The Bijlmermeer neighbourhood: heaven or hell?

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The Bijlmermeer neighbourhood, which today houses almost 100,000 people of over 150 nationalities, was designed as a single project. The original neighbourhood was designed as a series of nearly identical high-rise buildings laid out in a hexagonal grid. The apartments were meant to attract a suburban set, rather like condominium housing.

The buildings have several features that distinguish them from traditional Dutch high-rise flats, such as tubular walkways connecting the flats and garages. The blocks are separated by large green areas planted with grass and trees. Each flat has its own garages where cars can be parked.

The Bijlmer was designed with two levels of traffic. Cars drive on the top level, the decks of which fly over the lower level’s pedestrian avenues and bicycle paths. This separation of fast and slow moving traffic is beneficial to traffic safety. However, in recent years, the roads are once again being flattened, so pedestrians, cycles and cars travel alongside each other. This is a move to lessen the effects of the ‘inhuman’ scale of some of the Bijlmer’s designs. It is felt a direct line of sight will also improve safety from muggers.

 

What is pride of place?

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Proud of their new home in Cwmbran New Town

Proud of their new home in Cwmbran New Town

PRIDE OF PLACE  

Post war developers cleared slums and created homes for heroes. These early developments engendered a sense of pride in people’s homes that had nothing to do with home ownership, but much more to do with pride of place.  It did not matter whether you own your property or not, it was still yours, and people communicated this ownership through well kept gardens and vegetable patches and conspicuously well cared for homes.

Strike

Thatchers’ attempts to re-invent this sense of pride through the Right to Buy programme, allowing people to buy properties at knock down prices did not work, because it failed to realise that people’s sense of pride in their environment was as much emotion as it was financial. The ultimate effect of this disasterous policy is to create ghettos of social housing, the bits of council estates that nobody really wants to live in and these become cauldrons of disaffection as shown in the image above.

New Town housing and religious persuasion

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RELIGIOUS BACKGROUNDS OF INHABITANTS

Does the Catholic background of the majority of the inhabitants have a part to play in the development of mass housing?  It has been been suggested that the religion of the inhabitants may have affected decision to re-located people to mass housing out of town.

But, considerable research would need to be done to ascertain the relationship of religion to housing development.

At play in Skelmersdale New Town

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This excellent old train once had pride of place in the New Church Farm play area in Skelmersdale. Now, for reasons of health and safety is has been removed and more acceptable play apparatus put in its place. But possibly at the loss of developing children’s imagination? Newer, housing developments such as Nine Elms in Battersea, London have re-invented this idea of imaginative play.

Domestic modernism in Liverpool

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The Utopian post-war vision of high density `streets in the sky’ Courbusier inspired housing found favour in the North West of England.  This is the all purpose, democratic version  of avant-garde European design.  But it fell out of favour and survives, if at all, un-cared for.

To the the right, Myrtle Gardens, inspirational postwar housing for workers in Liverpool, and,  the interior of a flat is shown below.

But, if you had a bit more money to spend, take a look at Modernism Liverpool style – as glamorous as you might expect…..text courtesy of WowHaus …It’s a midcentury-style bungalow, the work of American architect James Hunter back in 1964 and a house that is all about space – both with a large plot and an open plan design that screams a bygone era.

Domestic modernism in Preston

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Domestic bliss, 1960s style courtesy of WowHaus estate agents and, below, Bill Brook’s house in Fulwood, Preston, and below that, in 2000 blowing up the 1960’s flats in Moor Lane, Preston – no longer fit for purpose

The Bijlmermeer Estates – the Netherlands’ experience

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Comments made in response to changes to the Bijlmermeer estate in the Netherlands

The Bijlmermeer neighbourhood, which today houses almost 100,000 people of over 150 nationalities, was designed as a single project. The original neighbourhood was designed as a series of nearly identical high-rise buildings laid out in a hexagonal grid. The apartments were meant to attract a suburban set, rather like condominium housing. The buildings have several features that distinguish them from traditional Dutch high-rise flats, such as tubular walkways connecting the flats and garages. The blocks are separated by large green areas planted with grass and trees. Each flat has its own garage where cars can be parked.

The Bijlmer was designed with two levels of traffic. Cars drive on the top level, the decks of which fly over the lower level’s pedestrian avenues and bicycle paths. This separation of fast and slow moving traffic is beneficial to traffic safety. However, in recent years, the roads are once again being flattened, so pedestrians, cycles and cars travel alongside each other. This is a move to lessen the effects of the ‘inhuman’ scale of some of the Bijlmer’s designs. It is felt a direct line of sight will also improve safety from muggers.


If I am allowed the privilege of a metaphor, it may point out one of the problems we all face as architects.

  • An artist who carries out a predetermined plan or formula is never considered a true artist but merely a draughtsman. The artist must be prepared to relinquish his initial ideas to those demands that call out from the relationships that begin to establish themselves in a work. Deference is as importance as will in the creative act.
  • It is precisely this art that has been lost in the making and thinking of architecture. To begin to bring back this art we must begin to question the privileged position that the architect believes he possesses. The belief that the architect can solve problems is part of that privileged position.
  • To bring back the art means being responsive. But at such a scale to what are we responding? Are we responding to furniture or to the automobile? If we cannot know to what situation we are responding then how can we pretend to solve anything?
  • I am not sure that architecture can exist beyond the level of an absolutely specific condition (i.e. present a specific need and not a general premise). If this is true then the field of planning, and specifically urban planning, must be questioned.
  • We must also remain aware of the grey line where architecture drops away and politics takes over. If we follow Tafuri’s argument we must know that architecture is always in danger of supporting as well as concealing the hidden agendas of the prevailing power structure. In response to “what can architecture offer to the Bijlmermeer,” we must acknowledge that this is equally, if not more, a political problem.

IN 2004, the International Journal of Housing policy had this to say about the Netherlands new policies of urban regeneration.

Recently, the Netherlands has been pursuing a new policy of urban renewal. Old urban renewal concentrated on pre-war urban districts and had a technical orientation. The predominant shift in tenure was from commercial to social rented housing. New urban renewal focuses on post-war urban districts and tries to solve the mismatch between a differentiated demand for housing and a one-sided supply. The shift in tenure is now mainly from social rented housing to owner-occupied housing. The physical agenda is combined with social, economic and safety issues………. These recommendations are geared to the current situation in the Netherlands, but they may also be relevant for other countries in and outside Europe.