Monday, April 16, 2012

Amsterdam: A City of Contrasts

I don't think I have ever met anybody who didn't like Amsterdam.

That being said, most of us tend to think of Amsterdam in terms of its 17th century buildings lining canals with narrow vehicular streets (except where a canal was filled in), an extensive tram network and bicycles...lots and lots of bicycles.

Today, on the first day of our tour of the city, I discovered many parts of Amsterdam I had not seen during previous visits. After a brief stop to look at the Jordaan area which is the area most of us know best, it was off to the redeveloped Docklands areas. Our guides were Tahira Limon, International Press Officer for the city, and Ton Schaap, a longserving architect/plannerl in the physical planning department who was instrumental in planning many portions of the revitalized Docklands areas. ("You're from Vancouver? Give my regards to Larry Beasley!")

I was keen to see some of the container housing that I have read much about; however, it was only accessible by boat. However I did see some from a distance and managed to get much closer to a large new residential development that has been designed to look like stacked containers. Do take note Bruno Wall and Stu Lyon, if you have not already done so, since it looks remarkably similar to your plans being prepared for the 900 Block East Hastings (illustrated in a recent blog post on new developments around Vancouver.)One of Amsterdam's biggest challenges is dealing with bicycles and automobiles. I was interested to learn that the city is planning to allow only electric cars by 2040 (all Cars2Go are electric now) and while many developments do not have any designated parking, new parking under this building is accessed by an auto elevator.The Dutch seem to be quite comfortable with automated solutions. Indeed, I also saw an automated garbage collection system around the city that I'll write more about in a later post.While on the topic of cars, I noted that all parking spaces in Amsterdam are pay parking; however, there are no parking meters. The city got rid of them years ago; today there are ticket dispensers. This got me wondering why Vancouver is continuing to install very expensive parking meters when it could be instituting a much more cost effective system similar to that in Amsterdam and other European cities. You can still pay by phone or credit card. But this approach seems much more reasonable. And the short walk from your car to the meter is quite healthy!

There is a lot of new development taking place along the waterfront, generally in mid-rise building form. In addition to new residential buildings, generally selling around 5000 Euros a square meter ($650 a foot), there are new office and public buildings. Our group was given a tour of an impressive public library that was remarkable in many ways. However, two small details worth noting were the quality of the food in the cafeteria (especially compared to what's served at our main Public Library)and a clever detail to mark the rows of plush seats in the library theatre.I will post more photos of new mid-rise developments in a later post, (including the 30% of all units that must be social housing) but do want to share a few images from IJburg, a new residential community being developed on seven artificial islands in a lake on the east side of Amsterdam.To date about 18, 000 of the proposed 40,000 new homes have been completed and include some very interesting housing solutions. While many of the low and mid-rise blocks would never be approved by Vancouver's Urban Design Panel for being too plain and boxy (where are the balconies?), many of the fee-simple three and four storey waterfront rowhouses are very interesting. The city subdivided lots which were sold to individuals who built the homes with 'zero- side yards'. (You will note the Dutch architects have managed to avoid the temptation to mimic too closely the architecture of yesteryear!)Even more impressive were a number of floating home communities. While the water is not as tidal as in Vancouver, I would like to think that something like this would be very popular in our city.Later in the day we went to Zuidas, the new Business District that is being constructed on both sides of a major highway and train line not that far from the historic centre. With excellent access to the airport and the old city, about 27 million square feet of development is planned, all on city owned land. To date about 6.7 million square feet has been completed, housing some 400 local and multi-national companies, along with new housing, schools, university and medical facilities. Of course, there are also extensive bicycle storing facilities. This underground garage stores 2,500 bikes on pull out frames!The standard of design is mixed, but there are some amazing 'look-at-me' buildings by architectural firms from the Netherlands and around the world. A major challenge facing the development is how to deal with the wide swath of highway/railway. There had been a proposal to surpress it and build over, but the 2.5 billion euro price tag was too high for the public-private partnership that had initially planned to take this all on. Now alternatives are being considered, but the scale of the undertaking is most impressive, and not something I was at all aware of.The day concluded with a dinner at restaurant De Kas prides itself on home grown ingredients. It is designed like a greenhouse, and I couldn't help but think it is the sort of place where our mayor will want to have dinner with Amsterdam's mayor when they are together. As an aside, Amsterdam's mayor is appointed, not elected!

So apologizies to all those who showed us around today for not doing justice to the high quality of our tour and places visited. Suffice it to say, Amsterdam truly is a city of is much more than those charming 17th century buildings leaning into the canals. It is a surprisingly sophisticated international financial centre, which perhaps shouldn't be surprising when one considers the major role the Netherlands has played in the financial history of the world.


Anonymous said...

On the garbage collection,

I guess, you will explain something like this:

last time I mentioned it, you were apparently thinking it was a pneumatic system,...well hopefully, you will have a better understanding at it now ;)

Jon P. said...

Notable in Michael's pictures are colours -- provocative colours. Vancouver's buildings are in general dull in part because for the most part their colours are bland, Canadian colours in their unwillingness to be seen as different, almost apologetic colours ... And Michael if you get a chance go to Rotterdam, some terrific architecture. Image:,r:4,s:105,i:42

Glissando Remmy said...

Lovely post.
"Salt and Pepper"-ed with excellent pictures. I wish I was there, oh well I was, a number of times. BTW, how are the little comforts priced these days? Coffee, latte, tea, omelets, a slice of pizza, train ride between cities, bus/ tram fares? Who dresses nicer? Amsterdam or Vancouver? Entertainment... good?
How did you find the Amsterdam's Red Light District? Have you tried a courtesy joint in one of those "coffee shops"?

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perry cole said...

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