High expectations

The stadium, glimpsed fleetingly from the train, came into full view as we entered the plaza. It appeared incoherent as if it did not know what it wanted to be. The structure was rather disjointed and lacked continuity and clarity of form. It was positioned awkwardly and not well integrated with the surrounding buildings.


It reminded me of many attempts at modern structures constructed in various parts of developing Asia during the economic boom. Asian countries, which are culturally and traditionally different from the West, have difficulties getting to grips with Western art forms and values. Traditional Asian values and cultural interpretations do not allow the pupil to challenge existing norms. The unilateral transposition of Western forms and icons to an Asian environment can only spell trouble. Therefore it is excusable that Asian architects and designers should mess up when interpreting western architecture. But I had never expected to find this in the Bijlmer district of Amsterdam. There was a row of colourfully painted four- to five-storey shops that looked interesting viewed from a distance but close up it was a let-down.


The windswept, open plaza (aka boulevard), was bleak and devoid of people. It is very wide, without scale or any indicators of human dimension. There are no windbreaks or rain shelters, which is a pity. The paving treatment lacks imagination and sensitivity, and is devoid of soft landscaping. But maybe greenery would not do very well in this windswept, open space.


Seen from the station, the transparent cinema complex (Architekten Cie, Frits van Dongen) is on the corner to the left. The siting, at the entrance to the boulevard, is good. It is well-scaled and made, but (already) looks tired and overused. The amphitheatre-like lower gallery is well thought out and detailed. The structure and finishing are simple and simply detailed. The perforated steel sheets providing the transparency to the complex could never be an option in developing countries unless imported from the West at exorbitant cost. Asian architects need to look for other solutions if they want to produce the same effect… although, Asian clients are wealthy. Terminating the boulevard at the other end from the train station was a high-rise building that looked quite different from the others I had seen in and around Amsterdam.


My host insisted that we walk down the windswept boulevard. At the other end, visible through a still unfilled opening in the plaza wall, a surprise awaited me. There, strewn across the urban landscape, were tower blocks that looked like copies of what, in Asia, I had always referred to as ‘poor examples from the West’. But this was Bijlmer, Holland. What had happened? How had these bad copies landed up in Bijlmer? Standing in isolation from one other they are simply stumps reaching up to the skies. Semi high-rise clustered together creates a certain composition in the landscape. But alone and solitary, they do not work. The traditional Asian urban landscape had been destroyed by the invasion of these structures.


From Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzheng, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to Penang the invasion has devoured the old and replaced it with scale-less and character-less unidentifiable modern buildings. The few tall buildings I saw in Bijlmer reminded me of that. It brought to mind my past visits to those stricken cities. It appears that the affliction is much more widespread than I realized. This negative effect of globalism is being felt everywhere and indeed is here to stay. It has become a global trend.


Throughout the visit, my host was strangely silent about what we were looking at. As we left Bijlmer I commented that what I had seen there seemed very un-Dutch to me and wanted to know how it had come about. I do not think I will ever get an answer as to what happened to the “preciseness” and “appropriateness” that had struck me as so characteristic in other parts of the city. Had some design theory gone wrong or had the smell of development profits become as overpowering in Holland as in Asia?

When the blue of the sky falls on the roof