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A WALK AROUND AMSTERDAM When one begins to explore Amsterdam, two traits are immediately apparent – Amsterdam is a city of homes, and it is a timeless city. The former observation is particularly evident in the evening, when families are home and the glow illuminates the darkening streets. If you arrive at Centraal Station and begin your exploration from there, you will find homes stacked haphazardly along the lively medieval streets. Further out into the historic canal district are stately Golden Age townhomes, drawing you down the street with the rhythmic variation of highly ornamental facades, and on the other side, houseboats floating in the water. Further along are the charmingly mismatched artisan studios in the Jordaan, and converted warehouses in the Eastern Docks. Further yet, beyond the canals, is an expanse of public housing, that then fade into the rural countryside. Amsterdam is composed of homes of every kind, with one notable exception – the detached single-family houses that a vast majority of North Americans envision as ‘home’. Another noticeable feature is Amsterdam’s timeless quality – its medieval core, with its narrow maze of alleys and even narrower homes, has maintained its original form, resisting centuries of foreign influence and the expectations of modern globalization.1 The canal district appears unchanged from 17th Century Golden Age, but the enduring appeal of the era’s architecture is expressed through the renewals of the facades – though they appear to be centuries old, many are only a few decades old. The permanence of Amsterdam’s form is a testament to the quality and foresight of early spatial design decisions – every idea and proposal was challenged by extensive deliberation, and therefore implemented with confidence and little regret. Given the permanence of Amsterdam’s spatial form, it is not just the absence of detached homes that is perplexing, but their disappearance as well. This raises some questions: How is it possible for Amsterdam to provide homes in such high densities without compromising the city’s livability and its citizens’ dignity? For those who could afford the luxury of space and privacy, why were they willing to give up the villas that would allow them to have both? Why were detached homes erased from the landscape, and why did they materialize at all in the first place? Spatial design mishaps in the Netherlands are unusual, and those that get implemented are even more so. What does this comparison tell us about North American and Dutch values when it comes to housing? To answer these questions, it would be useful to make a comparison between the vanished Dutch buitenplaatsen in Watergraafsmeer, and its ubiquitous American counterpart, the post-war suburban homes. We will revisit Watergraafsmeer to see what it had become, and how the Dutch approached the same housing demands after the war.


WATERGRAAFSMEER IN THE DUTCH GOLDEN AGE The ability to afford the luxury of leisure, privacy, and spaciousness has been a marker of wealth and privilege throughout human history, and this can be seen in the architecture throughout the world. Building a home on a piece of land that one can claim for their own has been the usual expression of status, and many of these monumental legacies can still be seen to this day. Amsterdam in the Golden Age was no different: Buitenplaatsen, Dutch Arcadian villas, can be found along the scenic river valleys of the Amstel and the Vecht.2 In 1629, the lake of Diemermeer, located on the southern outskirts of Amsterdam, was pumped dry so that the fertile soil can be used for agriculture. Initially it was like any other polder, with a few inns, farms, country houses, and gardens. After a series of false starts – an unintentional flood in 1651 when the dike was broken, followed by an intentional flood to repel French troops in 1672 – this area re-emerged as Watergraafsmeer.3 Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy citizens of Amsterdam shaped this former lake into their personal utopia. Watergraafsmeer was ideally located – it was only a fifteen-minute walk from the southeastern gate of Amsterdam, yet it was far away enough to escape from the city, along with the frenetic pace of the urban lifestyle and its unhygienic conditions. While elite districts elsewhere are typically off-limits to the lower social classes, the proximity to the city made Watergraafsmeer accessible to all, and villa-viewing became a popular bourgeois past-time.4 This proximity also meant that there was no need to choose between the rural villa and the urban canal home – both lifestyle choices were easily compatible. The head of the household can spend the day doing business in the city, while his family engages in leisurely intellectual pursuits, recreation, and polite socialization.5 These rural estates ranged from humble farmsteads to stately mansions similar to what one would find elsewhere in Europe. Families tend to employ the same architect to design both homes: their urban canal townhome, and a freestanding version outside the city.6 The architecture was not the emphasis – it was only the framing device and a medium to experience the real highlight: the landscape. In its various guises of untamed nature, agricultural fields, and formal gardens, the landscape was the stage where wealthy landowners could ‘act out his seigniorial ambitions’.7 Dutch society may not have the distinct aristocratic class of other European elites, but one could play pretend for a while. In order to emulate this foreign lifestyle, courtly mannerisms and fashions were borrowed from French aristocrats.8 In an unexpected way, the French did manage, after all, to infiltrate Watergraafsmeer, using their cultural sophistication rather than brute military strength. After this experimentation with European elitism, it appears that these wealthy elites have decided that such extravagant displays of wealth was a costume that did not quite fit. Traces of the buitenplaatsen and its theatrical lifestyle can be found in fictitious portrayals in literature such as Het Verheerlykt Watergraefsmeer,9 but in reality, they have chosen return to return to Amsterdam - to their urban canal homes, to class equality, to practicality, to simplicity, to modesty, to moderation, and to honesty. In the end, they have returned to being Dutch. We will return later to see what this means for Watergraafsmeer, but for now, we will take a look at the North American counterpart – the suburban communities.









NORTH AMERICAN POST-WAR SUBURBAN DEVELOPMENT Although some of the earliest settlers were Dutch, the origin of present-day North American society has little in common with the origins of the Dutch nation. The Netherlands was hand-made from the ground up, so while there were times when land was barely adequate, that land was truly theirs. North America was a different story – upon arrival, settlers found that there was far too much land, and they had no claim on it. While the Dutch were making the most of what they had, through innovation and frugality, settlers in the New World spread themselves out far and sparsely to stake their claim using technology and violence. This was recorded in American history as ‘heroic’ feats of the ‘pioneering spirit’,10 and the mentality continues to this day. Contrary to popular belief, population growth attributed to the post-war baby boom started just before World War 2. When possibility of war increased, those who were considering marriage, as well as those considering having a child, were spurred into making impulsive decisions. Some men were able to return and continue building their families, some of the men who never returned had left behind wives and children who also wanted to start their own households. The government played a role by offering financial incentives for married men, with an additional stipend for each child.11 After the war ended, billions of dollars of mortgage insurance was approved for the Federal Housing Administration, and guaranteed federal mortgages were offered to home-builders at whatever price they set. An unprecedented building boom was triggered, and as the U.S. did not need to rebuild, growth spread outwards from cities, with the aid of the widely-available automobiles. Suburban homes sprang up at an unprecedented rate due to the implementation of assembly line technique made popular in the early 20th century by Ford, an automobile manufacturer. By ‘transforming a cottage industry into a major manufacturing process’, division of labour was broken into incremental steps. Workers would be trained in a highly specialized task – applying red paint, or installing one appliance, and so on – and would move from house to house. This reduced the requirement of skilled labour down to 20%.13 To increase efficiency and reduce design fees, each community offered no more than half a dozen variations.14 In reducing production costs, the savings were then passed onto homebuyers, so that the luxury of space and privacy, the suburban lifestyle, was affordable for the middle class. For the past two centuries, the ideal of The American Dream, envisioned by President Jefferson was one where “the pursuit of happiness ended on a small family farm”.15 Even more recently, President Roosevelt proclaimed that “a nation of homeowners, of people who own a real share in their land, is unconquerable”.16 This shaped the American mentality ever since, and the arrival of the suburbs brought this aspiration within reach. They were told that the suburban lifestyle offered abundance, security, comfort, wholesomeness, and freedom – everything that a city did not. The typical home was simple and well-designed, with a living room, fireplace, kitchens, bathrooms and several bedrooms, surrounded by a yard. Floorplans oriented the home to the rear yard, where children can play while parents watched from the kitchen or the living room, with a garage and driveway facing the street.17


“There was once a place where neighbors greeted neighbors. In the quiet of summer twilight, children chased fireflies. Remember that place? Perhaps from your childhood? Or maybe just from stories. It held a magic all on its own.� - advertisement for Celebration, Florida25

While there was early criticism of the suburbs as they were being built, these condemnations of the stark monotony and lack of imagination fell on deaf ears amidst the overwhelming demand for housing. 18 It is not until a generation later when Americans became fully aware of the real cost of the suburbs at every level of society. The effects were first felt at home. The privatization of daily life, built-in by the floorplans and the automobile, meant that social life is dominated by interactions with immediate family members. Long commutes to the city deteriorated the amount of quality time that parents can spend with their children.19 Women, having been an active participant in the workforce while the men were at war, are expected to return to the role of housewives and experienced stifled psychological frustrations.20 In this era of prosperity, children are no longer expected to start working at a young age, and the extended childhood eroded their character development. Unable to drive, with nothing but other homes within walking distance, there was nowhere to go. Children increasingly spend their leisure time in front of screens at home, or at the homes of others, and in their ennui they are missing the mental stimulation necessary for self-actualization.21 Conformity breeds conformity, and these ‘mass-produced, standardized housing’ in turn breeds mass-produced ‘standardized individuals’,22 and children who have grown up there, having never experienced the real world in the city, are particularly susceptible. Outside of the home was a sterile environment. It was safe and clean, but disturbingly so. The public realm is all but non-existent and walking down the street one would either experience a series of homes just like their own, and encounter people that are “ethnic clones”.23 Structural discrimination was still legal when suburbanization was new, and developers were permitted to deny sales to anyone who was not “a member of the Caucasian race”.24 Those in poverty were also excluded, as housing was considered as a commodity, not a merit good, and unless one is willing to walk on a highway for days, the suburbs are only accessible by car. Those who can neither afford homes nor cars are excluded from the suburban lifestyle. In my opinion, the core of the problem is the darker side of a meritocratic society. By definition, meritocracy tells us that we are no longer bound by the circumstances we are born into, that anyone can achieve whatever they need by their merit – by hard work and determination. However, this also implies that those in poverty have brought misfortune upon themselves by their own laziness and lack of will, thus they are undeserving of help, comfort, dignity, humanity, or even of survival. This justifies the a systematic criminalization of poverty, and is further exacerbated by a capitalist system, where a home is not a basic human right, but a commodity to be purchased. Those who can afford it may purchase multiple without intended to use all of those as homes, while those who cannot afford it are told to live on the street, to work more, try harder. Even when they have done so, their skin colour prevents them from overcoming the structural discrimination implemented by policies driven systematically by paranoia, xenophobia and self-righteousness. Now will be a good time to revisit The Netherlands, where homes are a human right, where policies are driven by practicality and humanity, and where people only look down on others in order to help them up. Let us return to Amsterdam, and see what the Dutch have been up to since the war ended.


“A multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads...inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same tv performances, eating the same prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold.” 26 “Mindless, ugly, and put together without thought or care for residents who knew no better.” 27 “Ticky-tacky housing developments, as lifeless as rows of tombstones.” 28

“A sense of an ‘almost mandatory neighborliness’ is ubiquitous.” 29

“Spiritually vacuous, culturally philistine, preoccupied with the opinions of others, insensitive to their own defects, and boring.” 30

“As a Jew, I have no room in my heart for racial prejudice. But the plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities. This attitude may be wrong morally, and someday it may change. I hope it will.” 31

DUTCH POST-WAR PUBLIC HOUSING DEVELOPMENT Centuries ago, the Dutch have decided that housing was a basic human right – whether the occupant can afford it, or has earned it, is inconsequential – the simple fact is, they are a human being and human beings need shelter. This was where the profit-driven market model fails – where there is the least profit, there is, ironically the most intense demand. Development of housing cannot be driven by market forces, but by a compassionate and socialist administration interested in the development of its citizens. This early realization resulted in a series of policies that created a very different society from what we have just seen. Dutch national identity was forged through a series of cooperative efforts, a united society first against the forces of nature and against that of foreign invasions. This created a mindset that a society as a whole is only as weak as its lowest point, and by elevating those at the bottom, the whole is also lifted up. Those who are fortunate offer help because they are able to, not because the recipients have rightfully earned it, or judged to be ‘deserving’ of assistance. This can be seen in public institutions such as huizittenmeesters for the poor, aalmoezeniers for those who would be begging otherwise, orphanages for children, and homes for the elderly.32 The development of Plantage was not just a plan for a beautiful open space, but a means of making education accessible to those who would not be able to afford it otherwise. This public realm, open to all regardless of social class, also had an informal educational component, where the lower classes can learn how to conduct themselves with dignity by observing the upper classes.33 Wealth and subsequently, well-being, is distributed evenly until the disparity is reduced, and a strong middle class emerges. These attitudes were formalized in the late 19th century through a series of policies. The 1896 Land Acquisition policy made the city of Amsterdam the primary landowner, leasing parcels out long term without selling it, so that the city retains control over land use and prevents the land from becoming a commodity.34 At the turn of the 20th century, the Housing Act was adopted, investing financially in providing homes for all, with no expectation of financial return.35 Instead, the city was rewarded with the well-being of its society, composed of conscientious citizens who consider the city an extension of their homes and are willing to care for it. After the war, these policies allowed the city to rebuild efficiently, and the 1898 Aesthetics Commission and 1905 Building Code ensured that architectural quality was not compromised for the sake of mass-production.36 Like America, post-war housing demand came as a result of demographic changes and general population growth. Unlike America, Dutch cities sustained losses during the war, and so housing supply needed to be rebuilt for the existing population, and then some more for the projected growth. “Housing is a national matter, but a municipal task”, is the winning slogan by the Social Democratic Workers Party.37 It recognizes the multi-scalar coordination required to make this work. An example can be seen in the redevelopment of the Eastern Docks, where the city selects three architects from ten finalists, and the final choice is given to the residents.38 From the top down, the city first needs to create a coherent plan to ensure that each component functions within its context and is compatible with its adjacent neighbourhoods. General guidelines also need to be set to ensure all housing within the city meet a basic standard: courtyards for light and fresh air, street-level perforations to maintain a connection with the city, and a diverse mix of uses to create self-sustaining cities within each walkingdistance radius. To a visitor, Amsterdam is a city of homes, but for a local, Amsterdam can be more 12

accurately described as a city of neighbourhoods. Once the general structure and guidelines are in place, the bottom-up component is activated. Homes are built with the people for the people. While American developers justify monotony by assuming each household is the same – white, middle class, married couple with two children – in Amsterdam a Housing Atlas is produced in recognition of reality’s diverse households and offers a variety of floor plans for each.39 This is a re-emphasis of the theme: Homes are for everyone, even for those who cannot afford it, and for those who do not fit a narrow definition. Architects, considered as disembodied as a ‘design expense’, were noticeably absent in the American suburbs, since only one house needed to be designed to be replicated.40 In the Netherlands, architects were where they belonged, on the front lines in the post-war rebuilding efforts. Berlage and Keppler were vocally in favour of architecture for all, urging students to become better architects by empathizing with those who struggle for housing.41 While in America public housing was synonymous with ‘urban blight’ and ‘slums’, reserved for those unworthy of participating in post-war prosperity, it is an enduring symbol of national pride of the Netherlands. The architects took pride in their work, so while public housing is built under time and budget constraints, each is distinct. Each design is created as part of an ongoing dialogue with the context, so that as the ensemble is neither chaotic nor monotonous but are situated on the moderate position of expressiveness in harmony. The vertical articulation of the buildings has the same calming visual rhythm of the canal homes, but there are horizontal striations as well to infuse a sense of natural movement – like a breeze or a wave - in the regularity. Familiar elements such as brick are enlivened by brightly coloured ornamentation, giving the building a cheerful and playful character, which is all the more welcoming.42 Each neighbourhood is self-sufficient, but not closed off – it draws the public in through ground-level arches. Public playgrounds are usually found within the courtyards where children play with each other, without questioning whether they lived in the same neighbourhood. Social mixture comes naturally, and there is no squeamishness over interacting with outsiders. Public housing can be found almost anywhere outside the canal ring, so let us return to Watergraafsmeer for another look. It is no longer a rural utopia to escape to outside Amsterdam but has since been incorporated into the city. Few traces remain: the Frankendael House, the Court House, and a few farmsteads – all have since been converted to restaurants. All the other estates and villas have been replaced by neighbourhoods of public housing, in closer alignment to Dutch values. Luxurious and spatially inefficient estates are replaced by cozy dense neighbourhoods, elitist villas are replaced by homes for all, and dressed-up made-believe aristocrats are replaced by conscientious middle-class citizens. After several centuries of experimentation and theatrics, Watergraafsmeer is once again an recognizably Dutch landscape. It may not be an Arcadia anymore, but it is, in its own way, utopian.


FINAL THOUGHTS The transformation of Watergraafsmeer demonstrate that the Dutch have much to learn from their own experience, and the comparison with American suburbs show that the Americans have even more to learn from the Dutch. At the core of the issue, it is the very nature of their societies that will require an adjustment – to see homes as a human right rather than a product, to be content with ‘just enough’ rather than material excess, and most importantly, to prioritize humanity over self-righteousness. The housing crisis is ongoing and urgent, and we cannot wait for a nationwide shift before acting. Convincing Americans into adopt Dutch policies must come from a capitalist perspective, using a discussion of costs and profits. The ‘American Dream’ is ending – its reliance on automobiles and material excess is unsustainable, its conformist expectations impede self-actualization, and its utopian ideals are disintegrating in the face of reality. As a lifestyle driven by unsustainable modes of travel and consumerism, it will become increasingly expensive to maintain. As a market product in a flawed meritocratic society, the suburbs cost even more – they are dehumanizing. The suburbs may have solved the housing issue by providing inexpensive homes, but for what it actually cost society, it is too much. Another solution is required. North American urban design responses include the innovative ‘neighbourhoods in the sky’ concept in Vancouver,43 or the revival of traditional pre-modern towns, such as Savannah. The Dutch alternative, discussed through the public housing program, rings clear and resolute. Americans have already enlisted in Dutch assistance in reaction to the catastrophic effects of climate change. Perhaps they could extend that assistance to include preventative measures as well – how to encourage a lifestyle that is sustainable and independent of automobiles, how to use their land efficiently to prevent unnecessary consumption and to provide homes for all, and how to densify while protecting individual privacy and dignity. The ‘American Dream’ is no longer the only path to happiness and fulfilment. A lawn, a house, a car, and a traditional family is no longer necessary for a high quality of life – a visit to Amsterdam provides compelling evidence. Some questions remain to be answered, and some new questions have been generated: What happened to the inhabitants of the buitenplaatsen? Did they return to their canal homes, or did they rebuild their Arcadia elsewhere? Space and privacy are seen as a luxury everywhere else, but Amsterdam. Why, and, more importantly, how did the Dutch manage to dignify density, so that it is desirable and compatible with luxury? Finding a response will require a deeper look into Dutch culture and becoming acquainted with the people. From what I have encountered so far, this next step will be a deeply gratifying experience.

Menora Tse November 15, 2019


NOTES A Walk Around Amsterdam 1 For a more detailed analysis, see “Time and City” and “Urbanity, Modernity and Liberty: Amsterdam in the 17th Century” by Olsen in Understanding Amsterdam by Deben (1993). Dutch Arcadia: Watergraafsmeer in the Dutch Golden Age 2 Feddes 345 3 Feddes 107, with an etching depicting the broken dike 4 Schmidt 177, 189 5 Schmidt 187 6 Schmidt 189 7 Schmidt 176 8 Schmidt 189 9 Schmidt 177-187 The American Dream: Post-War Suburban Development 10 Samuels 62 11 Jackson 2 12 Galyean 13 Jackson 4 14 Jackson 7 15 Muzzio 192 16 Galyean 17 Jackson 4 18 “New fashioned methods to compound old fashioned mistakes.” Lewis Mumford (quoted in Jackson 5), the disappearance of regional styles (Jackson 8), “It was this cartoon landscape…a little too clean, a little too much like a movie set, a lot too white” (Frantz 212) 19 Frantz 54. 20 Jackson 10, also parodied in the file “The Stepford Wives” 21 “Millions of Americans grew up in the company of half-hour situation-comedies that celebrated the goodness, wholesomeness, and the fun of the idealized suburb, glorifying such bourgeois virtues as honesty, courtesy, cheerfulness, obedience and neatness…Fin de siècle movies generally portrayed the American suburb as a den of a teenage wasteland. Most of these movies offer a tour of the suburban heart of darkness, presenting cliched and ironic images of the suburbs and their denizens suburban life is a twisted nightmare of repressed desires and shattered hopes…suburbs as anti-sitcoms.” Muzzio and Halper 548 22 Jackson 10


23 Frantz 216 24 Galyean 25 Frantz 23, quoting an advertisement for Celebration, a suburban community designed by Disney. Frantz and his family moved to this experimental town for a year in order to write about it. Their book is a disturbing eye-opener to the degree of childlike trust full-grown adults have in their developer, especially since it is Disney. It is also an interesting experience for Disney, as they struggle to translate the subtle social control and ‘imagineering’ of their fantasy theme parks into reality. The town itself becomes a theme park of sorts and is a regular stop for tourists visiting Disney World. “Are you required to wear Mickey Mouse ears?” a tourist asks a resident. 26 Lewis Mumford (1968), quoted in Muzzio and Harper 557 27 ibid 28 Muzzio 552 29 Frantz 121 30 Muzzio and Halper 556 31 Galyean. This blood-boiling quote is from one of the founders of Levittown, where the assemblyline technique was first implemented. This is a century since slavery has ended (1865), yet this is still, inexplicably, acceptable. Dutch Post-War Public Housing Development 32 For a closer look at Dutch public institutions, see Otterheym, “Urban Space and Public Buildings” 33 For a closer look at the Plantage development, see Gramsbergen, “For the Amenity of This City’s Residents.” 34 Feddes 187 35 ibid 36 Feddes 136, 228 37 Casciato 26 38 For the full story on the development of the Eastern Docks, see Abrahamse, “Amsterdam on the Sea” 39 Schaap 50, de Waal 83 40 Jackson 7 41 “Only if you are well-disposed towards the struggle (of the workers), will you be able to do a good job building find working-class houses, the monuments of their struggle…Nothing is fine enough for the working man whose deprivation and suffering have been so great.” Keppler, quoted in Casciato 26 42 For case studies on public housing by the Amsterdam School, see Casciato “The Amsterdam School” Final Thoughts 43 For more on Vancouver’s response to the suburban crisis: research_-_all_3a6c95e11b7f5d


IMAGE SOURCES Front Cover: Extracted from a digital copy of Het Verheerlykt Watergraafsmeer A Walk Around Amsterdam photos: All photos by author Dutch Arcadia: Watergraafsmeer in the Dutch Golden Age Images: Extracted from a digital copy of Het Verheerlykt Watergraafsmeer Maps: Historical maps downloaded from Old Maps Online: 1686 and 1770 maps provided as course material for Amsterdam: A Historical Introduction The American Dream: Post-War Suburban Development Images: Downloaded from the following upscale()/view-of-levittown--new-york-514867608-5ae49d2e3128340037f80e4f.jpg jpg

22 mosaic2d567e97109badb818b991ac7118833b3ffe9cfe.jpg*1000/Suburbs+feature+main+photo.jpg Dutch Post-War Public Housing Development Dutch Public Housing images extracted from Casciato “The Amsterdam School” Watergraafsmeer photos downloaded from the following: jpg fe7b6bf50e9c0bf743df0.jpg Back Cover:


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Profile for Menora Tse

VU Dutch Arcadia and the American Dream  

VU Dutch Arcadia and the American Dream