Buildings, spaces and communities

A few weeks back, I posted some photos to Flickr of the Java Island in Amsterdam, which resulted in some e-mail correspondence with a few of the other site members.

The opinions of the architecture on the island varied quite widely, a not unusual response given that the Java Island contains the type of modern architecture that attempts something a little different from the norm.

The opinions varied- “brutal”, “pastiche”, “daring”, “unusual”.

What no-one said was that it was beautiful. Which made me wonder if the architecture here is something that people contemplate and admire, but do not particularly enjoy, from an aesthetic point of view.

Certainly people come to visit the island for the architecture, that much is true. Coachloads of tourists drive by at weekends, and most weekdays you’ll spot architecture students (at least I assume that’s what they are) meandering around, sketchbook and camera in hand, taking notes of the details of the buildings.

I guess there is a lot to look at. The use of various materials – steel, glass, brick, concrete, aluminium is interesting and provides for variety in colour and structure, for strangely angled facades.

All very interesting from the outside and wonderfully playful – but would you want to live in one of these houses?

I was discussing this in one of the e-mail conversations I was having.

In passing I happened to mention that some of the houses, while interesting, were rather narrow, and in some cases, the creation of a large front facing atrium/stairwell area meant that a lot of internal space appeared to be “wasted”.

I guess that the reason for this is that the houses sit straight on the road – there is no pavement as such, so space outside the door doesn’t exist – hence the need to create this space inside the house.

This may seem rather unnecessary – after all who uses the pavement as a personal space anyway?

Well, actually, here in Amsterdam, this space is used quite frequently as an extension of the inside, and you can often see people setting up tables and chairs outside their front doors in the summer to eat dinner, drink a glass of wine, read a book or chat with friends.

I remember myself doing just that, when I lived on the Keizersgracht and, lacking any garden or space inside, the pavement became an extended living room where I could hang out with the neighbours or even host “stoep” parties with quite a crowd of folks.

Here on the island though, the design of the external spaces precludes such informal gatherings in public space. The lack of pavement on the small canal facing streets does not allow for public space to become intimate. On the main roads, where there is a pavement, the buildings there are so gargantuan and anonymous, that the pavement is purely functional and does not welcome this idea that the inside can come out.

Which is a shame. Because it creates a rather “private” atmosphere at times.

Residents here hang out on their balconies, or inside their atriums, or gardens, or in the communal rooms that some of the buildings have. Spontaneous outside gatherings though are few.

Where the ouside space is used it is in the little communal gardens that run through the centre of the buildings.

Most of these gardens are quite formal in their design – in the sense that there are no benches to sit on. The plants and fountains are ornamental and decorative, but are not designed with “use” in mind.

This, in part, was due to the original expectations regarding the demographic of the Island.

When it was built in the mid-nineties, Amsterdam was in the middle of a dot com boom and the rise in incomes and growth of a “yuppie” population meant that “prestige” housing was desperately needed.

The Java Island was consutucted with these people in mind and the houses and public spaces were not considered as family homes.

Gradually, as the years progressed and the inhabitants started families, a slight change occurred. As the children came along it became clear that some of the gardens would need to be altered to allow for playing spaces.

So, as an afterthought, some were fitted with the usual acoutrements of swings and slides and sandpits. Benches were also installed so that the visiting parents could sit and watch their chidlren as they played.

During the day, these play spaces are the ones where people briefly meet up, where the anonymity of the neighbours is reduced. Where friendships, I suppose, are formed.

For the childless though, such spaces are strangely out of bounds. Which leaves the large grassy areas as the last outside resort available.

In the summer these places are used for lazing around sunbathing – when the Dutch summer allows – and the occassional barbeque occurs too of an evening again, weather permitting.

Gradually the empty lawn space, intended as a purely decorative area, is being taken over as a public space and transformed slowly into a park. Which can only be for the better.

Because living in such a densely populated area, where the emphasis is placed so much on the internal space, can become very isolating – the anonymity very oppressive.

So the idea that the residents themselves are creating their own public spaces, that run counter to the original intentions of the designers, is very reassuring – it allows for the potential of a community to begin to grow, I suppose.

Ornament and form are giving way to utlility and community in an organic way that is, in part, necessitated by the architecture itself.

I’m not sure whether this means that the designers should have anticipated this need for public space more when they designed the Island. They clearly had a vision in mind at the time which they thought was the right one for the demographic of the residents but which, it turns out, was somewhat off the mark.

Thankfully, there are still enough open areas here available that can be taken over by the residents and reclaimed as public, social space.

Whether this is felt necessary as an antidote to the architecutre itself, or whether it is simply human nature, I don’t know, but it is certainly a very welcoming thought that people can still determine for themsleves how they are going to use a space and what they require from it and that they are not constricted by an architectural or design aesthetic that envisioned a different method of living.

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