The Bijlmermeer, the Amsterdam district for 100,000 inhabitants, is the major absentee Brutal, the atlas of brutalist architecture in the Netherlands. The five compilers probably felt that the concrete gallery flats that were built in the Bijlmermeerpolder in the years 1966-1973 were not brutalist enough. Their criterion for inclusion in the atlas is, they write, that ‘the spirit of Le Corbusier’ can be ‘recognised’ in a building. By this they mean Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille from 1952. This famous residential building with collective facilities consists almost entirely of the material that gave brutalism its name: ‘béton brut’ or rough concrete in which the imprints of the rough wooden formwork can be seen . And it’s true: although the Bijlmer flats also had collective spaces for childcare and other facilities, they are not made of cast-on-site concrete with wood grains. The gallery flats in the Bijlmer consist of concrete slabs, beams and other elements that are made in a factory and assembled on the construction site.
Yet the spirit of Le Corbusier, who once called a home ‘a machine à habiter’, is nowhere as clearly present in the Netherlands as in the Bijlmermeer. In the early 1960s, the Urban Development department of the Amsterdam Public Works Department was captivated by Le Corbusier’s ideas about urban planning. The dystopian Ville Radieuse (Radiant City), Le Corbusier’s design for an ideal city from 1930, became the starting point for the design of the Amsterdam concrete city.
And so the Bijlmer residents came to live in similar houses in eleven-storey gallery flats that stood in a honeycomb-like pattern in a park. They had to park their cars in parking garages on ‘lanes’, elevated highways that did not cross the cycle and walking paths in the park. The garages were connected to the flats via ‘dry runs’ (sky bridges). There, residents could take the elevator to one of the hundreds of meters long galleries where their spacious homes were located.
City of the past
When construction began in 1966, the municipality of Amsterdam presented the satellite city in the distant polder as ‘the city of the future’. But according to architect Tjakko Hazewinkel, the design for the Bijlmer was already outdated when it was made. ‘A city for the year 2000 that is being built according to the urban development philosophy of 1930’, he called the district. Hazewinkel was right. The Bijlmer was therefore a grand failure.
The biggest problem was that few Amsterdam residents from the pre-war neighborhoods that the municipality was planning to demolish wanted to live in the city of the future. Already in 1972, when the Bijlmer was not yet completed, there were vacancies. This increased to a quarter of the houses in 1985 and was accompanied by increasing amounts of vandalism, pollution, junkie suffering, crime and insecurity. In the second half of the 1980s, the Bijlmermeer was the largest problem district in the Netherlands. Even the Netherlands’ most famous architect Rem Koolhaas could not solve the problems. His plan for the renovation of the Bijlmer ‘while retaining its monotonous splendor’ turned out to be unfeasible. In 1992 the rigorous decision was made to demolish 60 percent of the gallery flats.
Now, more than thirty years later, they have been replaced by terraced houses and apartment buildings and the Bijlmer largely has the character of a Vinex district. But the Corbusian dystopia can still be experienced. Anyone standing west of the Kleiburg flat under the concrete metro track with its gigantic pillars is in the middle of the part that was declared a ‘municipal protected cityscape’ in 2019 as the Bijlmer Museum. On the other side of a large pond, the Grubbehoeve towers above trees and waving reeds. This renovated flat is home to the foundation that manages the Bijlmer Museum site.
Cult with tunnel vision
In words and images, the site extensively explains ‘the history of a maligned utopia’. But the Bijlmer Museum does not provide an answer to the question of how it was possible that Amsterdam built a city of the past half a century ago that had already been largely demolished in the year 2000.
Yet this is already stated in the thesis Bijlmermeer as a groundbreaking ideal from 1989 by the planner Maarten Mentzel (1949). According to Mentzel, the main cause was that the Public Works Department had grown into a powerful juggernaut during the reconstruction, when the housing shortage was considered ‘public enemy number 1’, over which the Amsterdam administrators had no control. The Bijlmer team, a group of designers headed by Siegfried Nassuth, describes Mentzel as a sect with a leader who firmly believed in Le Corbusier and tolerated no contradiction. This led to tunnel vision. For example, the team ignored studies showing that only 10 percent of Dutch people wanted to live in high-rise buildings. “All kinds of nonsensical ideas went unchallenged and were elevated to dogmas,” Mentzel said in an interview in 2018. As one of many examples of this he gave ‘dry running’. “The designers of the Bijlmermeer thought that children would play here while their parents drank coffee in a bar. But that didn’t happen. On the contrary, the inner streets and also the collective spaces gave rise to a lot of arguing.”
According to Mentzel, the Bijlmer team also had the strange idea that a house on a gallery offers more privacy than a terraced house. “In this way, extreme collectivity would go together with extreme privacy, they thought, and the Bijlmer would offer the best of both worlds. But a house on a gallery with passers-by right past your window naturally offers much less privacy than a terraced house. As early as 1970, a colleague of mine called the Bijlmer a monument to professional idiocy.”
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