Lessons from Dutch Detroit
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
Author: Edyta Abramczyk
Having lived in different countries, I’ve been privileged to see many good architectural ideas that I would otherwise have remained oblivious to.
I studied architecture in Cracow, enjoyed an internship in London, completed my graduation project in Florence and landed my first job in Amsterdam.
However, none of these great cities fascinated me as much as the municipality of Zaandam, where I moved with my now husband nearly two decades ago.
From a professional point of view, that is.
Located directly north of Amsterdam on the banks of a tidal river, and flanked by abandoned factories and a few old windmills, Zaandam used to be a place to avoid.
There wasn’t much entertainment other than the Zaanse Schans, a museum village created in the 1960s to preserve some of the town’s iconic, green wooden houses as it was anticipated that half of Zaandam would be demolished to make way for the expansion of the Amsterdam harbour and a petrochemical factory.
Frankly, the biggest attraction of Zaandam for me was its cheap rent and the fact that Amsterdam was only 10 minutes away by train.
How times have changed.
Realising that radical measures were needed to prevent Zaandam from deteriorating into a Dutch Detroit, in the early 2000s the city engaged prominent architect Sjoerd Soeters to turn the desperate situation around.
Relatively unknown outside of the Netherlands, in his own country Soeters is legendary for his willingness to challenge the status quo.
His vision for Zaandam was simple yet provocative: get rid of the dime-a-dozen facades that had come to dominate the streetscape since the 1960s and redevelop the city centre in keeping with a bold new design language that looked oddly familiar — because it was purposely inspired by the same green, wooden houses that had previously been relegated to the museum village.
His plans were met with fierce opposition from local taxpayers, who had become sceptical after several previous attempts to save their town from further decay.
But council backed Soeters, knowing it was now or never.
Fast forward fifteen years, and the results speak for themselves.
The main shopping strip, once choked by cars, is closed to motor vehicles and reimagined to resemble the canal it used to be centuries ago.
Above: De Gedempte Gracht, Zaandam's main shopping strip, before and after.
Commercial property owners have enthusiastically taken up financial incentives provided by council to improve the look of their buildings.
And love it or loathe it, the hotel erected next to the railway station is so remarkable in its appearance that it can never be unseen.
Playing on a strength that had long been neglected — namely, its traditional architecture — Zaandam has managed to rise from obscurity and turn its frail heart into a vibrant place where people don’t have to be, but want to be, simply because the built environment gives them a strong sense of belonging.
Unfortunately, it came too late for me. I’m a proud Brisbanite now.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot we can take away from Zaandam.
For example, that it pays to go against the tide and do things differently.
That you need to use a holistic approach and stick to it.
And that, sometimes, you have to spend money to make money.
No doubt Zaandam would still be dilapidated if council hadn’t taken control and invested millions to set things in motion.
I haven’t been back for years, but I look forward to seeing the outcome in person one day.
And for sure, I know at which hotel I will be staying.