‘It is important to re-member that after the war, none of us (administrators, urban planners and other experts, as well as the general public) were mentally prepared for the major developments which were to take place in the course of the fifties. I’m referring to the enormous growth in prosperity, the decrease in the physical work load and in working hours, and the in-crease in mobility.
‘As a result, the sweeping changes that took place in the quite brief period between 1955 and 1970 may have brought awareness of the fact that times were changing, but failed to give shape to that awareness. And, when it looked as though that shape might have been found, the energy crisis of the early seventies put an end to all kinds of developments, and ushered in the expectation that things could only get better. In that way, awareness of the limits to growth clashed with actual developments in the construction industry, which simply continued. The whole history of the Bijlmermeer should be seen in that context.
‘The building of the Bijlmer is an example of the expansion at all levels then being continued along the lines Le Corbusier had drawn up for the organizating of large metropolitan settlements. The form was well conceived technologically, but was never properly attuned to the needs. For instance, the division into modes of transport was discussed (in 1959-1964) at a time when the Dutch still had limited mobility. And the idea of concentrating occupants in large blocks surrounded by plenty of open space brought about management problems.
‘The latter can be traced back to the intrinsic contradiction in Le Corbusier’s ideas. He was very far advanced in technical matters, but utterly conservative in a social sense. The social model for his plans for Paris was the French middle class of his day, complete with servants, concierges and other staff. The planners of the Bijlmer (including the Public Housing Agency where I was working) followed his example, concentrating on a technically advanced concept, without properly addressing the social consequences and the organizational and financial effects on management.
‘The force of the urbanist ideal does, of course, relate to that of socio-economic and politico-cultural ideals. Why aren’t we managing to solve the employment problem in the Bijlmer? Why do all investments seem to be geared to eliminating losses incurred in housing exploitation rather than to reducing the annual amount spent on unemployment benefit?
‘As for the radical nature of the original Bijlmer set-up, I’m inclined to say that the more one-sided the original concept, the greater its chances of survival. That’s logical, because the more an idea registers as an all-in scheme, the more likely it is to contain the germs of a regression towards ineffective compromise. Seen in that light, it’s interesting to ponder whether the latest adaptations represent the destruction of an old ideal, or a process of maturation facilitated by the original set-up.
‘It’s a pity that the consequences for management weren’t thought through in the Bijlmer – technically and transportwise as well as socially and economically. That’s why it still doesn’t tally. Although I’m the first to admit that what is currently happening represents a boost for the Bijlmer, I’ve always regretted that forward thinking only really got going for the Bijlmer once the decision had been taken to pull down a quarter of its high-rise. This was inevitable, though, as those responsible for managing the high-rise for twenty-five years had thrown in the towel.
‘I was, and still am, of the opinion that the Bijlmer’s problem is not the housing, but the non-functioning of the subcentres, the ghastly indoor car parks and disastrous shopping centres beneath roads that are much too low. Traffic should be at ground level in those centres, to my mind. It was providential that Louis Genet, who was the alderman for public housing at the time, supported lowering part of the Bijlmerdreef, against the wishes of the City Development office and the district council. I see that as the true breakthrough in the regeneration process.
‘One reason for the Bijlmer’s failure is that the technical concept has never had an administrative form to match, and it seems as though, even now, no-one is really interested in finding one. Yet a strategy giving the private sector more land would have greater management capacities and greater chances of survival, whether we’re talking about housing or public space.
‘The main problem is that a district intended for middle-class families is occupied by people regrettably on the breadline. So, how can that group be elevated economically into the middle class? I once suggested selling land in certain parts of the Bijlmer, especially areas where the traffic-ways are half-raised, rather than leasing it. It would provide scope for a process of development such as that found in the Third World. Of course, no-one wanted to discuss it, because small-scale industry is just not welcome.
‘Another poignant example relates to the needs of the many different religious groups in the Bijlmer. There is a gulf, one that fills you with despair and helpless rage, between the fixation of all involved on material problems and the refusal to see the living, biological, spiritual side of the Bijlmer. All the religious groups usually want is to rent space. But they’re sent from pillar to post, partly because the civil authorities abuse the division between church and state to thwart these groups. I suspect some community workers of fearing for their own jobs.
‘For me the Bijlmer is a fantastic project, one that demonstrates all the problems, needs and opportunities of modern metropolitan life. You could say it’s a major stumbling block that the form it’s been given is one we have failed to interpret socially. Isn’t that a good thing, in retrospect? I’m ambivalent about it. I do agree that a permanent stumbling block can help to clarify matters, but it’s my impression that in this case it’s having little effect.
‘Even today the Bijlmer still contains a promise of happiness. Again, in retrospect, I’m not pleased with the way things have gone. Untold suffering has been caused and hundreds of millions of guilders have been thrown away, all quite unnecessarily. It’s a major social disgrace, one we are all guilty of – designers, civil servants, administrators, as well as those involved in a social, cultural and economic capacity.
‘Perhaps regional development will provide fresh opportunities. It’s interesting that they still haven’t found a balanced administrative relationship, either between Amsterdam’s districts or between the City of Amsterdam and the surrounding municipalities. Now it’s the role of the districts that’s being reduced. In that respect, I’m in favour of turning Amsterdam-Zuidoost into a new, independent municipality, like Amstelveen. Just imagine, a municipality with 100,000 inhabitants and 40,000 jobs, a university hospital and soon a fantastic centre.
‘If Amsterdam-Zuidoost were to become a new municipality it would be the first one in the Netherlands with a primarily non-Dutch population. It could have the first black or Muslim burgomaster. I think it would be excellent for the Netherlands, if only to bring home to a whole bunch of people what is actually going on in this country.’