Archis 1999 #11

De vrijheid van de polder. Stedebouw in Almere / The freedom of the polder. Urbanism in Almere

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Almere was the accumulated deficit of the northern wing of the Dutch ring of cities: affordable, spacious single-family dwellings, space and greenery. These are still its trump cards. ‘Come to Almere, where there’s space in abundance’ is the slogan drawing new inhabitants and now companies as well to Almere.

Anyone who loves statistics can indulge themselves in the many records Almere boasts. Abounding in woodland and water and thinly populated, Almere compares most favourably with other medium-sized municipalities in the Netherlands. However, the record that really gives it its distinctive profile is its rate of population growth: last year 131,000 inhabitants, today already getting on for 140,000. Almere prides itself on a housing output of some 3000 dwellings per year. Local government not only sets itself targets, it also realizes them. As a result, Almere is the number one success story of late-sixties national spatial planning policy. The objective – a city with 125,000 to 250,000 inhabitants, as an alternative to the stacked construction in existing urban centres – has been achieved virtually without a hitch. Only the radical shift in the housing stock from rental to owner-occupied property had not been envisaged. If two thirds of Almere’s first core, Almere-Haven, still consists of rented units, these account for less than half of the dwellings in the rest of the city.
At the time, there was some concern over whether the municipal council would maintain the envisaged rate of housing production after Almere became administratively independent and attained city status. It is clear, however, that Almere is hooked on growth. This is more than a simplistic desire to keep on expanding. Almere’s ambition to offer more than just housing and jogging facilities (Almerians are exceptionally keen on outdoor sports) obliges it to create an adequate economic base. A football stadium, a large theatre, a trotting course, a commercial and retail complex of regional standing, a pop/rock concert hall, an art exhibition hall and a multiplex cinema – these are all functions which can only be realized with a certain population size.
But the sheer extent of the territory is also a stimulus for growth. As Han Lammers, city councillor from the very beginning and before that local administrator, recently recalled, Almere was given all that land to force it to keep building. And the strategy does work. With a profit of 80 million guilders last year, the development company contributes substantially to the municipal budget. Is it this financial security which, in the absence of private initiative, has given Almere the courage to build its own football stadium? Or is it the knowledge that this blissful source of income will not last for ever? Because if growth remains constant, by the year 2020 just about all the saleable land will have been released. And the council will have to have found other sources of income by then, because a city with a stable population is not necessarily cheaper than one that is expanding. The task of rehabilitating dilapidated or superannuated components already needs addressing – after a mere 23 years! – and will require further considerable effort in the future. Moreover, the changing population make-up, with a larger proportion of elderly residents, may well have consequences for the budget. And so OMA’s new centre scheme and the leisure complex in the new core of Almere-Poort can be understood not only as logical steps in Almere’s growth, born of the desire to become a full-blown city, but also as a crossover from a ‘wartime economy’ to one of welfare and prosperity.

Open country

With a housing density, set against the entire territory of the municipality, of 3.5 dwellings per hectare, space it seems is, for the time being, not a problem. Even looking at the built-up areas, with a density of some 30 dwellings per hectare, Almere is not what you call overcrowded. On paper, at any rate. Because in practice, the land use is fairly firmly fixed. The third core, Almere-Buiten, is soon to be completed and will extend all the way to the municipal boundary with Zeewolde. Meanwhile the green buffer between Almere-Stad and Almere-Buiten, aptly called Tussen de Vaarten (‘between the waterways’), is also being filled in. A new core, Almere-Poort, is to be built to the west of the centre. Its masterplan is as good as ready and the groundwork has meanwhile begun. The municipality’s north-western corner, christened Almere-Pampus, is being briefly held in reserve. To the north of the centre, an up-market housing estate is under way around the lake (Noorderplas), which when complete will just about mark the city limits on this side. The projected business parks in the north-east will also have to be developed fairly briskly, unless there is a downturn in the economy. Already, demand outstrips the supply of business parks. This is why a business park has appeared on the map near the entrance to Almere’s territory – an urbanistically questionable move. As a site eminently visible from the bridge from the south (Stichtse Brug), its hectares will undoubtedly sell like hot cakes.
Projected in the south-east is Almere-Hout, one of whose components is the ‘market sector’ housing estate of Almeerderhout, which is now largely on site. Although a start will not, it seems, be made on Almere-Hout as a whole before the year 2015, the outlines of the masterplan have already been drawn up.
Overgooi, an area of country estates, is being developed along the southern boundary, to the east of Almere-Haven. Overgooi is to tie the capital of the Gooi region across the water to Almere. With an average density of 5 dwellings per hectare (some of the country estates, however, cover 5 hectares), this strip of polder, which is to be transformed into woodland, will soon be full.
And so this is the image of Almere; functions and uses can be shifted about a bit here and there, but the municipality is already filled to the brim with plans and structures.

Structure and strategy

Almere, as we have seen, is polycentric and on the face of it appears to be spread evenly over the municipality’s territory. Here too, however, appearances are deceptive. It is in fact developing as a belt city from Almere-Poort to Almere-Buiten; a broad, gently meandering strip on either side of the railway line, whose stations mark the compactions in the fabric. Most of the dwellings are situated in this zone and are surrounded by business parks orientated towards the main traffic structure. The network of bus lanes should in theory make almost any configuration possible, but in practice the railway line calls the tune direction-wise. The corridor concept, presently being tested at a national level, has already been realized here, only the carrier is not a motorway but a railway line. In the development of the subsequent cores, Pampus and Hout, forms of rail transport have been emphatically included in the planning, even though no one knows how realistic these lines on the map will be. The Fifth Government Report on Spatial Planning, now in preparation, is expected to clarify the situation. And yet, a stronger link with the Randstad’s transport network will it seems be necessary if the ‘island’ of Almere is not to be choked by its own growth.
With new rail links to Amsterdam via IJburg (IJ Rail or Hanze Line) and to Utrecht via Spakenburg and Amersfoort-Vathorst, the linear structure could be curved into a crescent, with the idyllic harbour town of Almere-Haven cradled in the curve in relative isolation. Not everyone, it should be said, is convinced of the point in connecting Almere even more directly with Amsterdam Central Station. Those who take this view consider extending the A6 motorway over the mainland and linking Almere up with the Southern Axis and Schiphol to be of greater economic importance.
The relationship with Amsterdam in general is a subject of discussion. There are more practical reasons for developing Almere-Poort now and Almere-Pampus a little later (one being the existing infrastructure), but the symbolic significance of Pampus as a hand outstretched towards the capital does play a part. The donor city Amsterdam will also have exerted some pressure; the artificial islands of IJburg, now being developed in the IJ, reach out towards Almere. This urban extension of Amsterdam was only given the go-ahead on condition that there would be no further expansion in the direction of Almere and no rail or road link. It was partly because of this that, for a while, Almere-Hout seemed to be placed high on the agenda, accentuating Almere’s autonomy and extending a hand towards the Province of Utrecht.

Sport and recreation
Almere-Poort will add a new identity to the city’s existing identity, or rather: Almere, as a city of greenspace, outdoor recreation and international sporting events (a triathlon), is to be given a themed core of ‘sport and leisure’. It is postmodern urbanism of the purest lustre, in which rationality, a mix of ambiences, identity-giving geomorphological elements and the infrastructural organization have been welded into an anecdotal whole. The economic portion of the programme has been draped in a fan-shape around the railway line and the station in a layered structure of offices, sport and recreation, retail outlets and stacked housing. It is the intention that retail and leisure be fully interconnected. In the case of the offices, the situation is less clear, these being largely located in the marvellously strategic site along the A6 and presumably with little concern for their ‘hinterland’.
The centre of Poort is terminated on the north-eastern side by a historically and morphologically justified serpentine (a former river bed) and a park zone. Beyond these lies the housing grid, which can be seamlessly stitched to the forthcoming Almere-Pampus. Although the masterplan must not be taken too literally in this particular, the infill exercise of the low-rise carpet of housing shows that the aim here is to achieve the greatest possible variation in plot layout principles and dwelling typologies.
This montage of two radically different ambiences and structures has no further consequences for the district. Centre and residential area can coexist. The same could, with slight exaggeration, be said of the relationship with the Ijsselmeer. Although here and there some building development has seeped over the dike onto the beach, Almere-Poort is not really situated on the water. This had been the aim originally, but the obligatory consultations with various governments and organizations and especially the mandatory Environmental Impact Report (this is the first scheme in Almere to be affected by it) forced Almere-Poort back behind the dike and the woodland that has been created there. So it transpires that a provisional layout can dictate a permanent use. These are realities which the city’s planning department will have to get accustomed to. The department long used to function in comparative autonomy, but gradually came under the increasing influence of local government and the swelling apparatus of laws and legislation. The skilful playing off against each other of all the contradictory directives is just as important for the success of a plan as a clear urban design vision. Urban design is less and less about projecting, and increasingly about reconciling contradictions. Ecological factors in particular are playing an ever more decisive role in planning.
For a true manifestation of the city on open water, hopes are now pinned on Almere-Pampus – if, that is, the ecology of flora and fauna does not preclude it. Because surprisingly enough, the city, which was planned without constraints, is now heemed in by a border of ecological zones. It is of course the work of man, but the adage ‘what man has created man himself shall not destroy’ now applies here. So the perversity that an urban agglomeration surrounded by an (inland) sea is orientated towards two artificial lakes is, it seems, a permanent one.

Total design
Thus, designing the city as a physical manifestation – how does the city appear from a distance, what do the entrances look like, how do visitors get their bearings? – is seriously impeded by natural factors. But the city’s pragmatic development in phases has itself produced features which cannot easily be rectified. The view of the city from the A6 (79 per cent of transport to and from Almere is by car) is blocked by a fringe of business parks of no more than average quality. Only level with Weerwater is there an inkling to be had of what the glorious centre will look like. Approaching from Utrecht (A27), again the first thing the visitor will see will be a business park. Urban design consultant Riek Bakker’s attempts to transform this datum into a powerful urbanistic element (the spatial planning strategy Ruimtelijke Ontwikkelingsstrategie Almere 2015, 1996, better known as ROSA) was admittedly greeted with applauded but then put on hold. In ROSA, Bakker seeks to give the A6 motorway just as dominant a role in the structuring of the city as that filled by the railway line today. The city is thus conceived as two parallel lines of force, a conception locally regarded as thoroughly undesirable. The preferred image is that of discrete enclaves in a sea of green. That image though is becoming increasingly fictitious, because the powerful concept that conceives the main roads as parkways, and so distinct from the urban development, is once again not being implemented in practice. Of course, it is not easy to resist the temptation to leave this commercially important strip of land along the motorway as it is and chop up the available area into the maximum number of plots. Nonetheless, Almere, which is doing its level best to shake off its image as a sedate dormitory town, must do something about its spatial identity. Lumpen warehouses and office blocks are not really helping at present. The target image of a rural ‘Gooi in the polder’ which once presided over Almere’s polynuclear layout, cannot be realized without a supremely powerful orchestration of its greenspace. That a masterplan for this greenspace is now being drawn up gives cause for hope, but in reality it would appear to be too late.

Animation

The new centre plan for Almere-Stad and the masterplan for Almere-Poort show that now that more programme is becoming available, differentiation is no longer a cosmetic concept. At the same time, it is becoming apparent just how diverse are the urban design visions and resources presently being deployed.
Urban design (which began as a spatial art, but gradually shifted its focus to technically organizing the urban ground plane) has become besotted with image (witness the multiplicity of referential images which clutter virtually every urban plan) and has adopted the terminology of the performing arts. ‘Orchestration’ and ‘choreography’ have become accepted terms in the professional jargon, particularly in the case of city centre designs. In reality, it is about giving shape to the supposed zap mentality of the visitor/user. By cramming as much variation and surprise as possible in the architectural fleshing out, the urban space becomes ‘animated’. Urbanism itself seeks to entertain, because the programming is the same everywhere; it’s the packaging that makes the difference, that makes the product stand out.
The Poort centre has been planned according to this principle: unity in the programme (a single theme) and maximum divergence in spatial forms and architecture. Pedestrian and collective traffic are uppermost visually, while the car is decisive for the plan’s success.
OMA’s centre scheme is almost the opposite of this: maximum diversity in the programme and a degree of neutrality with respect to the architecture. For example, OMA regards the hospital, which many consider to be out of place, as a potential enhancement of the programme: have a cup of tea in the hospital café, go for a recuperative walk in the shopping centre. In OMA’s scheme, too,  animating the urban space plays a key role, but that role is reserved not for architecture but for the public. By squeezing masses of programme onto a small surface area, OMA has generated a vibrancy very different from that of the animated image. At the same time, the office is fascinated with the three-dimensional organization of the urban machine. Because the coming and going of people and goods takes place ‘from the bottom up’ (via parking garages, intersected by bus lanes and roads, with loading platforms as well as shops), the raised ground level can spatially unfold on all sides. The orchestration of the ground level is then less dependent on the architecture than on a clever positioning of functions. Like a skilfully designed garden, in which different plant groups flower in turn, different parts of the centre are ‘illuminated’ at different times of the day and on different days of the week. OMA’s centre is a simulated world, orchestrated with an eye to shopping behaviour. However, in its interweaving with the ‘open engine room’, its bringing together of various scales and ambiences, it avoids the one-dimensional and almost inevitable illusion of a happy and beautiful world. The fact that the new station concourse is to be so public that literally every city dweller will be able to spend time there is interesting, given the tendency to privatize public space. As such, OMA’s scheme has the potential to create space for a margin called ‘life’.
Almere’s self-image, its political and economic profile are changing radically. I therefore suggest, in place of the inappropriate image of ‘a Gooi in the polder’ and the technocratic concept of a ‘polynuclear city’, that we reintroduce a classical, structuring metaphor. I am referring to the image of the city as a house, a country house: Almere-Poort is then the reception hall (doubling as gymnasium in this case), Almere-Stad the banqueting hall, Almere-Buiten the bedroom, Almere-Hout the conservatory and out there in the garden is a folly: Almere-Haven.