Rewilding the Dutch landscape

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Alies Dordregter

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September 24, 2021

AMSTERDAM — Although Amsterdam’s latest urban experiment, De Ceuvel, is built on solid ground, there’s much that reminds its denizens — artists, entrepreneurs, designers, sustainability experts — of its past as a commercial shipyard.

Converted rowboats serve as benches, stranded houseboats are used as buildings and — raised 90 centimeters, or 35 inches, off the polluted ground — a quay-like walkway constitutes the sidewalk.

De Ceuvel officially opened this summer after a team of architects, landscapers, sustainability experts and entrepreneurs created 1,250 square meters, or 13,450 square feet, of office, studio and commercial space on a polluted plot of land in the city’s industrial north. Besides producing its own power and minimizing waste, the design aims to create a fertile ground for community interaction, while letting the area’s physical ground recuperate from its industrial past, explained Pieter Theuws, the lead landscape architect on the project.

“Our challenge is to connect streams of waste and energy and people into a circular city model”
— Pieter Theuws, Lead landscape architect DELVA

Urban experimentation

The original tenants were found through an advertisement on Marktplaats, a Dutch ad site, which asked potential tenants to chose one of the houseboats on sale that week, pretend that they could buy it for one euro and explain what they would do with it.

And, in fact, most of the houseboats were acquired for that nominal sum. As Amsterdam’s canals gentrify, and moorings are being leased by wealthier and more demanding residents, old boats are being scrapped to make way for new. The offer to take the boats for a euro proved so popular that Mr. Glasl, a principal with the Amsterdam architectural office Space & Matter, and his team had to choose among offers.

“The Netherlands is both more and less progressive than people think,” she said. “If we hadn’t been part of this project, it would have just been a bunch of solar panels on a bunch of houseboats.”
— Esther Way, owner cafe De Ceuvel

Cleantech playground

Although the project has been both financially and politically supported by the municipality (Mr. Glasl and his team were awarded the site for a minimum of 10 years after their proposal won a competitive tender), many of the team’s ideas have run afoul of city bylaws.
“To follow through, you actually have to break a bunch of laws,” said Ms. Gladek. “The site has no gas and no sewage connection; that itself is illegal.”

Capturing rainwater to make drinking water was blocked by the city because that would have meant licensing the community as a drinking water provider — which was too complex and costly. In the end the community opted to bring in city water, although the ateliers are not connected to the sewer system. Commercial spaces and the cafe are connected.

Like the other members of the team, Ms. Gladek sees projects like De Ceuvel as the future of urbanism. “This is something cities need to start doing,” she said. “They need to allow for experimentation to happen.”

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