Archis 1999 #11

NL profonde. Nevelstad Almere / Deepest Netherlands. Almere, the Nebulous City

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The river functioned in times past as the lifeline of a city and in our day and age serves as the bearer of a contrived urban identity. The Weerwater, too, lies torpidly in the middle of this rapidly growing urban nucleus, a watery heart that keeps the city in suspense, a drip feed suffusing the surrounding sea of houses with some vital ingredient that transforms them into something more than a simple housing estate. The body of water is the city’s public unconscious.

Without the Weerwater, the configuration of self-contained neighbourhoods in Almere-Stad district would be featureless, even pointless. Now this urban area resembles a cluster of lobes enwrapped in a membranous net of lanes, packed tight around a brainstem of water: the reptilian brain. Just as the brainstem is an automat that generates our blind, unconscious reflexes, so is the Weerwater the most deep-lying, primitive and vital component of Almere-Stad. Every district of Almere has its own topographical brainstem: Almere-Haven has the Gooimeer lake, Almere-Buiten has woods of Het Bos and the Lage Vaart canal, Almere-Hout has the Almerebos woods and De Polder, and Almere-Poort has the IJmeer lake.

Although each of the districts around the brain stem has a distinct structure and design, it is not difficult to imagine transplanting these characteristics arbitrarily from one district to another, for each has more or less the same density. The city of Almere, on the other hand, is not at all arbitrarily interchangeable with some other city, nor can it be categorized under conventional urban planning concepts. Perhaps this is because it has reached a high level of maturity and we can now properly assess its polynuclear concept on its merits. Almere is neither large nor small and is neither urban nor anti-urban.

It is a curious but widely appreciated mix of urbs and leafy suburb; it is both polynuclear and ambivalent. It is a nebulous city, a city of vagueness. In this respect, Almere lies both literally and figuratively between Amsterdam and Lelystad, between the pedantry of the typical classical city and the vapid receptiveness of the typical new town. It has its planning dogmas, but it retains the openness of mind to take a totally new tack when necessary.

These two characteristics, the ‘primitiveness’ of the major topographical artifices and the ‘ambivalence’ of the urban superstructure, constitute the success of Almere. It is so successful that only 35 per cent of the city’s working population has its employment there; the rest of them uncomplainingly brave the traffic jams and the tribulations of public transport. This is admittedly due in part to the weakness of neighbouring cities such as Amsterdam and Hilversum, which cannot hang onto their citizens because they are incapable of offering them ample, affordable housing. In fact every large Dutch city appears to be trying to export its inhabitants by failing to offer them any accommodation larger than a three-bedroom flat. Almere plucks the fruit of these failings.

To grasp the essence of Almere, you have to ignore the obviousness of the explicit, you have to ignore the suburban sociology of neighbourly squabbles and barbecues and the metropolitan debates on social atomization and growing anonymity. That way you problematize new towns of this kind to death. Note instead the perfection of the monotony, the reassurance of the eternal sameness – regardless or maybe precisely because of the architectural capers.

Observe the gloss of newness, the imaginary smell rising from those new housing projects like the interior of a brand new saloon car. You space out on the sheer spicness and spanness of neighbourhoods where all the streets are named after novelists (the Literature Neighbourhood), or movie stars (the Film Neighbourhood), or famous parks, or dances, or colours, or seasons and so on. Whenever the cadence of housing is punctuated by some or other collective facility, it comes across as a rude interruption of your stupor. The schools are just about bearable, but the supermarkets and neighbourhood shopping centres are far from nebulous enough – they ought to merge better into the sea of houses.

Even the somewhat older districts which have (to put it mildly) lost their new-car smell, such as Stedenwijk (the Cities Neighbourhood), are not so heavily smothered in greenery that they give you the feeling of a paradisiacal nongated community. The outmoded and the ugly dissolve of their own accord in Flevoland. So is it impossible to find any fault with Almere? The only stain on its record is the new centre plan for Almere-Stad. The very idea of making a ‘real’ city centre here is shocking.

The plan is based on the classic dichotomy of closure and openness, of urbs and suburbs, and proposes forming a counterpoint to suburbia by pursuing a densification strategy. But Almere isn’t suburbia. The new centre plan is tilting at windmills and fails to recognize the ambivalent quality of this nebulous city. The centre district could have spread calmly out into the Weerwater, with piers and strips of low-rise housing with shops (in much the same way as the Venice district of Los Angeles spreads out into the ocean).

Instead it is to be upgraded with the inevitable high-rise housing on the lakeside, prestige facilities such as a theatre and a museum at the choice sites along and in the Weerwater, a raised ground slab with a car park beneath it, and a snaggle of rotations of the orthogonal structure aimed at maximizing the number of different kinds of public space. (In Lelystad, too, they grew tired of their orthogonal central area and decided to turn the whole thing through 45 degrees – for different reasons, but with exactly the same awful outcome.)

In short, the plan is a programmatic beanfeast intended to arouse the suggestion that the area is a real city centre. But who wants all those jagged triangles of public space when the expanse of the Weerwater stretches out before you? And who is crazy enough to want to put a museum on the city’s prettiest site when any old pancake roll stall can whip up a more vibrant atmosphere?

We must of course accept that the first steps towards this centre plan began in 1994, and had the ‘quality team’ been able to press the reset button we would be faced with quite a different plan now in 1999. If I had written this article five years ago, I think it would have been more sceptical and less polite. It’s simply the kind of thing that happens with cities that are changing too quickly for anyone’s conceptual powers to grasp. Almere has become complex and ambiguous more quickly than other cities. Consider De Fantasie, once a showpiece of experimental architecture and now an ecological paradise.

Back in 1985, when the place was still surrounded by a plain of bare sand, I stayed there for a while in the home of the architect Peter Loerakker. This bit of Almere was exciting then; seven years later it was nondescript, but now after a further seven years it is fantastic again.

You have to leave some towns and urban districts to go through their puberty, without paying them all that much attention during the precarious phase. Areas such as the ‘Flowers’ Neighbourhood (Bloemenbuurt) are not particularly interesting from a conceptual viewpoint, but like Stedenwijk they will grow up in a few years time.

The same is true for the whole segmented infrastructure of Almere. Five years ago we might have considered the separate bus lanes and cycle paths outdated – a relic of the sixties, perhaps – but the traffic system of Almere has been expanded so cool-headedly and consistently during the 23 years of the city’s existence that it is beginning to rise above itself. It really works, particularly in combination with the network of lanes and canals.

I hope that Almere will never consider itself ‘finished’, not even if it has become the fourth biggest city in the Netherlands in twenty years’ time. Everything here must be given the chance to go through the cycle of success, dullness and beauty. Preferably several times.

It is now 9 p.m. The sun survived the moon’s assault eight hours ago and is now shining more diligently than ever. I am standing on the black gravel path of the Polderland Garden of Love and Fire but I am unable to make much of this work by Daniel Libeskind.

At least, I cannot understand the geometry of the five lines in the landscape. But once, in your mind’s eye, you eliminate the physical presence of the whole thing and peruse the successively narrower and shadier spaces between the aluminium screens, you realize that here lies the key to a code that has still to be cracked, and which you will crack some day. I have meanwhile succeeded in deciphering the secret of Almere: its nebulousness and its patience.

The evening before the solar eclipse, at nine p.m., I rewatched the film Star Trek: Generations in which a three-hundred and fifty year old man makes the somewhat apocalyptic pronouncement, ‘Time is the fire in which we burn.’ Just the kind of thing for people. Just the kind of thing for old cities. Almere’s retort would simply be ‘Time is the fire in which we glow.’