I don`t know about you, but the image of a harbour city, with shipyards and docklands, smelling like sea and where the sirens of big ships can be heard throughout the entire day, well, all these have always been very appealing to me.
The only explanation I have is that, as a child I used to go almost every year to the Danube Delta (Romania), a place that I’ve become totally in love with and where big cargo ships were passing every day in front of my eyes, on the Danube River.
Today, I am happy to discover this – to a certain extent – here, in Amsterdam.
Although the city is no longer the most important harbour in the Netherlands (its place being taken by Rotterdam), reminders of that period have been well preserved until today, especially in the Eastern Docklands, where they have been successfully “reinterpreted” for residential purposes.
Nowadays, the main harbour activities of Amsterdam are taking place in the Western Docklands, a place that proved to be more suitable for the modern navy transport as the North Sea Canal situated there offered a better direct connection with the North Sea.
The history of the dockland area dates back to the seventeenth century, often referred to as the “Dutch Golden Age”, a time of expansion and increasing wealth, of international trade and overseas traveling.
It was also a time of war and some important national and international historical events took place here. Traces of them can still be found today. For example, the residential building “Zilvervloot” is a reminder of the Dutch victory over the Silver Spanish fleet, defeated here.
This area connecting Amsterdam to the sea was often crossed by smugglers, in their attempt to avoid paying duty on goods brought into the city. To prevent this, the city council decided to change it into a military training ground, but this turned out to be impossible.
Then it was decided to use this area near the city walls for business purposes. Several city windmills were built on newly made islands. The first three windmills, called Hope, Love and Fortune, were used for sawing wood. They are gone now, but they are still commemorated in a spectacular new apartment building in the central area of the Eastern Docklands.
Painter Rembrandt liked to stroll through this area and he made several sketches of it, so we have a good idea of what it looked like, even today. Rembrandt’s work shows a quiet, picturesque place with the developing city in the background.
Later on, in the eighteenth century, the dockland areas now known as the Eastern Islands had seen many struggles between royalists and republicans. The royalists, known as ‘the axes’, were violently subdued on a day still remembered as the ‘day of the axes’. Somewhat later the Dutch republic changed to a monarchy.
During the time of French government, at the end of the eighteenth century, part of the dockland area was used by the Napoleonic army for housing and exercise purposes. Some former barracks situated in the South of the dockland area, are now housing apartments and offices.
In the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century (between 1874 and 1927), artificial peninsulas were laid out, from where big passenger and cargo ships left to the former Dutch East and West Indies, the Americas, Africa and the Near East. This is the reason why some of the new islands were named after islands in the East-Indies, for example Java or Borneo.
At that time, the living conditions were very poor and the Eastern Docklands had been a centre of social struggle for improvement of working and living conditions. Many strikes took place during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Probably the best-known strike in Dutch history was the railroad strike of 1903, taking place in this dockland area. The strike was ended by military force, but it became a symbol for the socialist movement, becoming an influential political movement during the twentieth century.
In the hunger winter of 1917, during the First World War, the potato riots took place in this area. Many hungry people stopped the potato trains and distributed the food amongst themselves. The riots were stopped by military force and contributed to the communist movement becoming quite strong in the traditional dockworkers quarters.
In World War II, the Lloyd hotel for overseas emigrants was taken over by the Nazis and it became a torture prison for resistance fighters. Partly because of this and partly for more traditional reasons, the February strike against the Nazi occupation got a lot of support in the dockland area. After the war, the hotel was changed into a prison for Nazis and shortly after it became a youth prison. It remained so until the 1970s, when social sensibilities could not tolerate this practice any longer.
In the 1970s, the docklands were abandoned by the shipping companies and the decay of the Eastern Docklands started. Passengers traveled by airlines rather than on ships and general mixed cargo was replaced by container and bulk transport.The area had become too small for their needs and they left for new docks on the Western side of the town. The Eastern Docklands were then taken over by artists, squatters and city nomads, living in old buses, caravans, tents, huts and dens. Thousands of them created a large alternative community in the docklands. Most of the squatters left in the 1980s, when redevelopment of the area started, but many artists and houseboat dwellers have remained. The time of the squatters community has definitely influenced the present atmosphere in the Eastern Docklands.
After many years of planning and discussions, the municipality started redeveloping the Eastern Docklands. Following the concept of the compact city, it decided to build with an extraordinary high density of 100 dwellings per hectare for 18.000 people. The high density was also necessary because of the huge investment in preparing the land for buildings and the infrastructure such as bridges, roads and public transport.
The city council also wanted to stimulate private housing and luxury rented houses, hoping to prevent the exodus of higher income groups, so mixing of market and social sectors soon became the new policy.
Architectural beauty and urban allure became important criteria. And there was a widespread belief that the city needed a district, different than all other districts in Amsterdam, but with respect for the past. So, the existing harbour basins were to be preserved and existing harbour buildings re-used.
For each island an independent urban designer was invited. It was this decision that gave the area a special quality impulse. A significant part of the architectonic talent in the Netherlands, together with renowned foreign colleagues, was mobilised to create a waterfront that is almost matchless.
The new living area has now its own shape, style and atmosphere, without losing its historical traits, offering an excellent example of how you can mix past with present.
Architecture – KNSM Island
The urban design of this island was made by architect Jo Coenen. He used the old harbour scene as his reference and planned huge housing blocks, which was quite unusual in the Dutch tradition.
As an important participant in the architectural debate in Europe, he invited also foreign architects to carry out his plans. The Germans Hans Kollhoff and Christian Rapp designed the housing block “Piraeus”. Despite strong opposition, it was realised and even became one of the highlights of “Dutch” architecture after the second World War.
Next to it, the Belgian Bruno Albert, standing in a post-modern tradition, designed a building in a traditionalist style named “Barcelona.”
Jo Coenen himself added a third impressive completely round block to it and the Swiss architect Roger Diener completed the southern quay with a block, partially standing in a harbour basin.
A unique ensemble of old and new arose on the KNSM Island, as many old harbour buildings were preserved by Jo Coenen. Maybe this is his most important merit, because it constituted a breach with the practice of demolishing and then developing a completely new housing district at the time.
Architecture – Java Island
Completely different from KNSM Island was Sjoerd Soeters’ urban design for Java. Soeters preferred a newly developed district, but at the same time fitting in the Amsterdam tradition.
He applied the principles of the famous Amsterdam canal district: differentiation and unity. Every apartment there is more or less the same and at the same time a little different from the next one.
So he invited a great number of architects resulting in designs for apartment buildings with enormous variation.
Soeters was also fascinated by the phenomenon of height differences in Amsterdam, originating from the numerous small arch-bridges over the canals. So he cut the long island into four pieces and had four narrow canals dug, which of course needed a number of bridges, from big ones for through traffic, to very small ones for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Despite scepticism from the cultural establishment, with his urban design Soeters created a modern look alike of old Amsterdam with the sense of the canal district and, despite all variations, maintaing an amazingly unified street facade.
No wonder Java Island got widespread admiration.
Architecture – Borneo-Sporenburg Island
The city of Amsterdam was worried that too little families with children would move to the Eastern Docklands, considering the high rise (altitude) of buildings on KNSM and Java. So for the twin islands Borneo-Sporenburg it decided for low rise.
In an attempt to create high building density, despite the low rise, urban designer Adriaan Geuze designed special types of houses. He replaced the usual gardens by roof terraces and mini patios. Moreover, he planned three huge buildings “in the sea of low rise”, thus creating an urban setting and the desired high building density as well.
A tourist highlight is a small canal with free parcels, where citizens could build their own house and look for an architect of their own choice, quite unusual in the Western Holland.
More architectural examples in the Eastern Docklands
The Eastern Docklands have been transformed from harbour area to a lively housing, culture and recreational district.
The maintained harbour structure and the many harbour buildings that were saved create a recognisable identity and continuity with the foregoing.
This respect for the spirit of the location, in combination with the variety of new architecture and the waterfront landscape, represents the true charm of the Eastern Docklands.
Between the decay of the old port and the recent redevelopment of the Eastern Docklands, many artists moved into the area in search for affordable work space. They squatted the harbour buildings left behind by the shipping companies and used them as their studios.
The atmosphere of freedom in the half deserted area, the openness of the waterscape and the rich historical associations made the Eastern Docklands a perfect location for creative activities.
As the Dutch writer Geert Mak described it, the docklands were a rough wonderland, harbouring squatters, artists and city nomads. Many of the old artists still live and work in the area and their influence is unmistakably recognisable in the culture belt that grew on the banks of the IJ.
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Here is a video about the Eastern Docklands of Amsterdam (Oostelijk Havengebied).
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More posts about the Eastern Docklands: