Monday, July 11, 2016

A Review of Atelier 4's "Let's dense"

“Answering the question of how the old historic city can continue to adapt in order to play a significant role for current and future generations” (Forever Young). Such was the main focus for Forever Young one of 12 installations sponsored by Volksvlijt 2056, a project that envisions the economic possibilities of Greater Amsterdam’s future. Forever Young, a project of 180 students from the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture, “was organized as a competition in which students work[ed] together on one design” (Forever Young). One such group, Atelier 4, was comprised of 11 architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design students. Atelier 4 was challenged to redesign Amsterdam’s Haarlemmerbuurt district in a way that would “interpret and use the existing space anew” (Forever Young).

 Figure 1. Haarlemmerburt. Source: Google Maps

Their finished project, “Let’s dense,” started with a consideration of what the Haarlemmerburt neighborhood currently looks like. According to Atelier 4, “prices for existing spaces are at least 4,500 euro per square meter and this figure is increasing by 10% each year” (Atelier 4). Amsterdam, like many European cities, was originally built for a much smaller population. As a result, housing is cramped, small, and very, very expensive. Atelier 4 and the whole Forever Young project as a whole were not satisfied with the government’s plan to increasing housing outside the city, stating that they “believe the city is for everyone and that every inhabitant, new or old, should have the chance to buy or rent wherever they want within the city” (Atelier 4, my italics). Wherever is a strong word, but at least in the Haarlemmerburt neighborhood, Atelier 4 has a solution.

 Figure 2. Atelier 4. “Let’s dense.” Forever Young, Winter School 2016.

Figure 2 demonstrates Atelier 4’s solution to merge old and new. At first, the model is somewhat confusing; not only does their model include the “new” buildings they propose to build (the brown buildings) but their model also includes the currently existing canal houses, in white. The reason for both shapes is because Atelier 4 recognized the value of Amsterdam’s old facades, “beautiful canals and buildings, and UNESCO world heritage status” (Atelier 4). Some of Amsterdam’s canal houses date back to the 1500s. This history is a part of Amsterdam’s culture, and proposing to remove the admittedly cramped housing and replace it with more modern structures (though I’m sure such a proposal has been made at some point) in order to create more space in the city would probably have been met with varying degrees of scorn. So, to give their project a fighting chance, the artists of Atelier 4 didn’t. Instead, they proposed that “the typical Amsterdam city block should be modernized without losing its original character: behind the skin there are possibilities to create an entirely new structure and an entirely new collective inner-city block” (Atelier 4).
In the models for their “Let’s dense” proposal, Atelier 4 maintained the heart of Amsterdam. Part of what makes Amsterdam so special are these facades; they are the buildings where Rembrandt painted, where the East India Trading Company was brainstormed, where the first stock exchange was founded. They are buildings that are tied to Amsterdam’s history, and removing them would be hard for most if not all Amsterdammers to swallow.
Replacing their interior, however, is probably a little more manageable. Certainly, I am not suggesting that all Amsterdammers would immediately support this idea, or even that the majority would, but Atelier 4’s model proposes something new that forces the citizens of Amsterdam to think of what they value in their city and to evaluate space compared to history. Atelier 4’s proposal solves the problem of space without completely destroying the importance of history. In this way, their project is a success.
It is an admittedly small-scale proposal, at least for the first step. Atelier 4 parsed the Haarlemmbuurt neighborhood into an even smaller section (Figure 3 and 4), and then created designs for only one street (Figure 5 and 6).

 Figure 3. Atelier 4. “Let’s dense.” Forever Young, Winter School 2016.

 Figure 4. Section of Haarlemmerbuurt. Source: Google Maps

 Figure 5. Atelier 4. “Let’s dense.” Forever Young, Winter School 2016.

Figure 6. Haarlemmerstraat. Source: Google Maps

Figure 5 depicts the two streets Atelier 4 focused on, shown more clearly on the map in Figure 6. Other than the facades, the only structure that would remain is Posthoornkerk, a church built in 1860. Additionally, Atelier 4 also did not attempt to change the structure of the streets, stating “by preserving the special and functional structure of the streets and facades, the urban and cultural heritage characteristics are safeguarded” (Atelier 4).
Theoretically, the Haarlemmerstraat block would be the first step and, if the project was successful, this idea would stretch into the rest of Haarlemmerbuurt and beyond. However, Atelier 4 fails to consider a few important social considerations that, while their project is interesting, ultimately makes their proposal a failure.
One of the largest problems Atelier 4 fails to consider is what would happen to the current inhabitants of Haarlemmerstraat during the project. Certainly, these residents would not be too pleased to be displaced for the duration of the construction and, as Atelier 4 so eloquently argued, there is no space in Amsterdam anymore, so it’s not like they could temporarily move to other apartments within the city limits. Though Atelier 4’s project would eventually help solve the problem of space, they would (temporarily) create an even bigger problem of space in Amsterdam, and they do not have a proposed solution for the problem they would be creating. This lack of foresight is a fundamental weakness in their proposal.
Another weakness is that, in their model, Atelier 4 failed to mention how many stories the new buildings would be. In the full model, the two buildings are actually different heights:

Figure 7. Atelier 4. “Let’s dense.” Forever Young, Winter School 2016.

This inconsistency begs the question: exactly how many stories would each building be? If the goal is to maximize space, then presumably they would add as many stories as possible. However, at what point does the project transform from a project to increase housing in Amsterdam to a corporate project? If large, skyscraper-esque buildings are built in Haarlemmerbuurt, does that not risk that corporations are going to want to move in and create their offices there? And, even if that does not happen in Haarlemmerbuurt, would corporations not take the Haarlemmerbuurt project as a signal that they could do this elsewhere in Amsterdam? What’s stopping Amsterdam from becoming a city of skyscrapers with three-story-tall ancient facades?
A simple solution to this problem could be an imposed maximum building height, such as in Paris where, until 2010, buildings could not be more than 121 feet tall. This prevented skyscrapers like the Tour de Montparnasse (the building that sparked the restriction) from taking over Paris; Atelier 4 could propose the same thing in Amsterdam if they were concerned about a potential rise in the Amsterdam skyline. Yet their proposal does not include height restrictions or even proposed heights for their buildings. Like the question of resident displacement during the program, these flaws are just lack of foresight and planning on Atelier 4’s part.
Overall however, the project tackles the problem of living “inside” vs “outside” of the city in a compelling way. Living in a city like Amsterdam or Paris is often a question of wealth, but with the apartments Atelier 4 is suggested, maybe others would get the chance to move in. While the proposal does not address social changes and problems that would be caused by their project, as a beginning architectural plan, it is not only well done but very interesting. Atelier 4 thought outside the box, and their solution is exciting and original.

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