‘Material Evidence of what does not Exist’ arose from a working period of several months in Buiksloterham, a former industrial estate in Amsterdam-North. For over a century this area was situated at the edge of the city and accommodated heavy port-related industry. The district is now at a crossroads: the companies must make way for (circular) housing.
For more than a century, Buiksloterham was primarily a transit zone, a place of passage. Located on the outskirts of Amsterdam, on the northern bank of the IJ river, the area housed heavy port-related industry. As soon as their shift started, the workers came swarming in on their bicycles, and after working hours the area was left to itself. The design of the industrial area and its buildings was functional and careless. But you could also call it: honest and unpolished.
Today, the district is at a crossroads. Most industry has moved a few kilometres westwards. The Tolhuiskanaal and Buiksloterkanaal, which cut through the area, are barely used for commercial shipping anymore. Here and there, some barges and dilapidated yachts lie rotting in the water, their cabin windows provisionally sealed with plastic and duct tape. The creative hub that houses artists' studios is one of the few places where it is still visible that things are being made. Piles of metal are stacked on the site, a saw installation stands under a makeshift roof. However, the most visible activity is construction work, with new buildings and apartment blocks emerging here and there.
The promise is that in the short term this will become a sustainable, circular residential area. This implies that the label 'sustainable' apparently cannot be used to describe the present and the past. Across the street, the new generation of residents has started to settle in: those who can afford to have a shiny apartment built in a neighbourhood ‘just one ferry ride from the centre’. The new business activity has taken the form of a school for yoga and meditation. A little further on, an older building that is clearly recognizable as a former factory because of its characteristic saw-tooth roof, now houses a designer furniture business. ‘Industrial' has become the name for a style of interior design in which 'tough' materials such as concrete, metal and wood are used – but which mainly results in empty, quiet and clean spaces. Not: full, dirty, noisy.
A deathly quiet, self-absorbed metal knot awaits those arriving by ferry in Buiksloterham. From a distance, the gigantic sculpture by André Volten seems smooth and shiny. But up close you can see that the metal skin is slightly irregular, and you can see where the various parts are welded together – a skill that Volten learned at the shipyards nearby.
From 1950 until his death in 2002, the modernist artist worked within walking distance, in a sober, white-painted building. Its new function as artist’s studio concealed the fact that this building had been constructed as gatehouse for the Asterdorp ‘residential school’. Far away from the inhabited world, poor families were housed under supervision in a small, secluded neighbourhood to re-educate them as model citizens. At least, that was the intention. In reality, these families were given a lifelong stigma. During the war years, the experiment was discontinued. However, from January 1942, by order of the German occupier, stateless Jews from Germany, Austria and Poland were herded here, as well as Jews from the Amsterdam Rivierenbuurt and other Dutch cities. Most of them were deported in the summer of 1942.
This historical fact expresses the essence of a peripheral area: it is used to accommodate activities and people that are not wanted elsewhere. Buiksloterham and countless other ‘edgelands’ have played, and still play, a necessary role in the attempt to tame, to sanitize, to smooth away the rough edges of city life. In this sense, the city centre and its periphery are inextricably linked. Perhaps that is also what Volten was trying to express with his knot.
Concrete is the material that has shaped 'modern construction' par excellence. It is highly appreciated by architects and construction engineers because it is so easy to mold into a certain shape, because of its solidity and the smooth, neutral surface. Nevertheless, the components that are used to compose concrete, carry a history of millions of years of erosion and migration.
An important ingredient of Dutch cement is limestone, which was once the calcium skeleton of microscopically small sea creatures that descended to the bottom of prehistoric seas. To make cement, the limestone undergoes a lengthy process that involves crushing, grinding, mixing, heating, sifting and drying. To turn into concrete, the cement must be mixed with water, sand and gravel or crushed stone. These materials are mined from (former) riverbeds in the Netherlands, but originate from the different areas these rivers have flowed through: from Belgium and North-East France to the Eifel, Sauerland and the Alps, even from Scandinavia.
The process of rendering the hard stone to soft components, to hard material again – repeated when the concrete is recycled – also applies to buildings and the urban fabric itself. In the way in which people move and live.
The gravel of concrete on the verge, the remains of split stone at the edge of a just-asphalted road, the building materials that have been dumped on a vacant lot: empty gas cylinders, an old bicycle, shreds of insulation material. These are fossils of the now, signs that refer to a certain way of life. What image will future archaeologists reconstruct of our civilization on the basis of these fragments?
- Text by Raymond Frenken