The design of buildings and cities is an ever evolving subject, with challenges of urbanisation and housing demand generating new ideas and responses in many different countries and cities. As part of our commitment to continuing professional development and to enable us to stay up-to-date with the latest residential architecture, GRID run annual fieldtrips which give staff the chance to view innovative schemes first hand. The 2016 field trip was to Amsterdam, a city at the forefront of modern architecture in Europe and a leader in innovative urban planning. David Birkbeck of Design for Homes was kind enough to lead us on an architectural tour of the city. Through his work on the Building for Life and Housing Design Awards, David has been an ongoing champion of good design in UK housebuilding This includes studying and incorporating the best ideas from countries such as the Netherlands.
Our first stop was IJburg, a pioneering development on six artificial island created in the IJ lake to the east of the Amsterdam. Built meet the city's growing housing need, IJburg represents a huge undertaking to create from scratch a viable community, with all the amenities that entails. We were fortunate enough to speak to Nels van Malsen an expert on the IJburg project who, for many years, oversaw community engagement with the development during its design and construction. She explained that one of the biggest successes of the scheme has been the integration of social facilities such as daycare and accommodation for the elderly into the neighbourhoods from the very beginning, helping to make the area more than simply a commuter settlement.
Amsterdam has a rich tradition of building with brick, from the stepped gable facades of houses in the old city to the modern brickwork of apartment blocks in IJburg. Like London, brick is the dominant architectural material in the city and much of the architectural innovation involves new ways to apply this familiar element. A striking recent addition is the Chanel store by MVRDV. Using technology developed specifically for the project, the traditional brick facade of an Amsterdam townhouse was recreated entirely in glass, including bricks, window frames and architraves. The project references Amsterdam's longstanding expertise in diamond cutting and marries this to a provocative response to its historic context.
A repeating theme in many of the areas visited was "free design", a concept whereby a street or neighbourhood is developed using certain basic parameters; plot size, maximum height, off-street parking, within which each owner is allowed a large degree of freedom to build in whatever style they choose. The effect is streetscapes that, while clearly planned, have a level of aesthetic variation that enlivens the overall development and promotes a sense of identity and ownership.
Of course, the best way to view Amsterdam is from the water and so an evening boat trip around the docks and canals was accompanied by drinks and canapés before dinner back on dry land and, for those brave enough, a chance to experience the city’s famous night life.