Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new tower development in the city’s harbor has a clear inspiration from U.S. and Canadian cities. But is it right for low-rise Amsterdam?
We hear a lot about how Europe’s more progressive cities might act as models for development in North America, but not so much about influence passing in the other direction. A major upcoming project in Amsterdam is a rare example of this—one that will see the city break from its previous architectural traditions to create something new and of North American inspiration.
This month an exhibition opened at Amsterdam’s Architecture Center that shows a possible new look for a largely undeveloped artificial island in the city’s harbor. The final look of the island’s buildings are not yet fixed (hence the speculative exhibition), but the city has already agreed on the urban plan dictating what will be built there: a cluster of 25 residential towers up to 125 meters (410 feet) high, which might well look like the visualization below, created in 2016.
High-rise towers aren’t unusual in Europe, but this plan is unprecedented in Amsterdam, where only one existing building exceeds the 125-meter mark. Also unprecedented, to an extent, is the inspiration: The idea was developed by planners after visits to high-rise residential neighborhoods in Toronto, Chicago, and Vancouver. The plan is so clearly influenced by Canadian urban models—with its tall, densely packed residential towers close to a major body of water—that one media outlet has dubbed the plan “Toronto on the IJ,” referring to the city’s rapid construction of a heavy concentration of residential towers to alleviate its housing crisis. The plans have, as you might expect, sparked a heated debate about what should and shouldn’t be considered as viable models for a low-rise European city like Amsterdam.
The idea of building on artificial islands is already familiar in Amsterdam. Indeed the island in question isn’t even new: Zeeburgereiland was first created at the beginning of the 20th century when silt and earth were dumped there during the construction of the city’s Eastern Harbor. The island nonetheless remained uninhabited, used mainly as a naval training site, then as the location of a sewage works. As pressure built up on inner Amsterdam, the island attracted notice as a brownfield site close to the city centre, and there has already been some development on its southern tip, in an area near where it is already bisected by Amsterdam’s beltway. The northern section of the triangular island, however, remains unbuilt.
This area, called Sluisbuurt (“Lock District” in English) will soon be home to 5,500 homes—40 percent of them public housing, another 40 percent specifically intended for middle-income residents, and the final 20 percent destined for market-rate rental. The area will also host a new campus for Inholland University and shops and offices on lower floors, all connected to the rest of the harbor islands by a pedestrian and cycling bridge. According to the area’s already agreed masterplan, the new neighborhood would, however, be completely car-free.
Zeeburgereiland lies not far from other, already developed dockside islands. Those were filled in the 1990s with mid-rise buildings that largely replicated the silhouette of Amsterdam’s 19th century warehouses, but the Sluisbuurt is going to be altogether denser, spikier, and more ground-breaking. When construction is complete, its towers, ranging between 40 and 125 meters in height, will be closely clustered and visible from afar, pushing upwards like the prongs of some fiendishly complicated plug.
As you can expect, the plan has not gone down easily in low-rise Amsterdam. “Have we forgotten who we are?” architect and planner Sjoerd Soeters asks aloud in magazine Groene Amsterdam. “We are a flat country with a flat society,” he continues, going on to raise the specter of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise as a possible dystopian future for Amsterdam in which rich and poor are rigidly segregated in vertical neighborhoods. Others have pointed out that the high level of subsidized housing may in fact make it difficult to achieve the sort of green, well-connected neighborhood that planners are striving for, as there will be relatively less money to spend on careful landscaping.
There’s some justification to these fears. It’s true that Amsterdam’s most densely populated neighborhood is in fact medium-rise, and that Dutch planners have at times proved adept at increasing density without increasing height. And in a city where buildings were historically built with a foundation of wooden pilings pushed into the marshy sludge that Amsterdam has as its bedrock, tall buildings are indeed rare and decidedly non-traditional. At the same time, the dystopian future of social division that Soeters evokes has already arrived in the city. It just happens to be more lateral than vertical. Amsterdam’s city core has long had rent levels that are expelling low- and middle-income residents to distant suburbs and beyond, a situation that the Sluisbuurt development’s affordable housing is at least trying to alleviate. And something has to do this: 11,000 people a year are moving to the city that doesn’t strictly have anywhere to put them. Amsterdammers are well aware of this need, which is one reason why, despite petitioning to lower the towers 18 meters to their current height, public consultations saw the plans widely accepted.
It is often pointed out that it’s not necessary to build tall if you want to build dense. Many heavily populated city districts are in fact mid-rise—although people who cite the classic example of this, Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris, might still be shocked if they realized how squashed-in and lightless many of this period’s buildings really are once you’re away from their street facades. Such buildings are more desirable, their advocates believe, because they are less intrusive and allow faster access to the street.
But are Amsterdam’s new island towers really destined to be so intrusive? While low by international standards, they will certainly be a striking insertion to an environment that, when it comes to layout, is visually more landscape, less portrait. But sequestered on an island, the high-rises will not be throwing anyone into shadow, and its location in the far-flung reaches of the Eastern Harbor will not be overshadowing the historic canals at the city’s heart. Indeed, they might even complement their surroundings.
In a cityscape that is generally detailed, narrow and miniaturist, the broad open spaces and relatively larger scale of Amsterdam’s harbor district can come as a refreshing breath of air on leaving the city’s claustrophobic core. No one would like to see Amsterdam transformed into a high-rise city whose canals cower under skyscrapers, but if there were a part of the city that could safely manage, or even benefit from, the insertion of taller buildings, it’s surely here.