(New) Amsterdam, Netherlands

The visual contrast between the canals of old Amsterdam and the recent new developments being constructed on newly built islands in the IJ lake which abuts the city.  The concept is stunning – run out of space for urban development in a waterside community – build new land to expand onto.  It will be the perfect planned development with easy transit, perfect density, water, pedestrian, and bike access and stunning design.  The execution is slightly less than perfect.  Its hard to build a community from scratch and even harder to give it character.  They’ve only had ten years of people living there to give it any actual heart  In my opinion they had a lot more success with the earlier areas which were parceled out to individual owner (100 year lease structure, I believe) and form an architecturally interesting patchwork of different townhouse designs.  The most recently constructed areas are monolithic brick housing blocks which seem sterile and underpopulated (an impression not helped by the cold rainy day).  Still they are a fascinating day trip.  Enjoy the photo tour.

On my way back from the islands, I couldn’t resist a visit to the newly opened Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam (central library) is also constructed on newly created ground as a part of the central station area development plan which also houses the ARCAM architecture center and Renzo Pianos NEMO science museum. Planned as not-just-a-library the building is an event space, a cafe, a city viewing platform and is certainly the only library I’ve every visited with a piano sitting in the entry way. I spent an hour or so happily browsing the architecture collection and making personal book buying wish lists. I was strongly reminded of OMA’s Seattle Central Library (escalator circulation, arrangement of open spaces and color blocking, signage) and couldn’t decide if the association was an intentional reference or merely a trend in modern library design.

Of course, the Dutch don’t need to make new land to do innovative things with urban planning. I spent my first two nights in Amsterdam in an expensive and dive-y crash pad for youthful partiers in the city center. When I returned after spending a few days in Utrecht and Rotterdam, I relocated to a quieter hostel located in the remote eastern part of the city. Easily accessible by the fast intra city metro system, the area is an interesting (and slightly confusing) recent development which completely separates a pedestrian zone on one level with car traffic all located one story above ground level. I found it largely enjoyable to stroll along street width sidewalks, sharing the path with other walkers and bikers only although I did find it a little hard to find addresses and couldn’t quite get over the feeling of being on a movie set when there were no cars in sight.

The Rijksmuseum is an Amsterdam icon – the lovely 19th century brick building was recently gutted and renovated (over ten years) and re-opened just before I visited Amsterdam, so of course I HAD To visit. Aside from what I assume were monumental behind the scenes updates of structure, security and organization, the result is a number of self-consciously pure-white-box-y interventions in the central atrium and institutional grey paint muting the drama of the arched gallery ceilings. The circulation is awkward because the building is bisected (not the architect’s fault) by a bike path which runs through it at street level and allows full floor-plate connection only on the basement and top floors. Still, the building is light-filled and grand, the collection is breathtaking and the overall effect, very positive.

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