Blood, Sweat & Tears (City of the Future, Part 2)

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

Roman Mars:
What you’re about to hear is the second part of a two-part series. Part one was last week. So, if you haven’t listened to that yet, go do that now before you hear this one. But for the rest of you, here’s a recap.

Archival Tape:
“It was a beautiful image, a new image. A new alternative for living in cities. Put the people up. Give them a view, give them space down below, free the grounds. It was a great image.”

Roman Mars:
After World War II, modernist architects offered people a new vision for urban planning, a so-called “City of the Future”, where people would live in high-rise apartment buildings and cars would drive on elevated roads so that the ground can be open for recreation. Housing, shopping, and traffic would all be separated out into distinct zones.

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

Roman Mars:
These new modernist ideas for urban design were used to some degree in developments all over the world. But in Amsterdam, they took this modernist idea really far.

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

Zef Hemel:
It was the best attempt to build the City of the Future.

Roman Mars:
But in the late sixties and early seventies as the first residents moved in, the Bijlmermeer was not living up to its promises.

Daan Dekker:
The waiting list disappeared really fast. The desperate people start screaming, “Where’s the subway? Where are the shops?”

Pi de Bruijn:
You should have said, “Stop building more units,” because they’ll be standing empty.

Roman Mars:
When it was completed in the mid-’70s, the Bijlmermeer or the Bijlmer as locals call it for short, was a massive expanse of 31 concrete towers arranged in a honeycomb pattern. There were 13,000 apartments and many of them were unoccupied, just sitting there. Totally empty. Senior producer, Katie Mingle, will take the story from here.

Katie Mingle:
There are so many planes that fly over the Bijlmermeer.

Chris Bajema:
It’s a route to the airport, yeah. It’s a very busy airport, Schiphol Airport.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Dutch producer, Chris Bajema. He co-reported this story with me and you’ll hear him occasionally asking questions, speaking in Dutch, and waiting for planes to pass as he talks to people out of the Bijlmer.

Chris Bajema:
We hear the plane still because it’s the same old route.

Katie Mingle:
If Chris were standing outside the Bijlmer in the 1970s, he’d have heard the same thing, a lot of planes. And many of them would have been coming from across the Atlantic, from a nation on the Northern coast of South America called Suriname.

Guilly Koster:
And we used to go to Schiphol, to the national airport, to spend the Saturday simply to look who had arrived. It was like a sport.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Guilly Koster. He lived in Amsterdam in the 1970s but he’s originally from Suriname.

Guilly Koster:
When people ask me, I say, you know, “From the tip of my toes to the head, I’m a Dutchman. But in my heart and in my soul, I am Surinamese.” It’s a beautiful country with very special people. The climate is tropic.

Katie Mingle:
And that tropical climate is part of what attracted the Dutch to Suriname back in the 1600s. The Netherlands colonized this part of South America, as well as a handful of islands in the Caribbean. And for a couple of hundred years in these places, the Dutch used slave labor from Africa to grow tropical crops like sugar cane. Slavery was abolished in the Dutch colonies in the 1860s. And many years later in the 1950s, these Caribbean colonies, including Suriname, were incorporated into the kingdom of the Netherlands. All the people were given Dutch citizenship and allowed to live in whatever part of the kingdom they wanted. And so Guilly Koster and his family chose to move across the Atlantic.

Guilly Koster:
I left Suriname when I was six years old. This was 1962.

Katie Mingle:
So Guilly was already living in Amsterdam when in the 1970s, suddenly a lot more people from Suriname started moving to the Netherlands.

Guilly Koster:
There were 5,000 people coming per month sometimes. Maybe I exaggerate a little bit now, but a lot. 3,000 at least every month.

Katie Mingle:
A movement had started within Suriname for independence from their former colonial rulers. And people got scared that the upheaval would be bloody and that they’d lose their ability to live in the Netherlands.

Daan Dekker:
They thought, “Well, we have to go now. If you wait too long, we have to stay in Suriname.”

Katie Mingle:
That’s Daan Dekker, who wrote a book about the Bijlmermeer. You met him in the last episode.

Daan Dekker:
So, it was quite an exodus.

Katie Mingle:
Suriname eventually did become independent in 1975. And around this time, it’s estimated that more than a quarter of the country where about 100,000 people moved to the Netherlands.

Daan Dekker:
For the government, it was really a shock because they had housing problems in the Netherlands and they didn’t know where to place all those people.

Katie Mingle:
Of course, there was one place with housing available in the 1970s, a brand new development with thousands of empty apartments. The Bijlmermeer.

Katie Mingle:
Guilly Koster was already living in the Bijlmermeer when the major migration from Suriname started in the 1970s. And he says that the apartments were nice enough, large, modern, but the outside was not pretty.

Guilly Koster:
It was big and ugly. It was like they created a monster of Frankenstein.

Katie Mingle:
At that time, there were several housing associations that managed the different buildings at the Bijlmer. And even though they were having trouble filling up the apartments with white, middle-class Dutch people, some of these associations put quotas on the number of Surinamese they’d take as tenants.

Daan Dekker:
The housing corporations in the Bijlmer, which said, “We only want 10% of Surinamese in our flats because else it would became a ghetto here.”

Katie Mingle:
How was that legal? Aren’t there like anti-discrimination laws or something?

Daan Dekker:
Well, we’re talking about the ’70s and nowadays it’s different. But in the ’70s, there wasn’t any regulation in that way and there was racism, without a doubt.

Katie Mingle:
But there were already a few Surinamese people living in the Bijlmer, including Guilly and a guy named Just Maatrijk. Maatrijk is no longer living but Guilly remembers him well.

Guilly Koster:
Just Maatrijk, this guy deserves a statue, Katie.

Katie Mingle:
Guilly says that Maatrijk saw all these people coming in from Suriname being squeezed into tiny flats in downtown Amsterdam.

Guilly Koster:
And he said, “No. You’re not animals, you’re not supposed to live like that.”

Daan Dekker:
And he also saw that a building close to his house was almost empty, or at least 30% or 40% empty.

Katie Mingle:
So, Maatrijk organized a group to squat apartments in one of the buildings. And Guilly was part of it.

Guilly Koster:
I was in the posse to squat the houses. You had, you know, some tools to break open the kitchen window, sneak in. And within five minutes, you would have a lock put in and you put a chair in it. And from that moment, the Dutch government had to go through a civil process to get you out of the house.

Katie Mingle:
Ultimately, a lot of the squatters were given legitimate leases. And over time, more and more Surinamese Dutch moved to the Bijlmer, not just as squatters, but as regular tenants.

Guilly Koster:
I had never seen an area in Holland where so many black people were living in a couple of square kilometers. To be young there was really great. I’m really grateful for that period because you know, we could play our music loud because other Surinamese people were used to hearing music loud.

Katie Mingle:
Guilly talks about his particular building at the Bijlmer really fondly. Says there were a lot of artists and musicians there, that a guy he knew used to project movies from his balcony to the wall across the courtyard.

Guilly Koster:
And people could sit in the summer on their balconies and watch “Laurel and Hardy”.

Katie Mingle:
But while the Surinamese were finding homes in the Bijlmer, there were still some white Dutch people who lived there. And they weren’t all thrilled about the newcomers.

Daan Dekker:
They weren’t that happy that a lot of people from Suriname arrived there with their own style of living, making more noise.

Pi de Bruijn:
Oh, my God. It was like invasions of immigrants from the Western Indies, from Suriname, that invaded the Bijlmermeer because there were lots of empty apartments.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Pi de Bruijn, the architect you met in part one of this story who helped design the Bijlmermeer and was living there in the 1970s.

Pi de Bruijn:
It stigmatized the area overnight and in, let’s say, an immigrant area.

Katie Mingle:
But the thing is, the Surinamese weren’t technically immigrants. They were Dutch citizens who had grown up speaking Dutch and learning the history of the Netherlands in school.

Daan Dekker:
The rivers, the cabinet, all the cities, everything, they knew everything about the Netherlands. And they thought that they would be welcome in the Netherlands. But when they arrived here, they didn’t feel that welcome. And they also saw that, well, they knew everything about the Netherlands but the people in the Netherlands didn’t know anything about Suriname.

Katie Mingle:
In any case, when the Surinamese started moving into the Bijlmer, Pi de Bruijn saw them as… Well, here, I’ll let him say it.

Pi de Bruijn:
These poor people were coming out of the jungle. They were not used to live in high-rise, sophisticated, flat buildings with central-heating and with refuse chutes. And they couldn’t understand the sophistication of living in such a machinery of a building. They threw their refuse over the balconies. It was like a ghetto.

Guilly Koster:
No, the Bijlmermeer was never a ghetto. People called it the ghetto.

Katie Mingle:
Again, Guilly Koster.

Guilly Koster:
Yes, there were problems adapting to the system and yes, we had to find out that you cannot go with 12 people in an elevator, you know? Yes, we’ve had to find out that you cannot throw your dirt out of the balcony. But this was not a serious and long period.

Chris Bajema:
But also, there were like living in some apartments, 20 people.

Guilly Koster:
So what? The apartment could hold 20 people.

Katie Mingle:
Guilly doesn’t really dispute that the Surinamese Dutch had a different way of living than the white Dutch. But he points out, and I think rightly, that the Bijlmermeer was failing before the Surinamese showed up.

Guilly Koster:
So here’s a bunch of white guys. They decide to build this area, this Bijlmermeer area. It was the City of the Future where living and working were physically separated and there would be a subway and it would be great and it would be fantastic. Everybody would have spandex jackets. This was the idea.

Katie Mingle:
The idea fell apart, Guilly says, when no one who could afford to live in the Bijlmer actually wanted to live in the Bijlmer.

Guilly Koster:
They said, I must be out of my mind to pay 700 Guilders to go and live in that piece of (beep) you built there.

Katie Mingle:
White Dutch people didn’t want to live in the Bijlmer. And so, it increasingly attracted the people who couldn’t afford housing anywhere else or who were being discriminated against elsewhere. Over time, thousands of gay people moved there and immigrants from places like Turkey, Morocco, and Ghana who came to the Netherlands for work. But the fact that the Bijlmer had become undesirable to people with the means to live elsewhere was really disappointing for the people who designed it, who thought they were creating a better kind of city, a utopian paradise that people would line up to live in. In the late 1970s, some of them were still working on the project, including the lead architect, Siegfried Nassuth. Here’s Dan Decker again, who wrote a biography of Nassuth.

Daan Dekker:
It was a big disappointment for him, a really big disappointment. He didn’t want to give interviews about it. Even with his best friends, he didn’t talk about the Bijlmer.

Katie Mingle:
And then one day in 1979, Nassuth just quit. Not just working on the Bijlmer but quit being an architect.

Daan Dekker:
He walked out of the office, didn’t even say goodbye to everybody and never came back.

Katie Mingle:
The visionary behind the Bijlmermeer had given up on it. But there were still a lot of people living there. And their story was far from over.

Katie Mingle:
In 1980, the Metro train connecting the Bijlmer to the rest of Amsterdam finally came, five years later than planned and a shopping center opened up nearby, but still, the Bijlmer didn’t fill up. At the highest point of vacancy in the 1980s, 3,200 apartments were sitting empty or about 25% of all units. Because of vacancies and a vulnerable population that couldn’t always make rent, the housing association that controlled the buildings was broke and couldn’t do routine maintenance. The place was falling apart. And then there was heroin.

Daan Dekker:
Well, the real decline of the Bijlmer started with heroin that came to Amsterdam.

Katie Mingle:
In the 1980s, heroin use was at a peak in Amsterdam. And when the government decided it had had enough of the heroin dealers and users in the city center, it pushed them out and they found a perfect place to go just 20 minutes away, the Bijlmermeer. It was full of vacant apartments, neglected common spaces, and various other good places to hide.

Chris Bajema:
Now I have to start talking in English.

Tahirah Sabayo:
Yes.

Chris Bajema:
Maybe first you can say your name.

Tahirah Sabayo:
My name is Tahirah, Tahirah Sabayo.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Tahirah Sabayo talking with Chris out at the Bijlmer. Tahirah lived there as a kid and she says there were a lot of heroin users who hung out on the top floors of her building where there were more vacancies. She was constantly afraid that the elevator would accidentally take her up there.

Tahirah Sabayo:
When I had to go to school in the morning and I stepped in the elevator, I was always praying like, “Please don’t go up. Please don’t go up.”

Katie Mingle:
One day when Tahirah was around 11, she was playing outside with her little three-year-old brother, when she noticed that he was carrying around something strange that he picked up off the ground – a heroin needle.

Tahirah Sabayo:
I mean, I was small. I didn’t know it was a drug needle. So, I went to my mother and I showed her. And she was like, “Okay, this is the limit. We’re moving.”

Katie Mingle:
Tahirah’s family did eventually leave the Bijlmer and lots of other families did the same thing. The turnover rate was high, 40-50% in some buildings. Other numbers weren’t great either. In 1987, the burglary rate in the Bijlmer was two and a half times that of Amsterdam and almost 10 times the rest of the Netherlands. And over half of the Bijlmer’s residents were a victim of crime in 1988.

Katie Mingle:
The Bijlmermeer had been talked about during its conception as a city of the future. But by the 1990s, it had come to be known as the “Drain of Dutch Society”. Over the years, various small measures had been attempted to help the Bijlmer – maintenance, security cameras, subsidizing rents – but nothing seemed to work. Finally, the government decided they had to do something drastic. Maybe it was time to demolish some of the buildings. But before they could start, something horrible happened.

Audio Clip of Pilot:
(Speaking Dutch)

Katie Mingle:
On October 4th, 1992, a Boeing 747 carrying mostly cargo left Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, bound for Israel, and almost immediately lost two of its engines.

Audio Clip of Pilot:
Number three and number four engines. Number three and number four engines.

Katie Mingle:
They needed to return to the airport for an emergency landing but they never made it back. It’s hard to make out but about 15 minutes into their flight, the pilots can be heard saying, “Going down 1862 going down”

Audio Clip of Pilot:
(Speaking Dutch)

Katie Mingle:
From an altitude of about 4,000 feet, Flight 1862 nose-dived straight into an apartment building at the Bijlmermeer.

Chris Bajema:
So, can you tell me something about the 4th of October, 1992?

Suzie Ampofo:
The 4th of October, yeah, 1992. So, we are together with friends at home when we hear a very loud, loud noise.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Suzie Ampofo, an immigrant from Ghana who was in the building when the plane hit. She and her friends escaped but she never saw her apartment again.

Chris Bajema:
So you lost everything?

Suzie Ampofo:
Everything, yeah, we lost everything. We lost everything. We lost everything. The only thing we get is our life. Yeah.

Katie Mingle:
Many people didn’t get their lives. It was a Sunday night at the Bijlmer and so, a lot of people were home having dinner or smoking cigarettes on their balcony. It was and still is, the deadliest plane crash in the country’s history. The official record says that 43 people died, including the three crew members on the plane. But the number may actually be much higher. A lot of undocumented people were living in the building and it was hard for the government to get an accurate count.

Joop de Haan:
So, nobody knows exactly how many people died that night.

Chris Bajema:
So what did change after 1992?

Joop de Haan:
Um…

Katie Mingle:
That’s Chris talking with Joop de Haan, an urban sociologist who worked on the renewal of the Bijlmermeer. After the plane crash, the city waited a couple of years to make any major changes to the Bijlmer. People were traumatized and needed time to recover. But eventually, a massive renewal began, which included tearing down many of the original high-rise apartment buildings.

Joop de Haan:
It was decided to tear down one-quarter of the apartments.

Katie Mingle:
And so, they started taking down buildings but not all at once. Buildings came down over about 15 years, one building after another after another so that people could be relocated. And the buildings weren’t dynamited like the infamous housing project Pruit Igoe in St. Louis. They were taken apart story by story to avoid the imagery and metaphor of a neighborhood being blown up and forsaken. Because they weren’t just going to tear down the Bijlmermeer. They were going to redesign it, make it better. And that’s what they did.

Chris Bajema:
So we can see a street with small houses for one family.

Joop de Haan:
One family, yes.

Chris Bajema:
Here on the waterside, we have five-story-high buildings.

Joop de Haan:
Yeah.

Chris Bajema:
And then…

Katie Mingle:
Eventually, a lot of the high-rises were replaced with smaller buildings between one and five stories. Shops were relocated to be closer to the housing and the 31 parking garages were mostly torn down because no one was using them for much besides drug-dealing. Even though the original designers were sure the car would be the primary mode of transportation for people of the future.

Joop de Haan:
It was sort of city of the future. We all come in with our cars.

Katie Mingle:
Instead of parking garages, the redesign made places for bikes because, let’s be real, the Dutch are ultimately way more into bikes.

Joop de Haan:
Bicycles are, of course, very important in Amsterdam. And you want to put your bicycle on a safe place inside.

Katie Mingle:
Some people do drive cars, of course, but they tore down the elevated roads. Now people drive at ground level.

Joop de Haan:
The funny thing is we’re now standing at one of the original flats. A car is moving. Formerly impossible, no cars in this kind of area. It was strictly forbidden. We were looking for mixing functions instead of taking them apart.

Katie Mingle:
Mixing functions, or mixed-use development, is happening all over the world. We seem to have come 180 degrees away from the modernist idea of separating functions. Now, urban design is focused on creating neighborhoods that have shopping and recreation and housing all mixed in together. No car needed. And we’ve realized something else about cities.

Zef Hemel:
It’s not a machine. A city’s not a machine.

Katie Mingle:
That’s city planner, Zef Hemel. You heard him in part one of this story. And he says, yeah, people want their apartments to be quiet. They want their cities to be safe. But they don’t want the city to be a well-organized machine.

Zef Hemel:
Crowded cities, congested cities, mixed-use, and a lot of improvisation and a lot of stupid things. People love it.

Katie Mingle:
Yes. People seem to love the, they love the chaos of cities.

Zef Hemel:
Yeah, of course. Because life is chaos. You want to be surprised. Otherwise, life is boring.

Katie Mingle:
Also, people realized they didn’t want to live in huge concrete structures. Almost immediately after the Bijlmermeer was finished, another neighborhood in Amsterdam was also redesigned and rebuilt from the ground up but not with concrete.

Zef Hemel:
But bricks. That’s what they wanted. And I remember it was very expensive building in bricks. But they wanted bricks. Bricks!

Katie Mingle:
Give the people bricks.

Zef Hemel:
Yeah, give the bricks. (laughs) Because that’s nice and it feels warm and it’s human. But this modernist, it’s cold. It’s an architect’s aesthetics. But it’s not what people really, really like.

Katie Mingle:
In this way, the Bijlmermeer and maybe a lot of modernism was architecture for architects and that was probably always part of the problem.

Zef Hemel:
Yeah, it’s arrogance. It’s very. But the modernists were arrogant and paternalistic. They knew better. And they would take care of people and build them homes. And they would show them how to live.

Katie Mingle:
The redesign of the Bijlmermeer area did not make this mistake. The community was heavily involved at various levels and the physical environment was not the only thing that got attention. Programs were set up for job training and education and special housing was opened for heroin addicts. And now the Bijlmermeer is a nicer place to live. It’s not perfect but it’s much better.

Tahirah Sabayo:
Well, this is my house. Welcome.

Katie Mingle:
Even Tahirah moved back, whose family left after her three-year-old brother was found playing with a heroin needle.

Tahirah Sabayo:
This is the living room, open kitchen. This used to be closed.

Katie Mingle:
Tahirah actually lives in one of the original high-rise apartment buildings. The outside of her building was repaired and on the inside, all of the apartments were gutted and sold completely empty and bare-bones for the buyer to remodel however they wanted.

Tahirah Sabayo:
In Holland, we say (speaking Dutch).

Chris Bajema:
Blood, sweat, and tears?

Tahirah Sabayo:
Yeah, it’s in this apartment.

Katie Mingle:
Making it financially possible for people to become homeowners instead of renters has also been a priority of the redesign. And there’s a growing black middle-class there now. The Bijlmer is still one of the most diverse areas in the Netherlands. Over a hundred different nationalities are represented there, including still a lot of Surinamese Dutch.

Guilly Koster:
We created the Bijlmermeer as it is today. We created it. We were never the problem. We were the solution to the problem and we made something from it.

Katie Mingle:
And Guilly is right. The Surinamese Dutch really are the people who stuck with the Bijlmer all along. After the white people left and the lead architect deserted it and the public declared it the Drain of Dutch society, the Surinamese and later, immigrants from all over the world raised families there, opened businesses, and made a future for a city that didn’t have one.

Credits

Production

Producer Katie Mingle worked with co-reporter Chris Bajema, Dutch radio producer on this two part series. This episode featured, Guilly Koster, originally from Suriname but who moved to the Netherlands in the 1970s and lived in the Bijlmer; Tahirah Sabayo, who grew up in the Bijlmer, left, then moved back; Joop de Haan, an urban sociologist who worked on the renewal of the Bijlmer; 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. Coda on the DIY housing movement with Kurt Kohlstedt.

Comments (18)

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  1. Great outcome. I hope many people read
    this story and realize dreams are possible but
    it may take a village to produce it

  2. Alynda

    Thanks for this interesting podcast (series)! As a Dutch person its very interesting to hear this story from an outsider, and to hear the full history of the Bijlmer and the thoughts of the architects.

    I just want to remark that the Bijlmer plane crash is not the most deadly plane crash in Dutch history anymore. That was the MH17 crash 4 years ago, which killed 298 people. Of course, all plane crashes are terrible, but it feels wrong to not acknowledge the MH17. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysia_Airlines_Flight_17

  3. The idea of purchasing an apartment completely empty and to build its inside to your specific need it’s a cool idea. I used to play with it while I was an architecture student. Now I’m an old guy and the idea of living in a place where ALWAYS will there be SOMEONE doing building work in his/her flat gives me the creeps- The dreams of today’s architects are also full of not well thought through ideas.

  4. AG

    The podcast presented the project essentially as an architectural failure. However, it didn’t really point out any particular architectural and design aspects that failed. Almost all negative aspects mentioned were not as such the design issues, but rather problems related to the kind of people who populated the development, their level of income and particularities of their culture and behaviour. As I pointed out in my comment to the first part, there were and are examples of successful modernist city design in the former Soviet Union, which are not even mentioned in the podcasts and probably completely overlooked by the authors. I attribute their success to a fundamentally different and evidently superior, judging by the outcome, social and cultural inviroment.

    1. Peter

      Yeah, right. If having no say in deciding where and how you’re going to live is ‘superior’, then I’d rather stick to this ohsodeprived west.

    2. AG

      @Peter
      The “freewill” of an individual is important of course, but if it forces you to live at a place like Biljimer, I’d rather chose streets without drags, prostitution and crime in USSR.

  5. Amy Abdou

    Thanks for this interesting podcast. For a bit of extra info, here is a link to an article I’ve recently published on urban renewal in the Bijlmer in the Journal for European Studies. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047244117700075 An earlier draft is available on academia.edu
    Having lived in the Bijlmer for the past ten years, I am wholly optimistic about the future but a few interventions still need to take place. The Bijlmer needs to escape the stigma of being labeled the first Dutch ghetto. This stigmatization relies of historical amnesia (the first Dutch ghetto being the Jewish quarter during the Second World War) and a general ignorance surrounding the slavery past and decolonization. Upon entry, the Afro- Surinamese that came to the Netherlands in 1974-75 had, on average, the highest level of education and most financial capital of incoming migrants from the former colony. Their rejection by native Dutch, who saw them as an invading army, coupled with a global financial crisis, led to high levels of unemployment and downward social mobility. In recent years, the city has embraced a neoliberal approach to urban restructuring. This has defined the direction of subsidies which are largely tilted towards the creation of a corporate business park, a football stadium and large scale entertainment venues. While this has undoubtedly created a boon for the area, those who work in the corporate sector of the Bijlmer have minimal contact with those who live in the Bijlmer, except through the service industry positions in the shopping area. This has created, in practice, two Bijlmers that remain structurally intertwined as the constant influx of subsidy is reliant on the poor socio-economic position of its residents and the use of subsidy is integral to the expansion of corporate Bijlmer. This has to change before the Bijlmer can really rise to meet its full potential.

  6. Peter

    It was quite shocking to learn that the default mode of selling a new flat in my country (barebones, called ‘developer’s state) is so unusual and even considered somewhat innovative elsewhere. I had no idea. You really cannot finish your own flat exactly the way you want? Really?

  7. Pete

    You mentioned Pruitt-Igoe, the similarity being that it was also a large development of apartments, that didnt live up to expectations and was demolished. Tragically there is another related similarity, the architect of Pruitt-Igoe also had not one but two planes crash into buildings he had designed, the WTC.

  8. Seth Brookshire

    This was a wonderful story, and very well told. That being said, it is easy to scoff at and chuckle about the paternalistic behavior of the architects who conceived this type of new city. And there were certainly mistakes in their thinking.
    But nine times out of ten when these ideas were implemented the failure was not that of the architects, but that of the planners and city government who failed to fully implement the concepts.
    It is not reasonable to assume that buildings alone will assist an impoverished community is reaching the middle class.
    Without transit and commercial infrastructure at the time of residential launch these projects will always fail.
    Without the possibility of ownership these projects will always fail.
    And while we now scoff at the idea of separation of commerce, industry, and habitation, the architects were dealing with a level of pollution around the first two that we can’t conceive in this day and age. The idea seems quaint now, but was a truly logical band-aid solution to the realities of the post war world.
    A wonderful example of the success versus failure of this concept can be seen in San Francisco, where identical towers in the Portola neighborhood and along the Geary Expressway redevelopment have had dramatically different outcomes. In Portola the housing was institutionalized and offered nothing but a cube for living, on Geary at Laguna the very same building has become a coveted property. Portola, on the other hand, was demolished fifteen years ago due to all the problems encountered in the Bijlmer. The difference isn’t the architecture, it is completely in the opportunity of the inhabitants.

  9. Hal O'Brien

    From an interview Rem Koolhaas did with See Speigel in 2009:

    SPIEGEL: Some people say that if architects had to live in their own buildings, cities would be more attractive today.
    Koolhaas: Oh, come on now, that’s really trivial.
    SPIEGEL: Where do you live?
    Koolhaas: That’s unimportant. It’s less a question of architecture than of finances.
    SPIEGEL: You’re avoiding the question. Where do you live?
    Koolhaas: OK, I live in a Victorian apartment building in London.

  10. My compliments for these podcasts and the research you’ve done on the subject. I read about these in one of the main Dutch newspapers, it’s somehow flattering that an urban housing project (on a huge scale, yes) in our small country inspires architecture enthousiasts as far away as San Francisco. I agree with Amy Abdou’s view about the ‘two Bijlmers’ that exist side by side nowadays. Considering Dutch real estate prizes, booming for over a decade now, it is no surprise. I personally know people in the ‘upper middle class’ incomes that have moved out of the old city into the Bijlmer. Simultaneously there is still a large amount of subsidised social housing, nowadays considered a remnant of former politics. I myself live in such a project in Central Amsterdam, though my income is considered welfare level or below, a typical Dutch situation. I watched the excellent documentary about Pruitt-Igoe, searching for similarities with the decline of the Bijlmer. As far as I can tell, the main reason for rapid decline, is in both cases lack of funding for maintenance. In the Bijlmer, this happened because of initial high rents and a middle class that did not immediately show up, so flats were let for prizes far below the initial rents to poorer newcomers from the Caribbean. Differences between Pruitt Igoe, located in the ‘old’ city and the Bijlmer, a suburban ‘newtown’, were turning out in favor for the latter. Nowadays the mix of social housing and owner-occupied homes proves to be successful.

  11. I’ve lived in the Netherlands for over 10 years now and for the last two have worked in an office in Bijlmer – I see that train station looking out of my office window. I found these two podcasts really fascinating. The multiculturalism of this neighbourhood and its really creative architecture is one of its draws for me. Enjoying Surinaamse food for lunch once or twice a week is especially nice. Note that I live in Leiden, a nice-sized university town and rather less diverse. I probably would have found this area more than a little annoying had I had to travel by bus every day before the metro came in.

    Thanks for the great research.

  12. Ana

    I’m a very recent listener of your podcast and decided to give these episodes a listen because I lived in Amsterdam many years ago on a 1 semester exchange program during University.
    I was having a nice time listenning to the 1st episode of the series when I decided to google the exact location of the Biljmer and found out that I actually LIVED there! We just called Zuidoost and I had never heard of the stories of its past but I guess I was staying in 1 of the rebuilt appartments.
    Indeed it was less safe than central amsterdam while I was there (2011) and whenever I mentioned where I lived to Dutch people, they would be very chocked and say it was the getto and very unsafe. Although I do know a couple of ppl who got their homes broken into, I didn’t have any incidents while living there and never really felt unsafe, even walking home alone from the subway at night.
    Anyway, thanks for this total throwback from the past which got me thinking about my sweet A’dam days and for doing such great reporting :)

  13. ber

    Thanks for the summary on the Bijlmer history. What was missing in the podcast though, was a critical perspective on the sale/resale of these buildings. I suppose they were public property. Which means the new condo owners payed twice because with their taxes the initial construction was financed.

    Also, those condos very likely will become subjects of speculation. Which means that the city of Amsterdam started a major gentrification process in this area by selling the buildings. I wonder how the Dutch public feels about this.

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