30 Sept 2012

Self Build & the Amsterdam School

The Amsterdam School - too brilliant for words

In 2010 the new Planning Minister Nick Boles pronounced that he and the Coalition leaders did not believe planning can work: ‘chaotic in our vocabulary is a good thing’ apparently. So he must think the Coalition is doing exceptionally well. The blizzard of contradictory policies and initiatives has certainly created chaos, confusion and paralysis in the development world and would be laughable if it was not so fucking serious. It is down to a lethal cocktail of arrogance, incompetence, naïveté, cynicism, Bourbon stupidity, short lived policy wonk enthusiasms and now desperation.

Amsterdam School and oligarchy – Sheepvaarthuis 1917

Not long ago the much hyped government enthusiasm was for self build housing. Well it would be wouldn’t it - never pass up a libertarian sound bite. But as ever self build is not quite what it seems. Firstly, it does not usually mean building your own house Grand Designs style. It might mean commissioning your own house from an architect as the upper classes have always done. To Tory policy geeks, vaguely remembering John Betjeman’s celebration of English eccentricity, it is probably a new version of Essex plot lands. More sober minds envisage collective private development; sounds boring but actually has the seeds of a very good idea which takes us back to the roots of social housing.

One old colonial roué visits another – the RN at IJ Haven

We followed in the footsteps of Grant Shapps to Holland, which has led the way with self build. Dutch housing has a good reputation for design and space standards and is often cited as an exemplar compared to the dire quality of new British housing. In many ways the Netherlands is very similar to Britain: Protestantism, maritime empires, that sort of thing. It also turns out that the Dutch, like the Brits, are mortgaged up to the hilt and the housing market is at rock bottom. Dutch society has always been pluralist, accommodating very different impulses. So, on the one hand it is ordered, restrained and sober and then can be hedonistic, individualistic, vulgar and sentimental. This is reflected in its architecture, popular taste and politics.

Self Build - formerly known as The Wild West (cue Morricone)

The impetus to self build in Holland is political, as with its Tory imitators. Whilst it is tempting to see northern Europe as the model of the society we could and should become, in fact the Netherlands is going through very much the same stresses as Britain. Many politicians want to fundamentally remake the economy and society, to break the consensus tradition and the welfare state model which is no longer seen as affordable. Self build is a part of that libertarian impulse, but perhaps surprisingly championed by a Labour politician, Adri Duivesteijn. Its objectives are to foster organic growth, small scale, demand driven and personal housing – a huge challenge to the traditional approach to housing. 10 years ago a law was passed requiring a third of new houses be self build by 2040. Of course it is much harder to deliver than to dream, and especially so in the midst of an economic and housing crisis unparalleled since the war. To push forward his dream Duivesteijn became Alderman of Almere, a new town outside Amsterdam where the biggest self build experiment is now underway.

Koolhaas cool – Almere’s new shopping centre

It is a shock to get off the train 30 minutes from Amsterdam and find yourself in what initially looks like Corby. Almere was built on land reclaimed from the Zuider Zee, starting in the 70s. It now has a population of 200,000 and is set to nearly double in size. The 70s town centre is pretty grim but Rem Koolhaas has masterplanned an extension which is cool if impersonal - buildings as confident objects not especially trying to please, open streets and a market - so about as good as you are going to get from a shopping centre. In the suburb of Homeruskwartier a 100ha site has been allocated for ‘self build’. 3,000 houses are planned, divided into sub areas of about 700 houses, each area with a theme prefixed ‘I Build’; Live-work, Sustainable, Free, Garden Homes, Canal Houses, Extra, Developer. So far about half the houses have been built.

Are they insane? The house with no windows

What you will find challenges many assumptions about the built environment. There is virtually no control on design so what you get is an extraordinary cacophony of style, much that is absolute crap like crude pastiche of traditional Dutch farm houses and the inevitable International Hacienda style. Some is mad (like no windows) but surprisingly amongst all this are some really interesting and well designed houses. Plots are developed in a random way so the place is a permanent building site. The roads are laid out but there is hardly any landscaping and this on flat, sandy reclaimed land, so it looks very, very bleak. The general impression is of a wild west building site with no urban coherence whatsoever. If this is what Tory geeks have in mind for Middle England they will soon be swinging from lamp posts.

Self build in action - the future for Middle England?

Self bodge: freedom is not a licence for chaos

But there are some interesting lessons here. Firstly there is more planning than may be immediately apparent. The municipality owns the land, commissions the masterplan and provides the infrastructure. Plots are sold cheaply – about £25,000 for an average sized plot. How different from Blighty where land is ridiculously expensive, volume builders call all the shots and there is endless argument about infrastructure costs.

The sheer banality of raw individualism

The sad opposite of planning

The essential thing about ‘self build’ is that the occupier has much more control – they actually set the brief for the house they want. Often a developer will customise a fairly standard house design but many people do employ an architect who manages the construction. The absence of design control has encouraged architects to ‘rethink the parameters’ so it is mostly screamingly individualistic. The kit houses come as aesthetic relief. Despite the ‘look at me’ designs most people, we were told, are much more interested in the internal space than what the house looks like, which possibly explains why so many design concepts are so poorly executed. Interestingly, most of the new houses are small – only about 40 square metres on average, which was a surprise especially after the recent RIBA lobby. Apparently when people plan their own space they design it more economically. The other factor is that many can now only afford small houses.

iBuild (and don't get out much)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of self build is the potential for ‘club’ development, sometimes called collective private development (although ‘collective’ won’t do as a marketing tag). Collective development is where a group gets together to act as its own developer, usually for row houses or a small block of flats. Often someone with a construction background will organise the club of between 10 and 30 people and collectively they will write a brief for an architect then let the building contract. However the houses are individually owned and everybody raises their own finance. The involvement of people in designing their homes from the outset, we were told, results in much higher levels of satisfaction and pride and commitment to the local community. It is not usually cheaper –you save developer profits but construction costs tend to be higher because design is customised, not standardised. However there must be opportunities for more prefabrication and for people to fit out the shell of their new homes, which doesn’t happen much in Holland.

Ok, some interesting housing ideas here, but the street is a dog's dinner

So, despite the initial shock, there may be much to learn from self build in Almere. Certainly it is unfair to judge development that is not yet complete, especially as allegedly it is weathering the deep recession much better than the conventional builders. The visual and constructional chaos of Homeruskwartier contains the germs of some good ideas, but perhaps less ideology and more pragmatism would help to achieve a more satisfactory outcome. The lack of any control over design is actually inhibiting investment as people fear what will be built next to them. And if self builders are more interested in the interior, why make such a fetish of the freedom of vulgar external display? It is a bit like your dog pissing to mark his territory. The Dutch also excel at handsome, understated and very well landscaped suburban villas which serve as a far better model.

Ah that's better - thank god for professional and planned design

The concept of collective development goes back to the genesis of Holland’s exemplary social housing of the early C20th. With far more prescience than today’s triumphalist neo-liberals, the Dutch establishment recognised that insanitary, overcrowded housing for the working class represented a threat to their own health and security. A 1901 Housing Act provided funding for housing associations to build new model homes. Holland avoided involvement in the First World War so whilst the combatants slaughtered each other in nearby Flanders, Amsterdam was building extraordinary new workers’ housing. The famous Het Schip development was built in 1917–20 for the housing association of the dock workers’ union, which employed Michel De Klerk to meet planning requirements. He and the other likeminded ‘Amsterdam School’ of architects broke away from the proto modernism of Berlage to create an extraordinary eclectic style owing much to Arts and Crafts but expressed not as nostalgia but as a sort of organic abstraction which is startlingly original.

A brilliant school of thought - Het Schip

For De Klerk, form did not follow function; beauty was all. This led to some extreme whimsicality at times in his designs and far from sensible internal layouts, but what is so engaging about Het Schip is the way the imaginative design concepts are so painstakingly carried through. The quality of the workmanship and detailing is extraordinary, the brickwork often subtly parabolic and wonderfully executed … it is just so beautiful. Of course the development went wildly over budget. The centrepiece, now a museum to the Amsterdam School, was a post office which served an important social function as it is was here that the dock workers were paid, not in the pub as previously.

Telephone booth for the workers – note telegraph wire and insulator motif

The slightly later De Dageraad complex designed by De Klerk and Piet Kramer was commissioned by the General Workers Co-operative in 1920. It was a symbolic statement of the socialist City Council as well as the co-operative and was described as ‘a social and moral victory’ and ‘a dream in bricks and mortar’. The estate included a clubhouse, schools, library and shops and the flats were spacious, comfortable and hygienic. They were also beautiful: ‘nothing is too fine for the workers’ declared De Klerk. The designs are extraordinary with the corner elements wildly exuberant like fantastical castles – you can see where Odeon style comes from. These idiosyncratic facades and layouts had little regard for function but created a tremendous sense of place and belonging. This is a stunning achievement which shows the immense symbolic and political importance of social housing, a lesson we should be learning. Today 47% of Amsterdam’s homes are social housing, the highest proportion outside China.

Detail and civic minded architecture - back this way

Plan Zuid

The early years of the C20th were clearly a high point of Dutch prosperity, confidence and architecture. Amsterdam was growing rapidly. In 1917 a plan for a new south extension to the town was commissioned from Berlage. The Plan Zuid is a masterpiece of urban planning, taking its inspiration from the concentric canals of the C17th town to create both monumental and picturesque townscape. Three quarters of the housing was built for the working class, but it is largely gentrified today. The buildings in sombre brown brick are artfully articulated with sweeping curves, turrets and exaggerated eaves, the boulevards busy with shops and cafes and the side streets peaceful and beautifully detailed. Here you can almost see that Welwyn Garden City would have been good if de Soissons had displayed the same urban confidence, and the bricklayers had been as skilled.

Wester Dok bling

In recent decades Holland followed a very similar path to England, with Amsterdam becoming a global city of finance and tourism whilst workaday places like Rotterdam declined. The historic canal districts have been carefully preserved with much new development in the old docks along the canalised IJ, which is shut off from old Amsterdam by Centraal Station and the railway. It is difficult to characterise such huge scale development based on a short visit but impressionistically, whilst much of the new buildings are International Bland, the context and relationship to older areas and of the new buildings to each other is much more coherent than you find in British waterside regeneration. This is partly about the close proximity – like being able to actually walk to Salford Quays or Porth Teigr in 10 minutes. It is also about the much more careful consideration about how areas should be planned as communities. This is not always the case - the parade of 11 storey boxes flanking IJ-haven is dreary enough for the Albert Embankment. The monumental blocks of new Wester Dok are on a different planet from the nearby residential zones which include Het Schip. But even here there is more attention to the street, better architecture, better materials and workmanship together with imaginative uses of old buildings and piers.

Borneo Sporenburg (where Richard Rogers wants to live)

The more widely known Amsterdam waterside regeneration is the extensive eastern docks and in particular Borneo Sporenburg. Richard Rogers and other seers regard this as a model for British regeneration. Redevelopment here has been carefully planned by the City planning department. Each island and peninsula has its distinctive character and development policies. Borneo Sporenburg was one of the later phases built in 1995-2002. The overall plan by West 8 is based on a high density low rise ‘sea of houses'. Over 100 architects were involved, with design codes covering everything from the streetscape to private open space, usually a small patio or roof garden. The plan is a simple grid with largely 3 storey terraces, although the houses often have quite complex layouts, being ‘paired’ like Tyneside flats or with houses to the rear so as to allow for internal parking and some open space. There are also 2 vast flats complexes which, according to the blurb, are to ‘anchor’ the development. This could probably be more honestly translated as ‘to meet the density and social housing targets’.

Self build for lawyers and accountants – Scheepstimmermanstraat

Borneo Sporenburg is long and narrow with plenty of water frontages which lend themselves to continuous terraces, along the lines of the historic Amsterdam canals. The water is animated by dinghies and houseboats and the Dutch have a delightful habit of spilling over pots of flowers onto the pavements by their front doors, so it is all much more charming than the typically sterile British dockside housing. However the terraces can sometimes be stark and monotonous, not helped by security mesh across car parking spaces, which is certainly not very friendly. Perhaps the most successful of the terraces is the self build at Scheepstimmermanstraat, but this was done using very different rules to Almere - in fact the designs were very strictly controlled. 56 houses were individually commissioned from different architects, each conforming to overall rules derived from the traditional Amsterdam canal house. There is lots of interest in the narrow vertical rhythm of the facades, rising sheer from the water and played out with differing heights, fenestration and materials. The ensemble is convincing, certainly compared to the very much applied façade variation to a basic shell that we saw for example at Slussen (in Copenhagen). The problem is that this sort of traditional development is very expensive indeed, reputedly only affordable by lawyers and accountants.

You put the infrastructure in first, see – IJburg College and tram

IJ Haven is big

Amsterdam has a target of 25% of new houses being self build but this is unreal as only a few developments are underway. Perhaps the largest are part of IJburg, a new urban extension on a series of reclaimed islands about 8km from the centre. IJburg is big; it will eventually have about 18,000 homes, about half of which are now built. The masterplan is based on a grid said to be inspired by Marylebone. Naturally the outcome is not much like Marylebone but it does have qualities which equivalent British developments tend to lack. Firstly it is very well plugged into the city centre by a fast, frequent tram (got that Cardiff Bay?) Then the grid makes the place very legible and there is clarity about public space and private space. There are lots of public facilities - schools, colleges, sports centre, library etc and it is not dominated by supermarkets and retail parks, although strangely there are not that many shops either. It does feel like a real place but is rather lacking street life and animation, certainly compared with inner Amsterdam.

An old idea renewed: canal-side gardens 

Street activity and continuous terraces

The main islands are developed with perimeter blocks of apartments and long continuous terraces. We were told a lot of effort has gone into improving design quality but the results are pretty mixed. Some of the terraces are really pleasing, especially those along the water frontages and internal canals. Often these have gardens going down to the water with a boat moored alongside – all 15 minutes from the city centre. However the long grid blocks can be very unforgiving and at times it is obvious that corners have been cut and the results can be mean and badly maintained. There is a strong suspicion that social housing is of a generally poorer quality. Apartment blocks vary tremendously from the quite stunning to those which would be pretty much at home in any of Britain’s dire waterside regeneration disasters.

Another self building site - IJburg

Two small outer islands of the new archipelago are allocated for self build. The current state of play looks very similar to Homerusqwartier. What appears so wasteful is the low density in such a well connected location and the individualistic dreams are frankly dispiriting. There are some examples of collective self build elsewhere in Amsterdam, including an 8 storey block of flats in the Wester Dok. If self build is to really contribute to solving the housing problems of middle income groups in crowded cities and countries like Holland and England, then collective action must be the way forward and within a design framework set by the interests of a wider community and not just the individual homeowner.

IJburg housing and public space - not sure

The Netherlands has a lot to teach us about housing and urban design. However sadly at times it seems to be emulating the worst aspects of American and British development. As we left for Schipol we noticed the Mahler 4 cluster of office towers around Zuid Station, which is like a giant assemblage of Liquorice Allsorts. One of the towers looks like Fafner has been sick over it (actually it is polyester and stone). Another has diagonal slashes across its floor plates as though Fasolt had cut it up – why for God’s sake? Yet this has all been carefully planned, apparently. Amsterdam is now full of vacant offices, which the City is now trying to get converted into flats.

Social democracy and The Amsterdam School

But the Dutch tradition of careful, well proportioned, humanistic design re-asserts itself in much of what is new in Amsterdam. The quality of construction and especially the use of brick is outstandingly good, and forms a seamless continuum with the glory days of the C17th and the early C20th. This is the lesson we should be learning - the model we should be following.

Closer to home, Libertarian rhetoric about ‘getting the planners off your back’ may play well with the faithful at party conferences but the reality will not be pretty or palatable to Middle England.



Amsterdam Architecture – A Guide edited by Kemme and Bekkers is a very useful starting point to understanding the city.

Around Amsterdam’s IJ Banks by Sabine Lebesque is a comprehensive and up to date guide to dockland regeneration.

Design Quality in New housing – Learning from the Netherlands by Matthew Cousins is also a useful read.

The Amsterdam School Museum, Het Schip at Zaanstraat (22 bus) is a must see and has many publications with some English translation.


Jack Burnett-Stuart said...

Thanks for the interesting report. If you want to find out more about 'collective private development' I would recommend a visit to Berlin, where this model, the Baugruppe, has become widespread in the last ten years. It would be a mistake to expect too much of this model - it's not going to solve the housing crisis - but it definitely fills a niche and produces mainly decent buildings. Calling it 'club' housing is quite good, because the groups are socially pretty uniform, young professionals predominating. But it is, at least, encouraging to see examples of housing, which, though not perfect, have many positive attributes.
P.S. Berlin has (or had) the advantage of cheap land and a bank (the Umweltbank, actually based in Nürnberg) that was very supportive of this model from the beginning.

Grant said...

I think as well as the interesting extreme variation of design outcomes a key issue is the pre-provision of infrastructure. This current government's Chaos Theory applies to schools, hospitals, transport and social provision- in that no one understands what will happen where. Pepper potting RGF, GPF, Get Britain Building and other short term and knee jerk fundiing initiatives is chaos personified. Local councils (and RP's) could quite easily set up programmes of site prep and sell off with light touch design briefs or parameters if they were trusted with some resource and delegation of responsibility locally. Some hope with this lot!

Anonymous said...

Very intereting to get a deeply analytical perspective on Dutch new-build housing going much wider than showing only Scheepstimmermanstraat - beautiful tough it is, and which frequently makes an appearance in presentations at planning conferences.

Anonymous said...

I don't get what do you mean by "self building". Traditionally, here at least, in suburban areas anyone buys their plot and builds whatever they want there, respecting the, generally kind of not too stringent, regulations. Towns expand by laying out a grid of plots which is later "self built".

If this was not so in Britain until now, then you are a much more advanced country than you seem to imply sometimes...

Also, what is the difference between "club" building and good old housing cooperatives? Isn't people getting together and paying for some houses or flats an ages old idea of which surely there are quite a few examples in suburban England?

I have to say, though, that if this is what you mean by "self build", then it is thoroughly unaffordable, and given the high density of countries such as Britain or the Netherlands, probably will be there as well.

Anonymous said...

(I mean, look at the really mega-fucking-terrible low density suburbs of Italy and very especially Spain and Portugal...)

Anonymous said...

(Again: I hope by "self build" you don't mean this:



Jones the planner said...

'Self build' is a confusing term as I discuss in the blog but is one which is used by promoters of the idea and politicians. In Britain only about 5% of new homes are 'self build', the vast majority are constructed by big companies for sale or rent. In the Netherlands the proportion of self build is similarly very low. In both countries there is a political impetus to increase self build. The results are not always good, but then look at the poor design quality of much new housing by big companies in Britain. In Holland design is somewhat better.

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