Archis 1999 #11

Almere, stad van verlangen / Almere, city of longing

— by

Of course Almere was planned, and not all that long ago either. And yet somehow it seems to me that the key to understanding what Almere is today lies only  partially in those plans. In her excellent book about the planning concept for Lelystad and Almere, Petra Brouwer points out that it is impossible to attribute authorship of the scheme for the structure of Almere to the project group Zuidweststad, for example, or to certain individuals. Rather, the scheme gradually evolved and it was only afterwards that the project group intelligently provided a basis for it.1 Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Almere seems to be the quintessence of recent Dutch architecture and urbanism: it is a city planned by committees and work groups, a city which came into being amidst typically Dutch interminable consultation. And we know what happens when a committee sets out to design a horse: the result is something utterly different. In this case, perhaps that’s a good thing.

The polycentric layout of Almere and the emphasis on creating small-scale, differentiated living environments meant that the main structure became lost from sight. The construction of  Weerwater has ruled out the possibility of reverting to a hierarchical and centralist urban structure. Weerwater is as ingenious as it is perverse: in the polder which had just been drained with considerable effort, they created a lake, thereby negating every centralist claim of the planning discipline. This lake is the secret, inert, empty centre of Almere and virtually nothing ever happens there, in spite of the vague island of Utopia which boasts only a marina and an excuse for a viewing tower: when you’re there, you can’t wait to see what it’s like somewhere else. Typically, Utopia is accessible only from that side of the lake not giving on to the centre of artificial Almere-Stad. And for all the ambitious plans aimed at accessing the centre from Almere-Stad and colonizing Weerwater, nothing will ever happen in this centre. If Almere is to have a real city centre, then Weerwater will have to be drained – a polder within a polder.
So much for the city centre: a note on downtown, because, to paraphrase Reyner Banham on Los Angeles, that is all Downtown Almere deserves. Banham was all too aware that he was treating those with an interest, for whatever reason, in a city centre with contempt, as indeed he was those historians who want a city to have a centre on the exact spot where it began. But Banham points out that in Los Angeles, numerous areas developed not from the oldest centre, but, for example, in the plains, at the foot of the hills and on the coast.2 The same is true of Almere, although here the hills have been replaced by lakes.
The need for a historical departure point is even more manifest in the second – chronologically in fact the oldest – centre of Almere, Almere-Haven. It is modelled lock, stock and barrel on the historic towns around IJsselmeer, the former Zuiderzee. There is a harbour, there are canals and there have been attempts to chop up the housing blocks to create a variety reminiscent of the small-scale land lot division in these old towns. This rather too obvious historical reference apart, Almere is an extremely interesting example of what history can mean to a city – precisely because it is a city without a traditional history.
History is a longing, one that is ever present, subtly or less subtly, in countless variants and gradations. It is important for providing identity, from archaeological sites to historical references in the architecture. References to farmhouses, for example, but also to modern architecture of the twenties. Planning references to market squares, village green-like lawns bounded by trees. Foreign historical references, such as Swiss chalets and Finnish log cabins, are introduced without difficulty. But history is also to be found in residents’ gardens, whether they be modelled on a classical Baroque garden, a French pavement café (often with candles in wine-bottles on the tables) or – very fashionable these days – a Japanese Zen garden. History is to be found in street names and in recent traditions, such as the annual triathlon. But it can also be found in nostalgic objects such as American cars of the sixties and seventies, proudly parked at the front door. And, last but not least, in the personal histories of residents, who remember where their daughter took her first steps, where they kissed (or got mugged) for the first time. Although Almere-Haven no longer looks quite so fake as it did initially and time has endowed it with a surprising, even pleasing self-evidence, it has been too readily assumed that if you reconstruct the form of a historic town, you will also recover the authentic urban life. This is a misconception. Society is always stronger than architecture and society has changed radically over the past twenty or thirty years. People make their own histories.

Increased prosperity, which in the Dutch welfare state is proportionately spread over all income groups, has resulted not only in an enormous increase in individual mobility and greater access to information (everyone can follow international political and cultural events via numerous media), but also in more involvement as a result of better education. This in turn leads to greater individualization. Sociologists such as Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash see this individualization as an inevitable and necessary intermediate stage on the way to new, post-industrial societal forms. In the classic industrial society there was a direct relationship between class, family, sex roles, the division of labour between men and women, marriage, and architectural typologies; today, many more people have the opportunity to replace the standard biography with one of their choice: a ‘do it yourself biography’, as Ronald Hitzler calls it, or as Giddens says, a ‘reflexive biography’. According to Ulrich Beck, individualization therefore means ‘first, the disembedding and, second, the re-embedding of industrial society ways of life by new ones. In which the individuals must produce, stage and cobble together their biographies themselves’.3 The reflexive element in this case consists largely of confrontation and deliberation with others. This will as a matter of course play an increasingly crucial role at the moment when society simultaneously compacts. In Almere, however, there is little sign of this: a superabundance of greenery and water in numerous forms serve to keep individual residents apart. Conflict situations are, for the time being, unlikely to develop because most of Almere’s population consists of young families: the graph of the age structure shows clear peaks of teenagers and adults in their thirties, surrounded by deep troughs. The human geographer Rob Engelsdorp Gastelaars has frequently pointed out that these young families are almost exclusively oriented to themselves, their family and those in a similar situation, which reinforces the impact of individualization.
Almere is not a city in the traditional sense of the word; an urbanized area, maybe. If we look at the population densities and represent these in a three-dimensional graph set above the Netherlands, we find a surprisingly large peak in Almere. It is, however, a city which is constantly seeking to dissolve, in effect in a constant state of dissolution. Probably, most people living there don’t want it to be a city at all.
There may be shopping centres, cultural centres, schools, sports clubs and community centres in Almere, but the only real centres are the dwellings themselves. Each dwelling is an individual centre. There are very few cafés – people prefer to do their drinking at home. The individual centre of the dwelling is more than anything else a base – from where you can drive to work, outside Almere presumably. A base from where you can travel to neighbouring towns, say Amsterdam, for an evening out. Everywhere, too, there are caravans, mobile homes, Alpenkreutzers, boats, sailboards, mountain bikes, racing bikes and motor bikes, which enable residents to take off in their leisure time and explore the world in a basic and physical way. And as long as it is not possible to do so for any length of time, they are constantly preparing for such a moment. They keep themselves in shape at one of Almere’s sports clubs, they perhaps go on a day trip to one of the beaches, a brief sail on the IJsselmeer, or water ski in a simulator. The absolute epitome of this lifestyle is unquestionably the housing estate on the Noorderplassen, where all dwellings have a landing stage at the rear and where impressive seagoing yachts and cabin cruisers lie ready to set sail, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This is the new wilderness Adriaan Geuze has written about on a number of occasions: a mix of city and landscape, which active Almere-dwellers are ever exploring in a whole host of ways.4 The home is primarily a place where you sleep and watch TV. And then there is the garden perhaps, where in fine weather you can sit in the sunshine and where the children can play safely – although I notice that even these tend to go off on exploratory cycle-trips at an early age; in the summer, they jump recklessly into the water from high bridges, or seek out the quieter beaches a little further from home.
Conversely, it doesn’t seem to be the intention that outsiders visit Almere. Driving around the city, you soon lose your bearings in the endless twists and turns. The traffic infrastructure itself gives nothing whatsoever to go by, as car traffic, bus lanes, canals, cycleways and footpaths each follow their own utterly different logic. The bus lanes in particular, in which no other traffic is allowed, form incomprehensible, empty and as often as not dead fenced-off barriers between and even in the middle of neighbourhoods. There are no landmarks, no stand-out buildings. Noise barriers and roadside greenery for that matter block the view of what lies behind. There are only traffic signs. You don’t actually go to Almere unless you’ve been invited by a relative or a friend who happens to live there. They perhaps fax you a map or a route description, as they do in Japan. Or they guide you to their home with the aid of a mobile phone. But really Almere is a city born of the lifestyle for which electronics companies develop GPS navigation systems for cars. The inhabitants of Almere, of course, have not the slightest difficulty finding their way. Their house is the centre to which they return almost blindly, like homing pigeons. The separation of the various traffic systems means, moreover, that anyone who traverses Almere by bicycle, moped or on foot, experiences it as a sprawling village set in woodland rather than as a city. There is greenery everywhere in the form of coppices and meadows with here and there woods and grassland, only there are no cows or fields of corn. There are though plenty of animals, from endangered species of bird to deer. One summer afternoon, I found myself near one of the taller apartment buildings, arranged as it is in a horseshoe configuration. To my amazement, in the middle of the horseshoe was a pond which reverberated with the croaking of a myriad frogs. It is at moments such as this, and there are many of them, that you suddenly come across a place with a suprising identity all of its own.
What will become of Almere? How will it develop as the age structure becomes more balanced over time and the city matures? Will Almere develop a darker side? An underground? Will a sort of Dutch variant on the surfing culture of Los Angeles evolve? Who will be Almere’s Ed Ruscha and Chris Burden? And who Almere’s Beatles and Bay City Rollers? In my view, there is no doubt that very soon we shall see the first inklings of a new European urban culture in Almere. It is not a case of bringing culture to Almere in the shape of monumental theatres and museums in the city centre. Rather we must observe what is evolving here and make of it an Almerian variant of Hollywood. It is surely no accident that many who work in broadcasting live in Almere. Television series are being used to market the image of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. The film Blue Movie put Bijlmermeer on the map. Almere lends itself even more admirably to such treatment. It could as a result burgeon into a model for a new urban culture.
Because, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing: ‘It’s understood that Hollywood sells Californication.’