The conservation of Modernist urban ensembles : Case studies from Amsterdam.


  • Nicholas Clarke TU Delft



Urban Conservation, notably in Western Europe, grew from a reaction to the Modernist project; not so much as response to its large monofunctional sub-urban expansion projects, but more so to its attempts at rationalising messy multifunctional historic inner cities. Conservationists responded to these functionally segregated overtures by celebrating the diversity and multi-layered character of the historic city. The urban conservation approach was eventually codified in the 1975 Declaration of Amsterdam. In the Netherlands the urban conservation approach found its most clear expression in the ‘Stads-’ and ‘Stedelijke’ (town- and city renewal) processes of the last quarter of the Twentieth Century. 
At the time that the ‘Stadsvernieuwing’ reached its peak a new dynamic was emerging: an awakening appreciation of Modernist peri-urban social housing estates, built according to the principles of ‘Het Nieuwe Bouwen’ (The New Building). The period of transition from traditional architecture and urbanism to the complete acceptance of the Modernist project was being reappraised. Many of the projects selected through a governmental inventorying and selection process were located in neighbourhoods, which had by the time of their selection as monuments, become problem areas. In Amsterdam, the western garden suburbs – the Interbellum and post-War housing neighbourhood, designed for the most part by Cornelis van Eesteren, an active participant and chair of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) from 1930–1947 – was such an area. The first break with the Amsterdam tradition of perimeter housing blocks occurred here at Landlust, where three new linear-block social housing projects were constructed between 1932 and 1938. The plan of one of these, designed by architects Gerrit Versteeg sr. and jr., was duplicated during the last years of the Second World War in Bosleeuw, a location in close vicinity to the first Landlust project. 
How has the urban renewal of these Modernist utopias been attempted? A crucial obstacle to be overcome by conservationists was that of public opinion. The historic city centres have proven their worth as identity-delivery resources that stimulate creative industries, free-time consumption and tourism, obviating the need to justify conservation efforts. These drivers are absent from the Modernist Amsterdam Western Garden Suburbs (‘Westelijke Tuinsteden’). 
The two Versteeg blocks, owned by two different social housing corporations, have been upgraded in two remarkably different manners during the last 8 years. The first had been listed as municipal monument, the other not. This paper will present the approach to the problem of urban renewal of the areas in which these large-scale, monotone housing projects are located, through firstly creating a socially acceptable narrative and focusing on those qualities that make their areas unique: a re-interpretation and repackaging of their original utopian ambitions in the new social objectives of energetic sustainability. This has taken the place of the incentive for the traditional urban conservation actions.
This paper will explore the challenges the conservation of Modernist utopian townscapes present and illustrate some of the similarities and divergent approaches to urban conservation of historic urban centres.


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How to Cite

Clarke, N. (2016). The conservation of Modernist urban ensembles : Case studies from Amsterdam. International Planning History Society Proceedings, 17(5).