Amsterdam’s brutalist Bijlmermeer district celebrates its 50th anniversary with a new-found creative identity
Addressing the tiny windows and opaque balconies, they hauled in miles of double-glazing. ‘The Dutch are known for their large windows and fearless emphasis on transparency,’ says Klaasse. The gutted interiors were sold as DIY shells (keeping prices low) to enterprising residents, who today form a cross section of Bijlmermeer’s 140 nationalities. For now, Kleiburg is the only building on the estate where residents have purchased their flats on the open market.
If van den Akker represents the salvation of Kleiburg, you could say Kleiburg represents the salvation of the wider Bijlmermeer area, a district conceived in the 1960s as a progressive paradise that quickly became, instead, the most notorious estate in Holland. The Bijlmer, to use its colloquial name, went further than the urban blueprints of Le Corbusier and Ernö Goldfinger. Endowed with around 100 hectares of reclaimed farmland on a former polder in Amsterdam-zuidoost, the architect Siegfried Nassuth designed an egalitarian public-housing nirvana for the emerging middle class. His identikit high-rises in honeycomb formations towered above automobile traffic, which in turn travelled on futuristic flyovers above gardens and playgrounds. Quadrants were zoned for residential, commercial or social functions. But once the (all too cheap) housing went up, the public money evaporated. The supposed shopping district? All vacant lots. Nobody with means would choose to live in a brutalist monolith with no street life, no metro, no heart. The housing association shoved Surinamese migrants into rent-controlled flats while more spaces sat vacant, becoming prime territory for heroin addicts. With the Bijlmer name an emblem for squalor and sin, Nassuth retired from architecture. And that was before 1992, when an El Al cargo plane lost control and plunged into two towers, killing dozens of tenants. Strike up a conversation with anyone here over 35 and they’ll likely have experienced the ‘Bijlmerramp’ catastrophe somehow: the resounding crash, the screams, the night-long vigil.
Ultimately, though, this tragedy was the catalyst the Bijlmer needed to survive. The city resolved to raze a quarter of the towers and the roadways floating between, replacing them with low-rises faced in vernacular brick and slatted timber, still offered at subsidised rents. It dammed a lake, built transport links and put up dedicated housing for addicts. Eventually the contemporary art museum OSCAM moved into a shiny space across from the produce market. A Surinamese entrepreneur called Sarriel Taus»
Conceived as a progressive paradise, the Bijlmer became the most notorious estate in Holland
THE BIJLMERMEER ESTATE, SEEN FROM THE KLEIBURG BLOCK, LOOKING ACROSS THE TENNIS COURTS TO THE KRUITBERG AND KIKKENSTEIN BLOCKS. CUTTING THROUGH THE ESTATE IS A RAISED METRO LINE, BUILT IN THE 1970S TO CONNECT IT WITH CENTRAL AMSTERDAM
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE, A VIEW FROM THE KLEIBURG BUILDING OF LONTARPALMSTRAAT’S TERRACED HOUSES, A LOW-RISE DEVELOPMENT THAT HAS REPLACED ONE OF NASSUTH’S ORIGINAL BLOCKS; NL ARCHITECTS’ 2012 KAMELEON BUILDING, A MIXED-USE PROJECT THAT INCLUDES RESIDENTIAL UNITS, A NEW SHOPPING CENTRE AND A CAR PARK; XVW ARCHITECTUUR‘S XANDER VERMEULEN WINDSANT AND NL ARCHITECTS’ KAMIEL KLAASSE IN FRONT OF THE REFURBISHED KLEIBURG BUILDING, A PROJECT FOR WHICH THEY WON THE MIES VAN DER ROHE AWARD