Learning from The Netherlands – Collaborative Planning

Coming to the Netherlands to study first and then to work, what intrigued me from the beginning was the great degree of importance and willingness given to collaboration. So while as a student I found myself working on projects in teams, as an architect we constantly find ourselves collaborating with other offices in architectural projects. Having worked in India with a ‘winner takes all’ attitude to architecture (and frankly in other spheres of life) wherein masterplanning, architecture and landscape are done by the same firm. This, as is evident in the many developments in India, has lead to very mundane and fragmented built environments. In contrast, the Dutch attitude to collaborate and work as a team has been refreshing – not just for the diversity of the end products but as a method of learning from each other. Perhaps it is because the Netherlands being a country below sea-level where collective effort and management of resources has benefitted everybody and this attitude has found expression in all other walks of life
As an architect,  I come across this attitude to collaborate in tangible terms in the way a masterplan is used for various developments specifically for larger urban developments. Although many examples that I explain here are urban in nature, the same could be applied for landscape and land management. As I understood upon arrival in the Netherlands, the whole country is but a grand project considering a sizable portion of it is below sea level.

A masterplan - ‘an opener of opportunities’

My understanding of a masterplan is that of an organizing & an envisioning tool rather than as a definitive image to be achieved. It is a tool to communicate a vision, suggest a common direction, propose strategies and future scenarios without having to fix a very definitive product. The degree of the definitiveness of a masterplan, of course, depends on the  scale of the project
To use an analogy, a good masterplan is like preparing the soil and land and its gradient so that a diverse landscape could be accommodated – intervening at moments and places so as to steer the growth in a particular direction or the other. This aspect of keeping open for opportunities while steering towards a vision (and not an image) is put across more clearly by Kees Christaanse in his ‘Textbook’ (2018) “In urbanism one cannot simply make a design. The design needs to evolve from a complex weave of interdependencies and also be “stretchable” in order to absorb future transformation processes. Due to its participatory character, the many actors and the necessary political support involved, normally no single “author” exists in urban design. Therefore, the design should be rather a strategy, an opener of windows of opportunity”. 1

“In urbanism one cannot simply make a design. The design needs to evolve from a complex weave of interdependencies and also be “stretchable” in order to absorb future transformation processes. Due to its participatory character, the many actors and the necessary political support involved, normally no single “author” exists in urban design. Therefore, the design should be rather a strategy, an opener of windows of opportunity”

Kees Christiaanse, Textbook (2018) – Urban Design (Because We Need a Vision)

The same article identifies the problem as a flattening of everything in the current marketplace – land is traded alongside soft drinks and what matters is the price. As an alternative, it proposes grouping of tradable goods based on their environmental and social value such that ‘no amount of fizzy drinks could be exchanged for felling trees’. Translated to the built environment, ‘The land, materials and labour which go into the creation of schools, for example, might be traded in a wholly separate marketplace as those which go into luxury flats, radically reorganising their price’.3

A plea for the open city

Contemporary Indian cities and, I suppose, several other cities around the world have been developed by demarcation, fragmentation and exclusion. The ubiquitous  compound wall is an everyday reality growing up in Indian cities. Even public facilities such as parks and squares have them and they are present quite explicitly and physically. It was refreshing for me then to come to the Netherlands, living in a city like Rotterdam where the public domain is as various and fluid as it is. Perhaps the best things I’d like to take from the best examples of the Dutch masterplans is the idea of the ‘Open plan’ and the ‘Open City’ and their characteristics. 
What is an Open plan anyway?
An open plan is fundamental for a vibrant city. An open plan is not formed by exclusion but by opening to possibilities; embraces the spirit of city-making; invites and affords variety and multiplicity. An open plan means allowing itself to be affected by outside influences and evolving over time. An open plan means creating a guide for development –  a flexible vision and strategies for development rather than an inflexible image.

“For urbanists as makers of places,(...) Exclusion isn’t just a matter of keeping out (...) others, it also involves simplifying the look and construction of a place so that the place fits one kind of a person, but not others. Mixed forms and uses invite mixed users. Whereas in a stripped-down environment, the more form becomes simple, clear and distinct, the more it defines who belongs there and who doesn’t".

Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the city (2018)

An open plan is the exact opposite of the trend of gated communities in India and elsewhere. A gated community, in essence, entertains exclusion and division in the city and is the anti-thesis of city-making. And I side myself with Richard Sennett’s strong assertion that “the urbanist should go against the will of the people, refusing to build gated communities; prejudice should be denied in the name of justice”. 2
A particular project that has intrigued me was the housing project at GWL Terrein, Amsterdam. With the masterplan by KCAP with several other architecture firms involved in the design of the individual buildings, I find the project as a good example of creating a ‘city-fabric’. Apart from the porosity of the development, wherein one could walk through the development without encountering any obstacles, the development is also pedestrianized. Furthermore, the development mixes different kinds and sizes of houses, therefore, allowing possibilities for different kind of households. Community vegetable gardens in between the individual buildings that are collectively maintained by the residents is a further attempt to bring them together as a community. To undertake housing or for that matter, any development as an activity to build inclusive and open cities is a far cry from what one could expect in a country like India.

More than Housing project, Zurich is a co-operative housing project where the land and buildings are collectively held by cooperatives that effectively stays away from the speculative real-estate market making homes accessible and affordable | image source

Urban design & architecture - flexibility and variety

 Collaborating, especially in matters concerning city-making, is something I have come to value very highly of during my time living and working in the Netherlands. While I was still working in India, collaboration is a rarely used term and was often welcomed with a skeptical look – as if to collaborate means one has to compromise. But a successful collaboration is where the best abilities of every collaborating party are allowed to flourish. Knowingly or unknowingly, cities are collaborative endeavours. No city is built in a day and is a conglomeration of projects from the smallest house to the larger infrastructure – one affecting the other. The idea is to make them successful collaborations – inclusive, porous, flexible and vibrant.
 Referring back to my analogy of urban design to that of gardening, Kees Christiaanse in his very humane and modest terms puts  “urban design, as the organiser of the common, should observe a high degree of neutrality towards architecture, so that it may bloom a thousand different ways”. 3

A platform inviting collaboration

With respect to the actual built environment, approaching urban design and the masterplan as a platform to collaborate results in a multitude of expressions and variety. In such terms, the projects that I find quite interesting are the masterplans of the Borneo Sporenburg and Het Funenpark, both in Amsterdam. 
The Borneo Sporenburg masterplan by the firm West 8 lays out a masterplan for low-rise, canal houses with three large blocks and several connecting bridges that serve as landmarks. While the individual houses are built privately to individual designs of the inhabitants, certain limits – chiefly the width and boundaries of the plot and the height restriction – allow for a great variety while guiding the overall urban form. The individual houses, among others, has designs from several good design studios exploring the typology of a narrow house resulting in rich variations and innovations of the typology.

Borneo Sporenburg – The masterplan and its punctuations | image source

The innumerable variations to the house typology as explored by various individual architects | image source

The end result is an urban environment with very diverse qualities

In Het Funenpark, a masterplan by de Architecten Cie, the masterplan, much like in the GWL Terrein project is put together through various housing types -the long continuous apartment block and individual stand-alone apartment blocks in a park. The overall development accommodates different types of housing including studio apartments, live-work spaces, apartments for senior citizens, subsidized apartments for housing corporations along with houses for the free market (Cie website citation). Each individual blocks working within certain restrictions on volume and kind of houses were designed by individual architecture firms resulting in a very diverse project.

Het Funenpark – the masterplan, by providing certain guidlines, encourages variations in expression. The variations help to accomodate very different apartment types which can accommodate diverse kinds of households | image source

Het Funenpark, Amsterdam | image source

Works cited

  1. Christiaanse, K. (2018). Urban Design (Because We Need a Vision). In K. Christiaanse, Textbook (pp. 145-151). Rotterdam: Nai010 Publishers.
  2. Sennett, R. (2018). Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. Penguin Books.
  3. Christiaanse, K. (2018). Urban Design (Because We Need a Vision). In K. Christiaanse, Textbook (pp. 145-151). Rotterdam: Nai010 Publishers
  4. http://urbanitarian.com/portfolio/gwl-kcap-amsterdam/
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