Posts tagged modernism

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Amsterdam’s Morphology, A History

Amsterdam, today.

All cities have a unique story to tell about their spatial history. So does Amsterdam. The layout of the inner city canal ring was even inscribed on the World Heritage List by Unesco in 2010. Lately, I have been doing some research into the Dutch world heritage sites - most of the sites have to do with land design, water engineering and planning - which inspired me to look at Amsterdam’s old and new urban patterns with fresh eyes. Here is a little visual history of the city’s planning.

Amsterdam, 1538 (looking from north to south).

The pre-1600 inner city today.

Above is one of the oldest known painted or mapped cityscapes of Amsterdam, by Cornelisz Antonisz from 1538. The map is basically upside down, with Amsterdam (that evolved from a late 12th century fishing settlement) looked at from the North. The dam in the centre is now Dam Square. The city is walled (on the left side at Zeedijk and on the right at Singel). The pattern of the old city is still intact, with some of the waterways now paved.

The first big extension plan was formed in the first decade of the 17th century. Because the city was literally full after the Golden Age started, it was decided to build a canal ring around the old city and move the defence wall outward (over 1km eastwards and almost 1km to the west). The canal ring was built in two phases, one starting in 1610 and one starting in 1660.

A 1657 map showing the large canal ring extension (south side up).

The canal ring today (take a look at how green it actually is).

The first extension of the canal ring (from Brouwersgracht in the west to Leidsegracht) was a huge relief to the city, releasing the pressure on its land. It was filled up quickly with some of the richest Europeans migrating to one of the classy canals. The second extension (completing the concentric half to the east) was finished by the time the city’s immense prosperity had already started to decrease. It took almost two centuries (until around 1900) before all plots laid out were built on. De Jordaan was also part of the first canal ring extension. It was a planned segregation, with the three canals built for the rich (especially Heren- and Keizersgracht), and the Jordaan area built for the poorer workers and industries.

De Jordaan today (it is located on the very right of the 1658 map above).

The city’s economy only really started growing again in the second half of the 19th century. That is when plans for expansion were made again. The first residential bit outside of the canal 17th century extension was built in 1870 (as part of an 1866 plan than never was executed except for this part, because it turned out to be too expensive). This was the northern part of the current De Pijp area. The city expanded concentrically in these years after, according to the 1876 Plan-Kalff.

First 19th century expansion of De Pijp

The 1876 Plan-Kalff

Staatsliedenbuurt, part of the 1876 Plan-Kalff.

The next large expansions were undertaken between 1920 and 1940, consisting of Plan Zuid (South), designed by Berlage, and Plan West. These developments included a lot of Amsterdam School architecture.

Plan Zuid.

Plan Zuid today.

Plan West with the respective architects of the building blocks.

Plan West today.

After WWII, several big urban plans have been realized. Much of it, realized between 1951 and 1966 was the execution of the General Extension Plan of 1935. Most of these developments are based on early modernist ideals. 

General Extension Plan.

The functionalist Slotermeer, a result of the General Extension Plan.

The Bijlmermeer was built just before 1970 and is considered one of the most radical post-war plans in The Netherlands. Part of it has already been demolished because it turned out to be not as utopian as planned.

Bijlmermeer plan.

Bijlmermeer today.

Lately, Amsterdam turned to the water, with the KNSM-Island (1990s), Java-Island and IJburg (both 2000s) being the largest expansions. Currently, the second part of IJburg is being built. In the near future, Amsterdam wants to house the increasing population mostly by densifying the existing city.

Java- and KNSM-Islands.

IJburg (a few years ago, GMaps seems to be behind some five years).

Amsterdam, 2040

Filed under Amsterdam Berlage architecture canals history planning modernism city urbanism

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Model of INTRAPOLIS (1969)

Currently, the exhibition ARCHITEKTONIKA 2 is running at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof. It shows some great pieces from well-known names, from purely architectural visions and designs to more poetic works and photography.

I really liked this one: Walter Jonas’ INTRAPOLIS. Jonas initially worked as a painter, but turned towards urban issues. In response to seeing slums and favelas, he developed INTRAPOLIS, a concept of funnel-shaped buildings that were to create a social focus in dense urban areas. The buildings were to be 100 metres high with a diameter of up to 230 metres. They contain 700 flats, housing up to 2000 people. A basic ‘urban unit’ should consist of three of these buildings. The number could be extended.


In 1970, the West German ministry of construction and the West German national tenants’ association had the goal of constructing the buildings. The project was never realized, however, due to lack of funding.
Despite of Jonas’ preoccupation with social issues, the designs were criticized from a Jacobs perspective, saying they didn’t take into account the urban fabric and lacked diversity.


Filed under modernism visionary Walter Jonas Germany architecture Jacobs urbanism

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Rational Order vs. Spontaneousness in the Modern City

One of the best movies I have seen lately would be Play Time, a 1967 classic by French filmmaker Jacques Tati. It shows the mismatch between the modern city, modern architecture and modern society on the one hand, and human behavior on the other. It beautifully captures how people are – contrary to what modernists seem to believe – not completely rational and controllable beings, but that they have the urge to play, to be spontaneous, and to create chaos and disorder. It made me think of what Richard Sennett says about the relationship between urban design and human behavior.

Cities of progress or cities of process?
Play Time shows how architects, managers and others that plan and structure organizations, cities, and society, are constantly battling people’s need to disobey or be creative. The film is set in the 1960s, which was the era of advancement in and where everything had to go along in this progress, including cities, buildings, organizations, and people. But this is not how people instinctively want to live and how social ties, spontaneity and creativity are fostered best.

Boring monotony
Play Time starts off relatively boring and slow, which I think is done deliberately by Tati to correspond with the boring and uninspiring modern environment. In this part of the movie, people act in line with the buildings they live and work in and the technologies deployed to make everything go more efficient. People move in straight lines and make ninety-degrees turns. They all look absentminded and now and then have to battle the nature of the buildings, pieces of furniture and technologies that are supposed to make their lives easier and more productive, but turn out to be obstructive rather than beneficial. There is also very little human contact, besides the interaction that is necessary given people’s part in the system.

Time to Play
The second half of the film becomes more surprising and chaotic. That’s also where the people stop acting the way the planners, managers and architects had in mind, and where people refuse to act in an ordered manner: chaos kicks in. The chaos, in the end, cannot be controlled by the people employed to preserve the order (the waiters, the architect, the construction workers, and the police officers), but creates a festive setting in which even the previously grumpy ones start dancing and singing. That’s where the people take back control of their living environment. I would like to see the movie as a homage to the homo ludens (“man the player”), ridiculing and opposing the homo economicus (“man the rational/self-interested”). I think Tati is criticizing a society that is increasingly arranged for production and consumption, basically numbing people and obstructing in their natural behavior.

The grid
That ‘numbing’ effect of the built environment on the human psyche is something I have been reading about earlier. In his wonderful book “The Conscience of the Eye” (1992) one of my favorite sociologists, Richard Sennett, explains that the modern man has and uses the capability to remove inconvenient parts of nature in order to create a workable landscape. Because the technological capabilities go hand in hand with the ideology of business enterprise, urban design is shaped in a particular way: highly rationalized and uniform. How come? In capitalist societies, undertaking business means that things have to be commodified in order to create exchange value. In order to be able to commodify and exchange, goods have to be comparable. This also goes for land and buildings, which need to be shaped in a somewhat similar way in order to be comparable and supplementing so that they can be exchanged. An ordered, standardized physical urban pattern is the result of these mechanisms. For capitalists, it is important to divide the land and buildings in such a way, that the balance between the amount of real estate property and value per property is optimized. That is where the mastery over nature comes in, to create a gridded urban pattern in order to create equivalent commodities. So a cynical conclusion here would be that in the end, all that urban space is about, is creating exchange value. Sennett based his theory on 19th century American society and urban planning, particularly the urban grid. It can be seen in all kinds of urban environments in all kinds of capitalist societies. Older (medieval) cities are less influenced by this rational environment, because urban space was less of a ‘tradable good’ back then. I think this reasoning is definitely also applicable to other eras of urban planning that came after the 18th and 19th century, especially modernism. In modernist ideology, the belief was that everything needed to be structuralized, rationalized and efficient in order to, in the end, let the economy flourish.

Three-dimensional mindlessness
That’s why I had to think of Sennett’s theory when watching Play Time. An over-rationalized city, society or building, Sennet says, disorients the individuals that live and work in it. They cannot establish anything of real value in an endless, mindless and geometric division of space. Such an urban environment subdues and dominates individuals. At first, this was predominantly two-dimensional, but when the technology of elevators made it possible to create skyscrapers tens of floors high, it added an extra dimension to the abstract urban environment.

Sennett and Tati both in their own way argue that humans should not be confined by rationalized technologies and built environments. And if they are, creativity, joy and social dynamics simply are constrained. I couldn’t agree more.

Jacques Tati’s “Play Time
Richard Sennett’s “The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities

Filed under modernism rationality boredom play capitalism people urbanism

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Dystopic Images of the Modern City

And a series of film nights called Shadow Cities

L.A. Noir. (by Flickr user jamescastle3)

I started reading the great book “Noir Urbanisms”, in which dystopic images of the modern(ist) city are being explored and explained. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums and everything in between, the book shows how the shadow sides of our cities are being represented in media. Here’s an introductory excerpt:

"There clearly is an uncanny alchemy between dark representations and the urban experience, registered in the realm of images composed by photography, art, cinema, and architecture. For here it is that, as James Donald suggests, the familiar turns unfamiliar, the city of planning and order gives way to the unsettling influence of dark mysteries and memories. [..] portraits ranging from urban anxiety and nihilism to utopian desire, from scenes of dislocation and disposession to "warped spaces" in which the urban uncanny appears as the nightmarish crisis of the human. [..] a shadow always hung over the modernist halo. Inequity and oppression punctuated the drama of freedom on the street. The experience of immersion in the crowd produced feelings of enstrangement and routinization, and the gathering of the multitude could easily become part of the spectacle of mass society that capitalism staged. The rhythm of daily urban life might suggest a symphony, but it also spelled the boredom of routinization. The awesome promise of technology and planned futures was also terrifying. One way in which modernism expressed this terror was through the image of urban dystopia. Its dark visions of mass society forged by capitalism and technology, however, did not necessarily mean a forthright rejection of the modern metropolis but a critique of the betrayal of its utopian promise. The dystopic form functioned as a critical discourse that embraced urban modernity rather than reject it."

        -Gyan Prakash: Imagining the Modern City, Darkly.
         In: Noir Urbanisms. Dystopic Images of the Modern City (2010). 

If you like this, and if you’re in Amsterdam om April 26, you should visit Shadow Cities. Shadow Cities is a series of film nights in which the seamy sides of living in an urban environment are being highlighted. On April 26, Jacques Tati’s classic movie “Play Time”, which is set in a modernist city, will be screened and discussed. Check out the event page

Filed under shadow cities dystopia dark noir urban theory metropolis modernism

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Utopia London tells the story of some of London’s postwar architectural pieces through the eyes of their designers. Why were the structures built the way they were, did they survive the different reigning zeitgeists and how are they being appreciated nowadays?

For those of you in the Netherlands: tomorrow night the film is premiering at Shadow Cities in De Verdieping in Amsterdam. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Filed under London postwar architecture modernism architecture social housing

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So Long

Watch the slow but sure demolition of this beautiful 1968 late-modernist building in Amsterdam. It was built as a post sorting office, next to the city’s central station. From 2004 until 2008, the building was temporarily occupied by the Stedelijk Museum, small firms from the cultural industries and Club 11, the latter nested on the top floor. The demolition started in 2008. The building, plus a complex of supporting structures, had to make room for Amsterdam’s new conservatory, a large public library, high end office buildings and commercial activities.
The demolishers are performing the demolition as slow as possible, to make it hurt even more.

Before 2004


January, 2010

March, 2010

June, 2010

January, 2011

February, 2011

March, 2011

(credits: click on the pictures to see where they come from)

Filed under architecture Amsterdam modernism demolition

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The City’s Brutalist cross-patch

One of the finest examples of an architectural style we now call ‘Brutalism’, the Barbican still is an eye catcher amidst the more recent glass and steel constructions of London’s City. Not only the monotonous grey concrete slabs of the residential towers makes the development stand out. It is one of the very few exclusively housing developments in the City’s Cripplegate area, with the inner court yards forming an oasis of serenity in comparison to the surrounding streets, filled with white collar workers and commuters rushing to their offices and lunch meetings. However, this serenity was not the aim of the Barbican’s design; the 1950s perspectives envisaged bustling deck-levels and busy thoroughfares. But the plastic figures that enlivened the models of the architects never materialized: all we have today is geometry.

Geometry was certainly not a characteristic of the Cripplegate area before the Barbican redevelopment was commenced. Heavily bombed during the Second World War, Cripplegate was a disorderly wasteland of slums in the 1950s inhabited by only a few dozen. The Blitz had caused a severe loss of life in the quarter, and left most buildings uninhabitable. In 1957 the London City Council decided that the area should be extensively redeveloped. The architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were asked for the job, and they took their work seriously. Their plans envisaged the largest performing arts centre in Europe, and living space for four thousand Londoners, the rich as well as the poor. The first estates were opened in 1969.

The spaciousness of the Barbican was exhilarating when compared to the claustrophobic packed streets of the City, but spaciousness is mere space if the crowds don’t take it. To quote Lionel Esher: ‘Footsteps echo down interminable perspectives, scary after dark, and the pools and the cascades, so pretty on a drawing, feature the usual muck and scum.’ Besides, when the estates were opened the modernist ‘tower-and-podium’ ideology was already outdated; during the 1970s small lanes and esoteric short-cuts were gradually considered more suitable for the human scale. From its opening, the Barbican was heavily criticized for its oppressiveness and sombre, grey outlooks.

Today the Barbican still stirs debate. The British government put it on its preservation list in 2001, while at the same the centre was voted as the ugliest building of London. Nonetheless, the court yards of the center remain a refuge for City workers, and the vast dimensions of the development can do nothing but cause awe and amazement - written out considerations of aesthetic and livability. Also, The Barbican must be seen as the product of a time when housing development in London’s city centre was not yet solely controlled by market prices and foreign investors, as proven by the mixed social class of its current inhabitants. In this light the documentary 'London Utopia' may be a recommendation.

© Courtesy of Tim Verlaan

Filed under London The Barbican modernism Brutalism