Bijlmer (City of the Future, Part 1)

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 1933, a group of architects boarded a ship called the S.S. Patris II and set sail from Marseilles, France toward Athens, Greece. Onboard were several of the world’s most famous modernist architects and artists, Ernő Goldfinger, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, and dozens of others representing more than 15 countries. There was a silent film made of the voyage that shows grainy shots of the architects on deck of the ship in short-sleeved white shirts and sunglasses, cigarettes in their mouths, their hair blowing gently in the breeze as they listened to lectures. One of the architects wrote in his journal, “We eat and drink copiously, and we’re all half-naked.”

Katie Mingle:
The architects were on the ship for the International Congress of Modern Architecture, commonly known by its French acronym CIAM.

Roman Mars:
That’s senior producer Katie Mingle, and I’m going to hand this story over to her now.

Katie Mingle:
So yeah, the architects were on this boat trip for a CIAM meeting, but more specifically, they were there to talk about how to plan a better city. The members of CIAM thought that cities were too congested, too noisy, and polluted and chaotic, and they thought that some of these problems could be solved by separating out the functions of a city into distinct zones.

Zef Hemel:
So separate everything – housing, working, recreation, the traffic. Separate all the kinds of traffic – so pedestrians, the cyclists, cars, the trains. It would mean the end of congestion.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Zef Hemel.

Zef Hemel:
I’m Zef Hemel, and I’m a planner.

Katie Mingle:
Hemel spent a bunch of years working for the city of Amsterdam as the Head of the Urban Planning Department, and now he teaches at the University of Amsterdam.

Zef Hemel:
And yeah, I love cities.

Katie Mingle:
The idea of separation of functions wasn’t brand new, but Hemel says the architects from CIAM wanted to take it really far. The living spaces would be in high-rise apartments so that the ground level was open for recreation and collective spaces. Live in the sky, play on the ground. In fact, cars would drive on elevated roads so that pedestrians could have the ground all to themselves. There would also be separate zones for industry and shopping. Where old European cities were winding, cluttered and polluted, these new cities would be linear, open and clean. Everything in its proper place.

Zef Hemel:
It should be kind of a smooth, nice machine where you’re very comfortable.

Katie Mingle:
Modernists also saw this new kind of city as more egalitarian. They wanted to get rid of slums and create beautiful housing that everyone could afford.

Oscar Newman:
“It was a beautiful image, a new image, a new alternative for living in cities.”

Katie Mingle:
That’s the American city planner, Oscar Newman. In a BBC documentary called the “Writing on the Wall”.

Oscar Newman:
“Put the people up, give them a view. A view happens to be the other buildings, but give them a view. Give them space down below. Free the grounds. It was a great image.”

Katie Mingle:
But in the 1930s that’s all it was, a great image. Because the world was in an economic depression.

Zef Hemel:
There was not much to do in the 1930s because it was the crisis. There was no building anymore. And then we got the Second World War. It sounds cynical, but in effect, they were rather lucky that so many cities were destroyed in the Second World War. We even found documents that they almost celebrated the destruction. So there was a lot of work to do in 1945, and they were really excited.

Katie Mingle:
But it wasn’t just that the architects had a lot of work, it was an opportunity to start over, to build cities the right way from the ground up.

Zef Hemel:
Yes, and that was their idea from the start. So tear everything down. Let’s start again.

Katie Mingle:
The CIAM architects seized this opportunity. The famous Swiss architect and CIAM member Le Corbusier published a book called…

Zef Hemel:
The “La Charte d’Athènes”.

Katie Mingle:
Or in English, the “Athens Charter”. The book outlined exactly how to build new cities in the way the architects from CIAM had talked about on the boat.

Zef Hemel:
And it became a bestseller.

Katie Mingle:
Le Corbusier traveled the world talking about these modern ideas for city-building, and governments liked what they saw, mostly because of the price tag.

Zef Hemel:
What CIAM proposed was in fact a very cheap building.

Katie Mingle:
Concrete, the modernist building material of choice was inexpensive, and building identical apartments and high-rises was cheaper and required less land than building standalone homes.

Zef Hemel:
And that was what all the governments needed after the Second World War because the whole of Europe was poor.

Katie Mingle:
And so after World War II in cities all over Europe, buildings and housing developments were rebuilt with CIAM principles in mind.

Zef Hemel:
Almost everything. Here in Europe? Almost everything.

Katie Mingle:
We built a lot of modernist style apartment buildings here in the U.S. too. But these building projects in postwar Europe and the United States weren’t usually pure encapsulations of CIAM and Le Corbusier’s plans. Most places took some ideas and left others. But the city planners of Amsterdam in the Netherlands wanted to go further. They wanted to build a new area right outside of Amsterdam, that would be a CIAM blueprint, a perfect encapsulation of these modernist principles. They would call this place the Bijlmermeer.

Chris Bajema:
So from the center of Amsterdam, I think you could take a bike and within a half-hour you are in the Bijlmermeer.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Dutch radio producer, Chris Bajema. He co-reported this story with me, and like a proper Dutchman, he rode his bike out to do interviews many times at the Bijlmermeer.

Chris Bajema:
I always take my bike.

Katie Mingle:
So you’ll hear him asking questions and occasionally speaking in Dutch.

Chris Bajema:
(speaking in Dutch)

Katie Mingle:
The Bijlmermeer area covers about six square kilometers or 2.3 square miles.

Chris Bajema:
I think you can walk around for a day. It’s really big.

Katie Mingle:
Today, the Bijlmermeer is also an extremely diverse area. There’s something like 150 nationalities represented there.

Chris Bajema:
“We ship all your cargo to Ghana,” it says on there.

Katie Mingle:
The area has changed a lot from the original design, and it’s had a bunch of different chapters over the years, including some really tragic ones. So let’s start at the beginning.

Chris Bajema:
First, can you introduce yourself, who you are and what you are?

Pi de Bruijn:
My name is Pi de Bruijn. I’m an architect in Amsterdam, and I’ve been for a while. I’ve been educated in Delft University. It was very much in the functionalist modernist tradition. That means that the big concrete blocks, that was our paradise.

Katie Mingle:
When he was a young man, de Bruijn was hired to help plan the Bijlmermeer. It would be a brand new area right outside of Amsterdam for 100,000 middle-class residents. It would technically be part of Amsterdam, but it would be built from scratch and designed to function almost as its own city, a city of the future, true to the tenants of modernism.

Pi de Bruijn:
The Bijlmermeer. It’s the apotheosis of all modernist thinking.

Chris Bajema:
Was it a dream come true for you?

Pi de Bruijn:
Oh, definitely. Yes. I was not even 30 years old, a bit more than 25. We are going to present the world with a new far-reaching idea that’s utopic. I started to understand, “This is going far, man. This is really unusual.” It was like a fever, my every day, every moment in that direction.

Katie Mingle:
De Bruijn worked on a team with a bunch of other planners, and the head of the team was an architect named Siegfried Nassuth.

Daan Dekker:
Yeah, he was Siegfried. Nassuth was really a idealistic person, and he believed that how we built in the 19th to 18th century wasn’t good enough. We had to do it all over again, and new and bigger and better.

Katie Mingle:
This is Daan Dekker.

Daan Dekker:
I’m a writer, and I wrote a book about the Bijlmer.

Katie Mingle:
The Bijlmer is just a shorter way of saying the Bijlmermeer. You’ll hear people use it a lot. Anyway, Daan says there was never any question that the Bijlmer would be made up of tall, concrete housing towers. But the planners did choose to arrange them in a sort of unique shape.

Daan Dekker:
Which was the shape of a honing… (Dutch word)… What’s how you say? We have to search the word “honingraat”.

Chris Bajema:
Honeycomb?

Daan Dekker:
Honeycomb, yeah.

Katie Mingle:
If the buildings were laid out in the hexagonal grid of a honeycomb, it would allow each apartment to get a good amount of sun per day. The modernists were crazy about sunlight. That was a huge part of their doctrine.

Zef Hemel:
You were doing better than your predecessors if you could bring more sun to all these dwellings.

Katie Mingle:
The apartments at the Bijlmer were meant for the middle class, and no apartment was designed to be better than another.

Zef Hemel:
The image of men behind this Bijlmermeer was egalitarian. The basic idea behind it was that every man is equal to his neighbor.

Katie Mingle:
The modernist idea to keep all of the functions of the city separate was also strictly followed at the Bijlmer. The housing would be up in the sky in towers while the ground would be kept open for the people to congregate in green spaces and indoor collective areas. The idea being…

Pi de Bruijn:
People would discuss politics there, philosophy; help each other grow in life, make better people.

Katie Mingle:
At one point, Pi de Bruijn proposed apartments be built on the ground level of the building, and Nassuth was completely horrified and appalled saying, “The ground is for everyone. The earth should not be inhabited by private people.” De Bruijn says any suggestion to stray from the original principles of modernism was completely shut down by Nassuth.

Pi de Bruijn:
He would say, “No, stop. We’re not going this direction. We’ll stay in the party line.” It was like a religion, and any subversive element was potentially a big danger to the house of cards.

Chris Bajema:
Okay, good. But you also were what we call in the Netherlands, a Bijlmer believer, and you actually moved to a flat in ’69.

Pi de Bruijn:
I was so much involved in the modern movement and modernism. It was no doubt that I would like to live in the middle of it.

Katie Mingle:
De Bruijn was not the only person who wanted to live in the middle of it. Advertisements depicted a paradise, modern apartment towers surrounded by lush green grass and trees.

Daan Dekker:
It’s comparable with living in central park. It even going to be better than Central Park. Yeah.

Katie Mingle:
Of course, people wanted in. Each building was managed by a different housing association, and there were waiting lists and interviews to be accepted as a tenant. De Bruijn and his wife moved in, in 1969.

Pi de Bruijn:
I lived on the ninth floor, three bedrooms and a living room, and kitchen, and beautiful bathroom. I had a balcony of close to two meters wide and 12 meters long. It was a paradise of a balcony.

Katie Mingle:
De Bruijn always lived in small apartments and noisy cities. Now he was on the ninth floor, up in the clouds, tons of light, and he loved it. He talks about his first year at the Bijlmer like it was a religious experience.

Pi de Bruijn:
Very much an every day saintly feeling. There is all these daily hostilities of a city, the noise. It wasn’t the case. There was a cool and silent, a life that brought you deeper into yourself maybe.

Katie Mingle:
But there were also pretty immediate problems. A Metro was supposed to connect the Bijlmer with Amsterdam, but the construction was delayed. For a while, there was only one road out to the area, and it was dirt. The designers had also planned for shops to come to the Bijlmermeer, but those didn’t come right away either. There was nowhere to buy groceries if you didn’t have a car or didn’t want to ride your bike 30 minutes to Amsterdam.

Pi de Bruijn:
There came this kind of driving van every Friday or maybe twice in a week to sell a bottle of milk. It was very, very primitive.

Katie Mingle:
Eventually, the roads did come, and true to the modernist idea of separation of functions, they were elevated above the ground, sort of weaving in and out of the high-rises.

Zef Hemel:
I remembered you could drive with your car, and then have this spectacular view of the Bijlmer, just seeing all those high-rises around you. And then driving 70, 80 kilometers an hour through this cityscape, wow, it was amazing.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Zef Hemel again, who you heard at the beginning and he says, “Yeah, it was amazing,” but it was also disorienting.

Zef Hemel:
It was always problematic to find your way. “Where am I? Which flat building is this? Where am I going?” You could not find the center.

Katie Mingle:
You couldn’t find the center because there was no city center, no town square, just identical concrete buildings, one after another, after another. Visitors were constantly getting lost and they couldn’t just pull over and ask for directions.

Zef Hemel:
No one would walk on that high level, so you would never encounter someone. There was no way to ask, “How can I get to this or this address?”

Katie Mingle:
On the ground level, the promised green space didn’t come right away either. Green takes time to grow, and de Bruijn says, in the beginning the landscape was like a desert.

Pi de Bruijn:
Below in the desert, you would also not encounter someone because who would walk through the desert? But I liked it, my wife liked it, because she was with me. We were all young and there is a state of pioneering that many people like.

Chris Bajema:
But what were you saying to the designing team, because you lived there?

Pi de Bruijn:
I would tell my superiors, these planners like Nassuth, “It isn’t working.” He would say, “You have to wait. This is because it’s not finished yet.”

Katie Mingle:
And so de Bruijn waited. Other residents were not as patient.

Pi de Bruijn:
I remember this kind of elderly couple. Children left home, so they said, “Okay, now we’re going to this paradise that has been promised to us.” They were, after one year, completely disillusioned.

Chris Bajema:
The waiting lists disappeared really fast. Desperate people then start screaming, “Where’s the subway? Where are the shops?”

Katie Mingle:
By the early 1970s, as the Bijlmer was being built, much of the world was already turning against the massive concrete apartment towers that modernists had pushed for in the 30s and 40s.

Zef Hemel:
Nobody built these kinds of structures at that time anymore. In America, in St. Louis, they were tearing them down.

Archival Tape:
Today is demolition day at Pruitt-Igoe. A door-wrecking company will explode the supporting columns from an 11-story vacant high-rise.

Katie Mingle:
Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis had also been an experiment in the modernist principles of CIAM. It was different than the Bijlmer in that it was never meant to function as a city unto itself. But it was similar too, made up of 33 high-rise towers surrounded by lots of green space. The architect had envisioned rivers of trees running between the buildings. Pruitt-Igoe was completed in 1954, and just 15 years later it was so overrun with vacancies and drugs and violence that the city chose to tear it down.

Oscar Newman:
The current secretary of housing has decided that Pruitt-Igoe was in fact a disastrous mistake.

Katie Mingle:
That’s the city planner, Oscar Newman again. He theorized that it was all the common spaces at Pruitt-Igoe that led to its downfall, those rivers of trees the architect had envisioned.

Oscar Newman:
They became sewers of glass and garbage far than rivers of trees. The insides of the building, the interior spaces were vandalized. The heating equipment torn apart, garbage-strewn everywhere, lights smashed, windows broken.

Katie Mingle:
Newman believed that if there was a lot of space in or around a building that residents couldn’t literally see from their own windows and watch over, that that space was vulnerable to crime.

Oscar Newman:
The net result of all this quality design was in fact the production of an environment of fear.

Katie Mingle:
In 1972 Oscar Newman visited the Bijlmermeer, and he gave it essentially the same diagnosis. Vacancies and empty common spaces would become breeding grounds for crime. Even members of CIAM were turning against the Bijlmermeer. The famous Dutch architect and CIAM member, Aldo Van Eyck went on national TV in the Netherlands and cried literal tears over what an awful concrete monstrosity the Bijlmer was.

Pi de Bruijn:
Yeah, yeah. He cried. Yeah.

Katie Mingle:
Still more buildings went up, massive concrete structures. Around 400 apartments in each. First there were a couple of buildings, then there were four, then five, then six.

Pi de Bruijn:
There was no break, no stop.

Katie Mingle:
Seven, eight, nine buildings.

Pi de Bruijn:
You should have said, “Stop building more units because they’ll be standing empty.” And no one said that. Not even me.

Katie Mingle:
10, 15 buildings. I’m going to start counting in fives because they’re too many. 20 buildings, 25, 30.

Pi de Bruijn:
These contractors had contracts for years and years of continuous building, and they just did. And that was like oil under fire.

Katie Mingle:
31 buildings in all, 13,000 apartments arranged in hexagonal blocks, so that from above the Bijlmermeer looked like a massive concrete sci-fi “honingraat”.

Daan Dekker:
Honeycomb, yeah.

Katie Mingle:
In addition to all the buildings, there were also 13,000 storage spaces on the ground level, 31 parking garages, hundreds of elevators and staircases and common spaces, and 110 kilometers or 68 miles of indoor ground level corridors. There was so much space and not enough people to fill it up or watch over it. But there were still people who needed housing in the Netherlands. In fact, there were thousands of newly arrived citizens who had traveled across the Atlantic Ocean from a tropical land in South America and they needed a place to live.

Roman Mars:
The story of the Bijlmermeer took so many twists and turns that we have to continue it next week.

Credits

Production

Producer Katie Mingle worked with co-reporter Chris Bajema, Dutch radio producer on this two part series. This episode featured, Zef Hemel, former head of the urban planning department in Amsterdam at teacher at the University of Amsterdam; author, Daan Dekker who wrote a book about the Bijlmer; and Pi de Bruijn, an architect in Amsterdam who worked with Siegfried Nassuth on the design of the Bijlmer and lived in the complex. Special thanks to Frank Wassenberg whose PhD research on large housing estates was invaluable to this series.

Comments (15)

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  1. bart

    in the eighties is was there often. Because the desperate tenants seeing the poor people destroyed the buildings ans surroundings were happy to rent the apartments to students that rented cheap with 4 in one flat.

    people would shit in the elevators, throw their garbage and even complete furniture over the railing at the 11th floor. Without looking. So you could not let your kids play in the playground under the balconies…..

    After the El-Al Boeing flew into one appartment. two friends of mine that witnessed it told me that only minutes after the crash a large number of people started to loot the shopping malls. Because they figured that the police would not catch them while they were evacuating burning victims from the crash site 400 meters away…..

  2. Mitch

    Thanks for this timely show as I am currently reading a very relevant book called “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs. This book, published in 1961, rails against these modernist city planners like Le Corbusier for their total separation of living, working and recreational spaces. In her book she advocates the planning of balanced neighborhoods that are active at all times with constant use to ensure these spaces have eyes on them throughout the day. If anyone is looking for a methodical analysis on why the modernist planning principles don’t work, this is a must read.

    Thanks for this show and the sequel. I’m looking forward to your Radiotopia Live show in DC.

  3. Great podcast, but here’s an important addition. As I learned some years ago from architectural history gem Andrew Scott Dolkart at Columbia U, the first large-scale project using these design principles was Castle Village, built in the 1930s in New York City’s Washington Heights. One of the few private speculative developments projects build during the depression by cityscape-changing developer Charles Paterno with architect George Pelham, a man who would design buildings in any style you wanted – from brownstone row houses to modernist “Towers in the Park“ like Castle Village, to faux-British-country creations like nearby Hudson View Gardens (where Dolkart lives). See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Village

  4. Dave

    If this shithole we call Bijlmer is the future, I will commit suicide. The Bijlmer is mostly know in the Netherlands for it’s high crime level. Is that really something we would like for the future?

  5. Michael Rowland

    “Best laid plans of mice and men…” Need I go on. This story is a great reminder to those “planners” out there that human interactions are a lot more complicated than can be “planned” for. The USA found out first-hand about public housing projects built in the 60’s and 70’s worked out. They didn’t. Many are now being torn down for similar reasons to the examples shown here.

  6. AG

    Interestingly nothing was mentioned about the Soviet architecture, but in fact a lot of the modernist ideas were used very successfully in the Soviet Union. I lived for many years in a designed city that was a much better version of the Dutch place described in the podcast. Separation of the industrial part of the place from houses; a lot of space between buildings; wide roads; local shopping and a lot of green space. And no crime despite a lot of open space.
    Here is a video about the place.
    https://youtu.be/aJEQfQwDgEI

    1. KP

      I’m also from the eastern block, and here in Hungary we also had quite a few new neighbourhoods – even cities – built with some elements of the modernist principles. Some were more successful than others. The key factor seems to be separation of dwelling and other functions, leading to decaying ghost towns. Where this was avoided, these modernist cities were and are quite pleasant, like your city.

  7. jochen carle

    Was only recently introduced to your podcast via a Recode episode. Thanks for doing this.
    This particular Episode reminded me of the HDB-concept of Singapore, which follows similar design principles. I think the HDB-concept solide a lot of the housing Problems for singapore without walking into the traps Europe and the US encountered. HDB flats are owned by the tenants, thus encouraging them to take care of their surroundings . And the ownership is payed for via mandatory retirement funds turned into seid capital.

    Might be worth to look into this in the context of 401s, housing and the dilemma of social welfare handouts .

    keep going !

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