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From IJburg

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in Chief

New town planning has less to do with the architecture, and more with the framework. That philosophy has prompted Amsterdam planner, Ton Schaap, for years as he established the framework for IJburg, a new residential town on the edge of Amsterdam. I recently had a tour on foot, in a car, and lots of talk with Ton after a coffee from his apartment, led there by our correspondent Tracy Metz.

While we’ve visited other innovative residential sections in Holland, including the docklands, where MVRDV’s stunning housing block Silodam (among others) stands, and we’ve bicycled through Borneo Sporenburg, 3 fingers of land extending out into the harbor, IJburg differs in fundamental ways.

Larger, on reclaimed land, out on the margins of what had been inhabited Amsterdam, it sits in a place that locals used to visit to go to the tip—a jumping off place. There are maybe seven discrete islands in the region—part of the attempt to keep the area from becoming one big amorphous clump, and to let the development grow with time. Two of the islands are being built up now.

 Like Borneo Sporenburg, IJburg includes innovative urban solutions, drawing inspiration from other successful urban patterns, such as London Mews, which the planner cites as an inspiration. In this case, rows of small, narrow houses line up, one by one, facing a paved street, as they would in a mews (where carriages or horses would have been stowed). The street, however, has limited vehicle access and serves as an auxiliary public space or shared front porch of sorts for the residents, each of whom also has private space in the back. Other solutions include the arrangement of the private exposure of houses to a larger public green space, where the little kids can toddle, the elderly can sit, and anyone can play. Pretty idealistic.

It’s not about fancy architecture in IJburg, more about the ensemble. Like larger cities, the planners have allowed larger, grander streets to define primary circulation routes, though limiting cars to subservient presence, not dominance. That may be the key. At one housing complex, a multi-story affair, cars are lifted into place at the owner’s floor by a car elevator. At Borneo Sporenburg, the development includes a similar elevator lowering the vehicles—something unknown in most parts of the world. Up with the cars, away with the cars.

Smaller canals ply through the heart of the plan, intersected by frequent small bridges, and in some cases available for swimming: several buildings that abut the waterways include small ladders for easy access into the water (which I was told is actually impounded and clean).

We toured one house, where the future occupant was working with friends to complete. While the stairs were incredibly steep, and the actual footprint modest, his own house offered all that was needed to give a person or a family autonomy and a sense of self in the city.

I wasn’t struck by the formmaking or the detailing of most (in fact some of it was rather cheaply detailed developer-driven building, conducted during a period of weakening in the residential market). However, driving through, I saw where one local architect, Lucien Lafour, had built handsome new buildings, inserted into the larger framework. Lafour’s architecture clearly references his background—he is from the former Dutch Colony of Surinam in South America, and the plan allowed all the buildings to coexist harmoniously.

That’s IJburg’s story in a word—all about the plan.