Het Oostelijke Havengebied in Amsterdam. Drie ontwerpen voor de Javabrug / Amsterdam’s Oostelijke Havengebied. Three designs for the Java Bridge

In February the city council will decide which bridge will become the umpteenth architectural drawcard in this new residential district.

With master plans by Jo Coenen (KNSM island), Sjoerd Soeters (Java Island) and West 8 (Borneo/Sporenburg), realized designs by Hans Kollhoff, Wiel Arets and Jo Crepain among others, and still-to-be-built plans by such architects as Steven Holl, Willem Jan Neutelings and Diener and Diener, the Oostelijke Havengebied is becoming an increasingly rich showcase of design concepts. In all the euphoria this has occasioned it is sometimes forgotten that the area is also a fiercely contested battleground for local authority services, such as Physical Planning and Land Ownership, project developers, housing corporations, supervisors and architects. A tour of the various schemes allows a glimpse of the battle.

Perhaps the scheme that has emerged most intact from this struggle is KNSM Island, complete now but for one project. This final project is also the most curious. For a long time there was talk of surrounding Jo Coenen’s large-scale, circular apartment building at the eastern end of the island with a string of luxury villas, dubbed ‘pearls’. There was great relief when no buyers could be found for them and it looked as if these misplaced elements had disappeared from the master plan. Alas, the pearls are now suddenly resurfacing, albeit even more incongruously, in the guise of semi-detached houses. Time will tell.

Java Island (see Archis no. 1, 1994, pp. 44-51) is in the full flush of development. The construction of the eight-storey-high north wall is proceeding steadily. The first residents have already moved into projects designed by Kees Christiaanse and Geurst and Schulze. The ‘picturesque’ canals that divide the island into five segments and are intended as an extension of the Amsterdam canal pattern, were dug at the beginning of the development process but temporarily covered over so as not to hinder the builders. The size of the buildings already erected fuels the scepticism of those who have always opined that Soeters had allowed himself to be saddled with too high a density.

On Borneo/Sporenburg (see Archis no. 2, 1995, pp. 38-51) the battle has claimed a few casualties. Though the basic idea of achieving high density with low-rise patio dwellings has been retained, the number of participating architects has been reduced even as the size of individual projects has grown. Whereas the original plan consisted of numerous small projects, for example for five houses, the average project size is now some six times larger. Financial considerations have put pressure on the original ideal of creating diversity and the losers have been architects like Xaveer De Geyter, StÇphane Beel, the Jonge Architecten Atelier, Tangram, Marge and Faro, whose projects have disappeared from the master plan.

In order to avoid the various docklands projects from competing with one another, planning is kept flexible. A delay on Java Island translates into a postponement in the planning for Borneo/Sporenburg. Here some 650 of the 2150 projected dwellings have been sold and/or are under construction; the rest will be put on the market in the course of 1997. This slow-down on Borneo/Sporenburg in turn means that for the time being nothing much is happening with Diener and Diener’s project for the transitional area between Java and KNSM Islands (see Archis no. 9, 1995, pp. 5-7). Dwellings must be brought on to the market a few at a time.

Finally, there is still Willem Jan Neuteling’s design for a shopping centre and residential tower block on the Oostelijke Handelskade, which won a competition in 1994 (see Archis no. 4, 1994, pp. 2-5). According to the original planning, the shopping centre should have been built already but the reality is that construction will not get under way before January 1997. Here, too, delays in other projects make themselves felt. Construction is put on hold until the shopping centre is assured of a sufficiently sound economic basis. Tough luck for the early residents.

The first Java Island residents have also been hampered by the temporary lack of a decent link with the city centre. At present the 1200-metre-long island can only be reached via the connecting dam right at its eastern tip. This, however, is set to change; the western tip is about to get its own link to the mainland. The Java Bridge will halve the distance to the city centre. From a traffic management point of view it makes sense to have the bridge connect up with Kattenburgerstraat. However, on the quay opposite the end of this street stands the Willem de Zwijger warehouse, an object preservationists were keen to retain. The solution to this dilemma is striking: it was decided to overshoot the quay and run the bridge straight through the warehouse. Another important precondition was that two sections of the bridge should be jointed to allow free passage to sailing ships during traditional Sail events.

The City commissioned three architectural offices to produce a design for the 279-metre-long Java Bridge: Verburg Hoogendijk, Quist Wintermans and Bureau Venhoeven. The three practices came up with totally disparate designs. In limited competitions, it is always a moot point whether this should be considered an advantage or a disadvantage. On the one hand it enables the client to make a clear-cut choice, on the other hand one wonders whether they should not have anticipated this choice at an earlier stage.

In their presentation book, Verburg and Hoogendijk show how their bridge offers solutions for a whole range of elements in the design brief. Nowhere, however, is there any mention of an all-embracing concept. Strikingly, their design divides the bridge into two decks, one for pedestrians and cyclists and one for motorized traffic, and is held up by a single row of structural members. One unusual feature is the prominence accorded to the tall lampposts.

Quist Wintermans’ bridge is a fine example of engineering skill. The design is elegant and ingenious. Fast and slow traffic are assigned different gradients. The steel plate between the different bridge decks, which is of varying height, performs a structural role. The greater the construction height, the greater also the length of the span. Furthermore, oval perforations in the steel plate serve to satisfy the (curious) demand to enliven the space below the bridge.

Ton Venhoeven pursues a completely different vision with his bridge design. In the passage through the warehouse, which turns the bridge into an abrupt link between the ‘idiosyncratic’ areas on either side of the water, Venhoeven detects a cinematic experience. It divides the experience into a before and after image, ‘somewhat comparable to the effect of a film that cuts or pans suddenly from one subject or story to another’. This putative cinematic experience has also affected the shaping of the bridge: ‘the frames (of the structure) are used to capture the changing perspective …. By locating most of the supporting framework on the upper side of the bridge, the cinematic rhythm is carried forward to the north side of Java Island.’

Whereas the Quist Wintermans bridge reveals its architects’ intentions at a single glance, Venhoeven’s bridge requires some such explanatory story. Yet it is not really convincing. Are we henceforth to regard every tunnel or underground passage as a ‘cut’ in the cinematic experience known as ‘the city’? Why should a bridge consist of seven ‘frames’? Could not the entire bridge constitute a single ‘frame’? How do you ‘shape’ cinematic rhythm? The strength of Venhoeven’s bridge lies not in the story but in its appearance. It was this aspect that Venhoeven emphasized during the community presentation on 29 October, and which met with great approval: the informal atmosphere of this former industrial area and the multiformity of the neighbourhood are echoed in the chaotic and asymmetrical design.

While Quist Winterman’s ingenious proposal has architectural aficionados gaping in admiration, Venhoeven is most likely to appeal to those who are sensitive to context. And while we’re on the subject of context, Venhoeven is operating on home turf. Quite apart from the fact that he lives on KNSM Island, it was Venhoeven who, at the City’s behest, conducted a preliminary study of the pre-conditions the Java Bridge would need to satisfy. A recipe for imbalance among competition entrants, one would think. Earlier this year, in Rotterdam, Peter Wilson easily won the competition for the Luxor Theatre ahead of architectural offices that included OMA and Christiaanse. Wilson had long been involved in urban design planning for the area around the site. Should Venhoeven win the Amsterdam commission one will begin to wonder what purpose such competitions serve. Let the municipal authorities continue working with the architect of their choice. It would certainly save others a lot of time.

Bericht aan de lezer / Message to the reader