Archis 1999 #11

Almere / My kind of town?

— by

You can’t even buy those magazines the homeless hawk in other cities. The main issue here is how far you can stretch the idea of a city. Planned development, thematic image designation, a tranquillizing scale and iconography: Almere is virtually the Singapore of the Netherlands.

A habitat
Here you live among your peers. Almere is incredibly homogeneous for a multicultural society like that of the Netherlands. You need a motive to move to a city like Almere which has been planted down in green fields, and that motive is practically identical for everyone. The majority of Almere’s inhabitants have chosen the town for just one reason: home sweet home sweet home. Almere is visibly dominated by the residential function. What is more, residence is equal here to domestic bliss. There is no seamy side to it, no alternative scene and no marginalism. Everything seems preprogrammed – if not explicitly then by self-censorship. The artist’s impression of urban use has literally sprung to life. And it’s a good life here, at least for the fortunate. He who is fortunate in Amere is very fortunate indeed. But he who is unfortunate would be better off moving somewhere else.
A biotope
To reach Almere, you first have to cross a bridge. Then you go downhill and arrive in the polder, a new country reclaimed from the sea, with magnificent skies and the whiff of a marine climate. You leave the Continent and land in Holland’s own New World, the frontier. Pioneering spirit. Colonization as second nature. How will it feel when this town finally stops growing? But not everything here is a symptom of thinking big. Almere must have the highest rate of faxed how-to-get-here maps in the world. Just use your car, it’s the quickest way. Generous bends, honeycomb-like zigzag routes flanked by sprouting greenery. Watch out for the barrier-controlled bus lane. Finally, the home zone, the car park, the well-trodden path to the front door, the coat rack in the hall, the living room with its parquet floor, the cool beer in the fridge, the easy chair. Outside the children are playing to their hearts’ content. Done for the day.
An idea
Few since Le Corbusier have risked conceiving a whole city. There is a taboo on total concepts, on the monoculture of too few variables in a design for the whole of life. The few exceptions have elicited cries of horror. But Almere will have nothing of this aversion to the total approach. The city was conceived as a unity, admittedly a unity of fragments. And behold! Almere has flaunted the taboo. For years it has been a place hors concours. It did not fall within the parameters of architecture or of the urbanistic discourse, and shot up with no questions asked. The norm of urban success was reinvented here without the critics really noticing.
A form
Does Almere have a form? Hard to say. It does not have one in the sense of a monumental visual identity, a silhouette or a skyline; nor in the sense of a consistent urban style. On the contrary, there is so much architectural variation that there is no question of any specific character on a scale above that of the neighbourhood. Yet there is a form, the form of the atmosphere. This is dictated by the curve of motion through the plan, by the universal presence of commuter traffic and by the look of the average citizen (who is a real person here). This atmosphere is so unmistakable that variations in physical form seem irrelevant.
A lesson
As noted previously in this column, the Netherlands is on the verge of a new approach to planning policy. In the preparatory phase, everyone is banging his own drum. Some talk of the opportunities for urban design, others of the need for land use policies and yet others express concern about legal instruments for implementing cultural policies. There is a total mobilization of talent in progress, but few succeed in making their arguments so convincing that the others go along with them and so make it possible to take decisions with some collective social basis. Yet such a basis can exist, as is proved by Almere. A policy for green space and a policy for the city. A design-oriented architecture for the average housing consumer. Almere is moreover the place where we can study what happens when an urban extension scheme reaches the critical mass at which it itself becomes a city. Just try finding that in the VINEX developments. Learn from Almere (see elsewhere in this issue).