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“…the ‘voorhuis‘ or front house… was high, light¬† and open as a living space… The inner hearth, however, was intimate and enclosed… The dual nature of this domesticity was to characterize the city for centuries to come: on the one hand the cordial openness of the merchant who meets his customers in the front house and will close neither shutters nor curtains at night, on the other, the contained, private life of the inner hearth, that curious atmosphere which the Dutch delineate with the word gezelligheid, the snugness which is soft on the inside and hard on the outside.” Geert Maak 1994.

This blog gathers information and insight into the Dutch city of Amsterdam Noord as part of a multi-disciplinary field study by graduate students from the University of British Columbia’s schools of planning, architecture and landscape architecture. In anticipation of disparate workspaces — and long-distance collaboration — Alex S., Allison S., and Caelan G. will be your hosts and authors on this blog. It is both a reportage and documentation of the process of our inquiry.

The above quoted passage from Maak’s “Amsterdam” in translation from Harvard University Press can be counted as an authoritative commentary on the architectural concept of gezelligheid, it demands the question: what snugness is expected in public spaces? (digression: this term is considered untranslatable – a combination of convivial, cozy, fun, quaint, or nice atmosphere – and perhaps it is the definitive term in Dutch culture). Indeed, if there is a character to public parks, streetscapes, plazas and playgrounds in the Netherlands – and in Amsterdam Noord specifically – will we find this characteristic duality?

aluminum shack

Vancouver’s Coal Harbour public art project – an aluminum shack.

If I were to characterize the design of parks in my native Vancouver or in the¬†alentours of New Westminster and even Victoria, I would suggest that a British colonial coziness is the leitmotif and a rainforest dankness is the climatic result. A romantic primordiality pervades the west coast of Canada, at least where the colonial hangover is tenacious. New developments, in Vancouver’s downtown or those built or refurbished in recent memory, express a kind of geometric spatial concept … at worst this is a kind of attempt at tabula rasa modernity that ignores topographic imperatives and at best is a kind of geometric worship that is commendable in its thoroughness. Not at all cozy in a 19th C sense.

It would seem as thought the Netherlands could express this planar geometry best — after all “God created the earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands”. Will the cool exterior of the Dutch spirit and their whole-hearted modernism be evident in the design of the public realm? Am I too concerned with the details of a long-since-past movement? To keep myself current: is gezelligheid the word that will characterize and describe post-post-modern?

Amsterdam itself, spatially expresses a coziness. Concentric rings of canals, roads and community point to the IJ – whose currents sweep past spilling over with commerce and industry. It strikes a balance of mercantile pragmatism and baroque geometry. Meanwhile, medieval corridor-alleys exist for residents to tuck into life, beer or dinner.

IJburg in the foreground and the “blue heart” of metropolitan Amsterdam projected for the waterbody in the background.

And what of the Noord? It was once considered a city-gate on the IJ – in the 1958 plan the IJplein was to concentrate civic functions and focus transportation needs in a public plaza. It would also have created a central focus — water-based — to balance the original city centre to the south. This was largely ignored. However in a 2007 plan to redevelop the eastern islands – IJburg – a central open recreational waterbody was planned. This would form a “blue heart” of the Amsterdam metropolitan region: the Noord would bound the north edge, Amsterdam centre the south and IJburg the east. This represents a significant turn toward the water. It would introduce a cool, enclosed plane from which to look out to one another, interpellating the shores, but with the possibility to retire home through the villous canals and roadways. This last is a regional gezelligheid.

A villous canal/roadway system, from vantage to enclosure, by boat.



Amsterdam ahoy!

A mere two weeks away, the University of British Columbia schools of planning, architecture and landscape architecture will be sending students to Amsterdam for a summer studio on urban design.