Amsterdam, like so many other cities, does its utmost to enhance its cityscape harmoniously. This is especially true for the city centre, where aesthetic demands and supervision are stringent, and geared primarily to existing monumental values. Yet despite all the good intentions and supervision, the cityscape cannot be kept entirely in check. Impermanence, often contrasting carelessly with the surroundings, is a permanent feature of one’s experience of the city. Pneumatic drills in the asphalt, dug-up tram rails, resurfacing operations, hoardings, site offices and temporary depots – these are just as familiar elements of the cityscape as gables, yellow trams and the national monument on Dam Square. Only when you try to take photos of the familiar sights, do you discover how selectively your eyes work, and how distorted reality is.
Much of the impermanence amounts to fairly ordinary nuisance, which at the most arouses one’s curiosity about things to come. But sometimes impermanence provides a fresh angle, a different experience of the familiar.
Normally, the construction of a temporary bicycle shed in the water in front of Central Station would fall into the category of ‘don’t mind me, I don’t really belong here’ additions to the cityscape. Yet the architectural quality of the structure is such that it actually enhances one’s enjoyment of the
city. The steel supporting structure, with its red ‘walkway’, makes absolutely no effort to blend into the surroundings. It is the product of its own logic: a simple, somewhat stylized, spiralling parking facility for bicycles made from prefabricated elements, which have been combined to form this ‘building’ for a period of five years. It meets the functional requirements of the surroundings, obstructing neither the quayside nor the waterway. Otherwise it is a ‘free agent’. It resembles a ship moored to the quay, contributing its own materials, colours and dimensions.
Praise to the official (Ton Schaap) who realized this was more than a routine job, praise to the architect who made more with the available budget than an ordinary shed. What is more interesting than the object itself – the statement that architecture can transform the most unsightly construction into something fascinating – is the sudden apparition in the cityscape, the dynamizing effect of this temporary intervention on a bit of the city that is permanently out of balance. VMX’s bicycle shed confirms that Amsterdam should never become fixated on its own heritage image, that it should keep on accepting new incentives to prevent it becoming a museum. Contradiction and complexity – famous, by now hackneyed terms – but still true.
In the same way as Renzo Piano’s Nemo science museum gave Amsterdam an architecturally robust, carefully stage-managed public space and vantage point, an ode to the old waterfront, the bicycle shed constitutes a temporary observation folly, quite distinct from the original commission, an ‘accident’ offering a splendid view of the city.
There was a time when impermanence – a parade, a city festival – was considered worthy of serious effort. These were architectural exercises, to which the best minds and talents devoted themselves. But at a time when the concept of permanence is greatly diminished and almost everything is felt to be temporary, hardly anyone considers a short-lived project to be of real value. To say this is not to imply a desire for a totally designed world, but for the casual encounter, surprise, surplus. And that is what has been briefly created here. As yet, no one knows for how long. In view of the uncertainties surrounding the projected new underground North–South line, the ‘temporariness’ may turn out to be shorter of twice as long.
But there will be an end. A liberating prospect. It delivers the bike shed in advance from the burden of balanced urban composition, it allows just enough scope for that liberating radicalness. However, destruction would seem somewhat odd; the technical useful life is definitely longer than required.
So, an appeal to readers: come up with another use for the framework, once the ‘permanent’ bicycle shed beside Central Station has made this one redundant.*
*Closing date for entries: Thursday 21 June 2001. The drawings of this ‘bicycle tower’ are to be found on: www.vmxarchitects.nl. Participants run the risk of winning a year-long subscription to Archis or a parcel of Artimo publications, as well as having their entry published in Archis 4/2001.
Assignment: de-mountable public bicycle shed for 2,500 bicycles, with the option of paid parking
Architect: VMX, Amsterdam
Design team: Don Murphy and Leon Teunissen, with Michael Kloos, Peter Kaufmann, Mona Farag, Skafte Aymo-Boot, Keren Engelman
Design: November 1998
Completion: April 2001
Building costs: approx. NLG 4,700,000
Principal: City of Amsterdam, Department of Infrastructure, Traffic and Transport
Construction: Ingenieursgroep van Rossum, Anne van der Sluis, Amsterdam
Building contractor: Aannemerscombinatie Dekker Krabbendam/De Klerk, Warmenhuizen
Coordination: City of Amsterdam, Project Management Bureau