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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Almere and the Green Cathedral


Woontoren Silverline
After much starting and stopping I finally decide to go to Almere to start gathering info for an article. It's a bit windy and cool but the clouds seem to be drifting past for occasional flashes of sun. On the Sprinter (commuter train) it's an ethnic melange: many blacks as well as Nordic types and burqas. As elsewhere, it's all about la familia. 
(Original date of this entry: May 20, 2017)


Almere center

The article I'm working on is actually a sample text to be submitted to a guidebook publisher. I chose Almere since it is only sketchily described, if at all, in guidebooks. Most Dutch people I speak to scorn the place. One Dutch acquaintance, who lived there briefly, finds the architecture of Almere shockingly unattractive and removed from the worlds of ordinary inhabitants, though he was not familiar with any of the buildings catalogued in my book, Architectural Guide to the Netherlands (1980-Present), by Paul Groenendijk.

(first draft)
Working from a clean slate, landscape-wise, architects have found in Almere ideal ground for experimentation, which makes the town and province a hotbed of innovative architecture. Almere was originally meant to siphon off Amsterdam's overflow into newly built neighborhoods, and it has risen to the task, growing at a rapid clip. As a case of urban planning, Almere is ripe for innovation. Almere consists of four main sections: Almere-Poort, Almere Haven, Almere-Stad and Almere-Buiten. Nestled between them is a series of themed neighborhoods: the Music zone, the Film zone, etc, where the street names reflect the theme (Natalie Wood Park, Celluloid Lane, Orson Welles Street).



It's turned out to be a lovely ride thus far, and the sun is unobstructed by clouds now. My objective for the day is the Groene Katedraal, a ways southeast of Almere and a spledid day ride. I got an OV-Fiets (share bike)–self-service by the bus terminal–and had some confusion exiting: you've got to put the bike on a little gray slot in the floor, then extract the key and scan it, then put the key back in the bike, and only then can you push open the gate and exit.
Almere to the Green Cathedral (near easternmost point)

kp 76->83->85->86->88->91
I take the trail through the center, bustling this Saturday afternoon, and skirt the Weerwater, a substantial lake to the south–presumably the site of the fine arts center and other notable architecture.


I'm working out the best route to the Green Cathedral and back. The trail cuts east through Almeerderhout (Almere Wood) and I'm back in lovely rural Netherlands: trees, canals and lakes, sparsely populated. I am now at the Hoge Vaart, a waterway which widens out here (kp 88-> 91) and has an islet in the middle connected by footbridge. Geese, ducks, swallows, pink flowers dot the raised turf. 


Aerial view of the 'Green Cathedral,' and its mirror image.

I've seen the Green Cathedral, constructed of Italian poplars to resemble the Cathedral of Reims, though the supposed aisles/concrete paths between trees are covered in detritus now. At first glance it does not seem so impressive–yet another row of poplars–but you can indeed discern the shape. It widens out where the apse ought to be. Riding on toward kp 93, I turn left on a concrete path to reach the mirror image, which similarly just looks like a field but it does open up at the far end. I guess you really need the aerial view. 

The Green Cathedral is one of seven 'land art' projects dotted around the South Polder—the more recently reclaimed part of the province of Flevoland—by different artists, some probably American since that's where the idea originates from. Supposedly all within reach in a day, which sounds ambitious to me, but certainly day trips could be planned around each of them. 





kp 89 -> 87 -> 86 -> 84 -> 83 -> 77 -> 75
Bike bridge over Hoge Vaart
Nachtegaalpad (Nightingale Path) is an unpaved gravelly road going northwest. It becomes Nachtegaallaan and winds through  
to Almere-Hout, a suburban neighborhood, then toward kp 89 jogs left to follow the east bank of the Hoge Vaart, the same canal I had viewed from the opposite bank, with its central islet. A beautiful stretch. Then over the canal via an excellent bike bridge (not shown on Google Maps), then west (to kp 84) along another canal through Almeerderhout. Here it is worth commenting on the extraordinarily natural tone of an area that was raised from the sea less than half a century ago. It's a fine example of natuurontwikkeling—nature development, a concept that originated in the Netherlands and one that is immediately obvious to outsiders. It's conventional wisdom that every square meter of the Netherlands has been planned—five times over—and that includes the bits that are 'wild,' that is, allowed to develop without the intervention of man. Such zones are liberally dispersed around Almere, and are generally easy to access. The fact that this piece of land did not even exist a century ago makes it especially interesting—and informative I suppose to scientists—to see the forces of nature at work. The primordial atmosphere of the meadows and forests I cycled through seems to belie their newness. It doesn't take long for nature to take over and establish its own patterns of development.


View across the Weerwater, with Silverline tower

At kp 83 I return to the Weerwater and this time attempt to skirt the west side. But the path is under construction toward kp 77, so I take a parallel road till I reach some significant architecture: The Wave by Rene van Zuuk, the erector-set pair of towers by Architekten Cie, and Tetris-inspired Woontoren Silverline, which looked pretty good as a backdrop for giant swans on the lake. 

"In 1994, four urban designers were invited to develop a scenario for the center of Almere. The metropolitan approach taken by Rem Koolhuis' OMA (architects group) with its multiple land use was chosen. All components were fleshed out by international architects of repute." - Paul Groenendijk, Architectural Guide to the Netherlands 1980-Present


(May 21)
Now the plaza in front of the train station, which looked so forlorn yesterday afternoon, is positively bubbling, with an impressively varied ethnic melange and no traffic. It demonstrates that those planners had the right idea about quality of life in modern Holland. The square is flanked by terrace cafes, all pretty busy now. I'm sitting on one of several long wood plank platforms that serve as benches, watching the activity.

New library
Heading straight down the shopping corridor I find an equally cheery scene lined with the same shops as Amsterdam's Kalverstraat but not so crowded, ending up at the expansive Stadhuisplein with its eponymous winged edifice and interesting library, a geometric long structure with glass-paneled lower level. Here as well the plaza is populated by cheerful strollers of all ethnicities, just as the planners envisioned.

Now in the Citadel, a sort of artificial village/shopping mall with pedestrian passageways running through it where shops "sport virtually all glass fronts below a broad band of red polymer concrete with deep joints." People stroll through it although all the shops are closed. They seem glad to play the role that's expected of them in planners' blueprints.

Smaragd apartment bldg next to Citadel mall
The Citadel is adjacent to the open space at the waterfront, site of the House of Arts, Kunstlinie Almere, built out over the water, as a sort of counterweight to the wanton consumerism of the shopping mall. Closed now but appears to consist of a single glass block. The planners perhaps did not anticipate the use of the space in front of a locked parking garage opposite as a hangout for delinquents. 


To the right gleam several steely apartment complexes highlighted by The Wave, whose undulating facade is made of coated aluminum panels, and Silverline, the two linked by a fanciful bicycle bridge supported by skewed ship’s masts. A boardwalk extends out into the lake with a sloped section like some kind of skateboarders playground; benches enclosed at base are the domain of weed-toking youths. 

***

Hard Glas
Psyche
On a smaller scale but perhaps more compelling, De Fantasie (1982-6) is 'the culmination of a competition for unusual homes,’ some built by non-architects with inexpensive materials. Among the nine free-standing structures lining up in a triangle by Weerwater’s western shore are Hard Glas, a glass cube supported by a lattice of steel pipes, and Conform, made up of five purple ship containers which can be configured in different ways or expanded with more containers. 

Almere is an amazing experiment in social engineering that at least on the surface appears to be a success. This is, or could be, the city of the future. The various pieces of Almere—the Citadel, music and film quarters, lake, harbor, etc, fit together like a cleverly worked out Lego project, though such social engineering has a sinister side. I glimpsed both aspects when I moved into De Bijlmer, the similarly planned zone southeast of Amsterdam–both the exciting possibilities and the essential grimness of such ambitions, since the human residents may not live up to them. 

Another thing that could be said about Almere is that the sort of Florida-style gunning down of suspicious intruders would not seem possible here. Or even such suspicious characters as myself, prowling around taking photos and sitting by the lake admiring swans–whose wing-flapping makes a stupendous racket, by the way. I believe a wide range of colors and behaviors are accepted here—if not necessarily welcomed. 







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