‘No project in this country has ever led to such heated discussion from the very outset as the Bijlmer. When we began in 1993 there had been studies made for something like twenty-one years, from giving the blocks a coat of paint to the most radical interventions.
‘At the beginning of the 1990s there were masses of protest groups and resident associations. The Project Group for Bijlmermeer Renovation was set up then. In those days there was an important adviser: Dirk Frieling. Frieling’s significance has been in getting a provisional renovation programme set up. Its proposals included demolishing Geinwijk and Gerenstein and lowering the Bijlmerdreef, the traffic-way between Gooiseweg and Ganzenhoef metro station. That second proposal was a variant of an OMA study which elevated the Bijlmerdreef to the development axis for the entire Bijlmer. I can accept this in a dilapidated area like Ganzenhoef, but then the reduction in height should continue as far as Bijlmerweide in the east. You can’t just stop and then resume high-rise in another dilapidated district.
‘Then, in 1993, five urban designers – De Nijl, Maurits de Hoog, Teun Koolhaas and Francine Houben and myself – were invited to develop an urban plan for Ganzenhoef, a district in the Bijlmer. One of the points in the brief was that there should be mainly low-rise, owing to the differentiation in supply and also ‘because the housing market wants something else for once’. Geinwijk and Gerenstein had been nominated for demolition. Geinwijk suffered tremendously from the junkie problem spread over the whole of Ganzenhoef. The problems in Gerenstein were so out of control that the rents could no longer be collected. That was the reason for demolition; the flats had to go because of social conditions and financial losses, nothing to do with planning.
‘Eventually, our proposal was selected. We had tried to approach the set of problems as subtly as we could. We didn’t just say: raze the lot and then add some low-rise, we had developed a differentiated programme of high-, mid-, and low-rise that could be integrated in the existing situation. This included partial demolition on the grounds of planning principles, not social considerations. The housing associations simply scoffed at this idea, and would have much preferred to demolish the flats the very next day; away with the vacant properties and social problems. Then I arrive with my planning principles. A remarkable situation developed. The owner of the flats (Nieuw Amsterdam) was all in favour of widespread demolition, but the district council took a more considered standpoint and Amsterdam went even further. They said you can’t demolish such an important residential area just like that. Eventually they concluded that it was indeed worthwhile considering the possibility of partial demolition.
‘Then we developed this plan of green and white strips. The white strips are built-up zones, the green ones are greenery. Why did we do that? Well, we analysed the high-rise and decided that the blocks square to the traffic-ways were consistently well-poisitioned in terms of sunlighting, position and access, and the oblique sections were by turns badly or acceptably positioned. So there are three possibilities: complete demolition, partial demolition and retaining the lot.
‘The system was devised in such a way that it could be applied to the whole of the Bijlmer. The green strips aid orientation in the district; they give the honeycomb configuration a new structure. At the same time, they serve as a minimal reservation for greenery. This, then, together with lowering the traffic-ways and removing the parking garages, is the fundamental intervention in Ganzenhoef.
‘I made drawings that prove these measures transcend the level of Ganzenhoef and could be continued right through to the Bijlmer’s centre. When I suggested this, there proved to be no way of sustaining it. Politically there was no inclination to deal with the Bijlmer at such a fundamental level. Then they marked out a limit to the planning area, effectively fencing it in. It was something like saying: get back to your corner. The project leader, Igor Roovers, had already been assigned Ganzenhoef as a sub-operation. The urban plan was now tied in with this. It’s a curious boundary: the blocks damaged in the plane crash, initially inside the planning area, were moved off limits, because that was a political issue. Gooioord was also withdrawn, because it gave no trouble. Just for the record, it’s thanks to the efforts of the project leader that the concept has kept its identity so well for so long.
‘The major fear at that time was monotony, which many felt was the Biljmer’s undoing; there was concern that our new ‘design layer’ which addressed the Bijlmer as a whole, would ring in a new wave of monotony. That this might lead to greater variety instead seems to have escaped notice.
‘Then we expressed the desire to develop a planning principle, a testing framework to think through the scheme in detail beforehand. All this went ahead. I was then appointed planner and later supervisor for the fleshing out of this area.
‘In Kraaiennest things took quite a different turn. There it was already differentiated at the planning level: three planning ‘explorations’ by West 8, Pi de Bruijn and De Nijl were welded into a single plan. The politicians are crazy about it, it’s something completely different: West 8 kept the honeycombs, De Bruijn did the densifying, and Van Velzen (of De Nijl) dealt with the demolishing and slotting in.
‘It was at this time that Ashok Bhalotra was brought in to develop a master plan for the entire area. The district council wanted a master plan, but one in which different planning concepts could coexist. So Bhalotra was commissioned to tie the lot together again, because they decided it was important after all to have some sort of cohesion. This master plan has yet to be presented.
‘What I find interesting is that with all these schemes the problem of old meets new rears its head again and again. What happens if you go ahead and demolish? Do you put something new there or do you try to integrate the blocks? And what’s your attitude to the existing blocks? Because if you place low-rise in between, you get funny looks, they tell you that the high-rise has become second-rate. So the high-rise has to be just as interesting as the low-rise.
‘We have opted to tackle this design problem methodically, to choose a concept that gives more than one possibility. And then in two ways: In the public space system, the green strips sustain the dialogue between old and new. In the built development system, it’s done with a series of eight-storey apartment buildings placed between existing eleven-storey blocks of flats and less-tall, five-storey development, encouraging dialogue between the new apartment building, the existing honeycomb ensemble and the whole district. Erick van Eegeraat has made an intriguing study that adds something to the system too. Unfortunately his proposal was too expensive, so it fell through.
‘Our choice, then, was for a mix, we were first with this idea and our scheme will be the first of the neighbourhoods to be built (it was fixed beforehand what had to be demolished and what had to stay; provisional departure-points also obtained for the lowering of the Bijlmerdreef and the percentage of low-rise). Because we introduced the new typologies like the ‘up-down’ dwelling, the dialogue between high- and low-rise, apartment buildings and single-family houses has come to be seen in a completely new light. Although we didn’t manage to secure partial demolition, I’m pleased with our achievements: we’ve added 300 dwelling units more than were required and out of the total of 1400, no more than 40 or 50% are single-family units.
‘As far as the rest of Bijlmer is concerned, I can’t help wondering about the outcome if all those solutions are applied. Of course it’s interesting to give different ideas a try, but now there’s the danger of bits of this and that left lying around haphazardly. That’s too fragmented by half. As for an overall view, it’s nowhere to be seen.’