Esthetiek is niet interessant. Endry van Velzen / Aesthetics doesn’t interest me. Endry van Velzen

‘The debates about the Bijlmer are so heavily charged that it is very difficult to talk about preservation and adaptation. So in my report on Kraaiennest I wrote that because of economic and political forces any call for the complete preservation of high-rise in the Bijlmer will be in vain. Not that I wouldn’t like to make the case for adaptation. But there are two problems as I see it: a social one and a spatial one. The latter is less a question of whether the buildings are good or bad than of how they are to be revitalized. This is a problem facing every part of the city, simply because the city is constantly evolving.

‘In the case of the Bijlmer it’s worth noting that a few years ago, when we were occupied with Ganzenhoef, demolishing 25% of the high-rise was considered a lot. But early in 1996 the debate was all about how 25% was nowhere near enough. These are powerful forces – hundreds of millions in subsidies are involved – and they blind us to the other debate, which I find much more interesting, namely how something like the Bijlmer can age and renew itself. So I’m not in favour of preservation pure and simple. The aim in this study and in the Ganzenhoef one, was to see how regeneration can be effected within these structures.

‘For example in the high-rise, as we found to our surprise when working on Ganzenhoef, there is a great range of commercial activity, small businesses. There is an informal economy and so on – that belongs there too. I believe you have to think of a way of making space for that. I don’t think it’s enough – although it’s very tempting – to tackle the Bijlmer on the scale on which it was conceived. What we have tried to do is think about a process of renewal, rather than about a design. That would have been impossible anyway at this stage because these were only initial surveys.

‘You ask which is more important to me, the infrastructure or the honeycombs. But I believe the Bijlmer is the perfect example of how urban design and architecture interlink. The structure is incredibly simple: you have the elevated traffic level, high-rise in the middle, low-rise on the edge, and the ground level serving as public space. But these different levels are quite unrelated, and we have tried to find a way of linking them. But at the time of the study the form this would take and the extent were not all that clear. We said: that partial demolition and low-rise, that’s obviously the way it’s to be, it’s something we can’t do anything about at present. So we’ll devise something that focuses on the question of how to facilitate local developments within that structure, and if demolition and new-build belong to that process, we can do that too.

‘The Bijlmer is a fascinating concept. And I see absolutely no need to lower the Bijlmerdreef. All over the country traffic-calming measures are being introduced, whereas here such measures have been built in. This is something that should be followed up, not reversed. But then you also have to accept the urban culture present in the Bijlmer; it’s a quality, but evidently a difficult one to discuss. Going back to Ganzenhoef for a moment, our study was enthusiastically received in 1993 but subsequently ignored. I had suggested developing a kind of market, the simplest structure that could grow and provide a place for the many cultures and grass-roots initiatives. There were those within the local authority who thought this was a fantastic idea, but there were others who were dead against it.

‘That’s typical of political debate about the Bijlmer. On the one hand it represents hard urban reality and on the other the image of a suburb of sorts is projected over that. Things impossible for a designer to reconcile. But it’s a choice that is continually in the air without ever being put into words. That ambiguity is also evident in Bhalotra’s master plan. On the one hand there is acceptance and on the other the idea that other things should be happening. Trying to reconcile the two is a complicated business.

‘I think that the Netherlands is scared stiff of the form of urbanism present here. When I was working on Kraaiennest, Edward Hulsbergen (of the town planning department at TU Delft) published a research report that compared the approach to the grands ensembles in France with that to major projects in England. Similar estates in England, such as Park Hill and Runcorn, have now been partially or completely demolished. We were there a few years ago with a group of students. You don’t believe your eyes. It’s just gone, after twenty years it’s disappeared. And a carpet of semi-detached houses sprouts up in its place. Hulsbergen compares this approach to that of the grand ensembles, where there are similar multi-cultural problems and in essence the same kind of spatial problematic. But they deal with these matters very differently in France. There they look for a concentration of functions: a college or school that has to move might be resited beside a metro station. So the ambiguity of the urbanism characterizing these areas is underlined, but at the same time given a new perspective. This is also an option in the Netherlands these days, but only for specific areas, such as around Amsterdamse Poort and the Arena stadium in the Bijlmer. The plans for something similar in Kraaiennest are very limited in scope, however, and will have little impact. So I think that in that respect the Netherlands is following the English line and is unable or unwilling to pursue the alternative route.

‘Coming back to our study, it’s more a strategy than a design. And that’s how it has been presented and there’s the risk that all sorts of things will be done with it. I have no idea where it will end.

‘But as a designer, you must be aware of your position. You can offer some things on the strength of your discipline but not others. For years debate about the Bijlmer has been dominated by one extreme position which calls for everything to be torn down and another which says that everything must stay as it is, with no cars allowed at ground level and no changes anywhere. Of course it’s unthinkable to sustain a purely aesthetic idea in this way. And that’s the problem I have with West 8’s scheme. It’s a splendid plan but very aesthetic in that it presupposes that the housing corporation will tackle 3000 dwellings at one go. In reality, all the forces are working in the opposite direction, towards fragmentation. So it’s a question of how to find a place for these forces, how to provide a framework within which they can develop. You have to resolve various points at a higher level, so as to provide a framework for change, the way they do in landscape architecture. That’s something we feel very close to.

‘So in the plan for Kraaiennest it’s important that the zone of parking garages registers as an urban zone, that the focus has been on a new relationship between those garages and the ground level. It’s fine if this means that the car is allowed onto the ground level, but it mustn’t go beyond the building line of the mounds we envisage in that zone. The zone is linked to the back road, and that makes it possible to open up high- and low-rise in clusters without building more roads. And the ground level is seen as a continuous but differentiated factor pulling together all these elements in a particular way. So it doesn’t mean carte blanche – do what you like. You have to supply a framework and not be afraid that it’s all going to fall apart at the aesthetic level. I don’t find that level particularly interesting. You move between those two extremes, which does mean dealing in nuances. And that’s evidently a tricky business.’

De belofte van een Engels park. Adriaan Geuze / The promise of an English park. Adriaan Geuze