May 3, 2002
Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA
Tracy Metz suggested we take off on bikes. Our correspondent
and her husband inhabit a house right on one of Amsterdams
fabled canals, a straight-up Dutch house that includes a winding,
narrow stair, working spaces overlooking the canal, and an
attic. I borrowed her husband, Willems, sturdy two wheels
on a damp Saturday and we took off to see the amazing city
seemingly jammed with 17th Century buildings. She wove in
and out of the streets, dodging ambling citizens in from the
countryside, up over bridges, down along the docks while I
pedaled to keep up. I acted like a twelve-year-old, freed
on a bike again, rolling with the terrain and barely missing
a few pedestrians.
We passed brick warehouses renovated as apartments out by
the docks that recall similar structures in London or New
York. These high-ceilinged simple workhorses can take heavy
loads, include seemingly endless open space, and the yuppies
At the foot of the docks, we came on a strange new version
of a loft/warehouse by Rotterdams MVRDV architects called
Container City: long and narrow, stretched alongside the docks,
it consisted of several levels of apartments with outdoor
walkways painted in differing colors, louvered, patterned,
or plain. Like an assemblage of stacked oceangoing container
vessels, the colorful megastructure looked over the water.
Because it was move-in day, we witnessed a number of the diverse
residents unpacking their boxes, older and younger mixed together.
A space-age note: to park your car out by the docks, you
drive into a single glass shed. A silent Japanese system consisting
of a single car-sized pad then drops one grade, shifts your
car to the side, and sorts it, ready for your subsequent pick-up.
Automatically shuffled cars.
As a surprise, we biked out to visit de Klerks social
housing in the Spaarndammerbuurt District in northwest Amsterdam
(the Dutch names exceeded my capacity for picking up new languages).
Often overlooked though still inhabited, the 3-block complex
sits away from the crowds amid blocks of other housing. Built
in 1917-1921, these small, multistory units for workers, part
of what became recognized as the Amsterdam School,
formed a unique chapter in the history of housing. Het
Scheep (the ship), the best known of the blocks, was
organized as an interior-facing assemblage of narrow townhouses,
all of which face a shared garden court, they are distinguished
by the individuality of their components and details, all
of which meld into an extraordinary whole.
You have seen them in the history books, usually represented
by the brick spire at one end that resembles an Asian stupa-a
structure with no apparent functional use. The brick on the
entire complex takes flight as it careens exuberantly into
ripples, adding basketweave or vertical patterns to the building
facade where stone might usually provide ornamentation. Remarkably
intact, the complex includes the original post office, adapted
to contemporary uses.
The Dutch have continued their experiments in housing since
then. After walking our bikes down, Tracy and I hopped a ferry
across the harbor for the island of Borneo-Sporenberg, where
new housing continues to be built. There, a multiplicity of
attached townhouses, multiple dwelling units, affordable and
luxury housing coexist side-by-side. We saw colorful cantilevered
rooms, houses with front facades like sine waves, canal-side
houses where boaters waved at friends on balconies, and big
apartment blocks that faced the sun. The whole island sits
apart, a relatively calm oasis from the Amsterdam hubbub,
though shops and cafes are creeping into the mix.
A Complete Surprise
While Amsterdams housing seems so new, I wondered what
effect long-established patterns have on a peoples collective
consciousness. On Sunday, while nursing my rubbery legs, I
strolled out from my hotel to a thriving urban plaza where
I spied the Begijnhof. This unique living arrangement provided
housing for Catholic laywomen who made religious profession
short of becoming nuns, yet chose to live and worship together.
The housing for them is antique. The citys oldest remaining
house, a wooden structure dating from the mid-fifteenth century
(1453), remains there. After curving around a crooked street,
I found the entry to the quarter and turned to find a collection
of individual houses surrounding a central planted courtamazingly
like the de Klerk social housing of 400 years later. There,
at its head, stood a church spire, that recollected the forms
de Klerk used much later. Surprisingly, this tower marked
a 14th century church (1392) structure given to the Puritans
in 1609 as they waited for transportation to America. It remains
an active English Reformed church for Amsterdam.
De Klerks pattern, which had seemed unique, actually
stretched back in time to the heart of the city in a continuous
conversation. While motives differed, and religion had been
replaced by social motives, the two housing compounds spoke
the same language, providing individual shelter, a patch of
ground for a flower or two, a green heart, identity for the
person and the group, a meeting place, and even a signifying
Sitting in the shadow of the church, where our own American
ancestors had gathered before heading toward the unknown,
I nursed my thoughts, which careened around the older courtyard
like cosmic rays, and headed for a coffee. As Flannery OConner
titled her book, Everything
that Rises Must Converge.