Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Netherlands Part III – Urbanism Trumps Architecture

Dateline: 10:50 am July 20, 2007 Filed under:

One quote that stands out from my trip to the Netherlands is “urbanism is dominant of architecture.” I don’t remember who said it exactly, but I remember when and where. Our group was having wine and discussion after dinner one night, eleven stories above Amsterdam in the old post office building that is being renovated and now has a restaurant and club on the top floor. It may have been the wine or the lovely view, but we were having a “lofty” conversation about planning and design, and one of the professionals from Amsterdam made that statement, which in many ways sums up my observations from my week in the Netherlands.

A few examples.

In the Amsterdam docklands, a major redevelopment of a former industrial area, one of the phases includes two rows of residential buildings, one facing south towards the city, and the other facing north. The buildings average seven or so stories in height, and were designed by various architects. Therefore, the buildings have variety but the same general massing. The streets on either side of the island are proportioned to comfortably allow for cars, buses and pedestrians, and a bike lane runs down the middle, between the backs of the buildings. Urbansim trumps architecture.

Urbanism in the Docklands

In Leidsche Rijn, the new suburban town being developed on the western edge of Utrecht, the architecture is good, but occasionally looks a bit the same, as can happen with new suburbs in the United States. As development marches on, the infrastructure to support it follows. Bike lanes and transit are there from the beginning. More remarkable, retail development is in mixed-use buildings, is accessible on foot or by bike and is not dominated by front-loaded parking. The architecture is good, but the urbanism is better.

Urbanism in the Suburbs

And finally, perhaps my favorite example of all time. I took this photo seven years ago in Amsterdam. It shows Churchilaan, a street developed in the 1920s or 1930s at what was then the southern edge of the city. Friends of mine lived in the apartments on the left. Nice architecture, but the street is remarkable. It includes a wide sidewalk, parking lane, bike lane, driving lane, tram lane, and a beautifully landscaped center median. Again, urbanism trumps architecture.

Urban Street for All

I went all the way to the Netherlands on an “architecture field trip” only to learn that they value urbanism over architecture. I saw some wonderful architecture – daring, bold, striking and lovely – and enjoyed it very much. But above all, the take away value from my trip is there is much to learn from the Dutch and their sense of urbanism.

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