traffic was also given its own route so that cars did not get in the way of the greenery. The feeling of freedom and the experience of nature, greenery and open space were perhaps the Bijlmermeer design’s most important ambitions, and have remained so in the successive reinterpretations and new design issues relating to the Bijlmer.
The Bijlmer after Nassuth
Due to structural social problems in the Bijlmer, such as crime and drug abuse, soon after the completion of the first buildings, the City of Amsterdam turned its attention to various adaptations and renovations. There are only fragmentary archival materials relating to these reinterpratations in the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut: the construction of 1116 housing units in Bijlmer-West by Bé Brand commissioned by Stichting Goed Wonen, the remarkable ING building ‘the Sand Castle’ by Alberts & Van Huut, models in the Jan Boon archive, a dialogue between two Bijlmer neighbours about the environment of change in the Pi de Bruijn archive, and the presentation models from the late 1970s of Paul Haffmans’ Ganzenhoef Centre.
It is noteworthy that most of these changes relate to the housing itself or an addition in the form of a sports or events hall, usually commissioned by the Municipality of Amsterdam. There is little material that shows any radical change to the landscaping. However, the archive of landscape architect Michael van Gessel (b. 1948) contains more recent examples of interpretations of the green spaces. From 2001, van Gessel was supervisor of two project areas in the Bijlmer as part part of a massive effort to rehabilitate the neighborhood. The different levels – elevated roads and underpasses – had created unsafe spaces. Where possible, elevated roads were dismantled, and flyovers were replaced by roundabouts. Entrances returned to the level where people walk and cycle. In short, the Bijlmermeer was brought back down to earth.
Parts of the Bijlmerpark were converted into a city park and some of the green areas made way for homes, partly to combat the housing shortage and partly to give the green zones a renewed social function. Part of the project area, the K neighbourhood, still consists of parkland with honeycomb flats, where the original Bijlmer concept that guided the development of the area is still visible. Here, the idea of ‘living amidst greenery’ has been preserved as much as possible, although other ideas about landscaping have emerged, such as the pursuit of greater biodiversity. The new landscaping was designed sustainably and with a more social role, for example by organising activities.
Today, the green zones are still appreciated by the residents, and are regularly cited as the most positive aspect of living in the Bijlmer, followed by the opportunities for walking and cycling without the nuisance of motor traffic. Perhaps we can say that Siegfried Nassuth’s original ideas from the 1960s have been best preserved in these green areas and the ratio between housing and greenery. In total, the Bijlmer still consists of 80 per cent green zones and public areas.
Archives and collections at Het Nieuwe Instituut that contain documents about the Bijlmer
- Siegfried Nassuth archive (inventory not yet available);
- Michael van Gessel archive;
- Jan Boon archve;
- Alberts & Van Huut archive;
- Joop van Stigt archive;
- Bé Brand en Johan Niegeman archives;
- Paul Haffmans archive.
- T. Alberts, Een organisch bouwwerk. Architectuur en spiritualiteit, Uitgeverij Kosmos, Utrecht/Amsterdam, 1990;
- D. Dekker, De betonnen droom. De biografie van de Bijlmer en zijn eigenzinnige bouwmeester (Siegfried Nassuth), Amsterdam, Thomas Rap, 2016;
- P. Mason e.a., De functionele stad: De CIAM en Cornelis van Eesteren, 1928-1960, NAi publishers, Rotterdam, 2007;
- M. van Stralen, Siegfried Nassuth, oeuvreprijs 1998, stichting fonds voor beeldnde kunsten vormgeving en bouwkunst, Amsterdam, 1998;
- F. Wassenberg, Large housing estates: ideas, rise, fall and recovery. The Bijlmermeer and beyond, Proefschrift Technische Universiteit Delft, IOS Press BV, 2013;
- De Bijlmer, een stad apart, presentatieboekje, 1966, archief Nassuth, 2016 (niet geïnventariseerd).
Online resources consulted
Green in the City: Vreewijk Garden Suburb, Rotterdam
With the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning as a point of departure, theatre and radio producer Naomi Steijger visits the Vreewijk neighbourhood in Rotterdam and talks to designers, archive experts and residents about greenery in this garden suburb. First in a series of podcasts under the name Green in the City.
Each item in the collection of the four million drawings, sketches, models, professional and personal correspondence, photos, posters and news clippings has a story to tell. But many of these stories have remained untold because nobody has yet uncovered them. For this series of evenings we invite a range of people to undertake a journey of discovery in the archive in order to introduce new perspectives.