The failure of post-war architecture to create urban communities haunts Europeby Ken Worpole / April 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
During the “hunger winter” of 1944 in Amsterdam, over 20,000 people died of starvation. Many of the city’s trees were cut down, and the interiors of abandoned buildings broken up for fuel. When peace came this most beautiful and urbane of cities was in urgent need of large-scale reconstruction. In the years following the end of hostilities in Europe, modern architecture had an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate a socially minded, urban flair. The consensus today is that in most places it failed. The young Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck was one of the earliest critics of the mechanistic approach taken by his modernist colleagues to urban reconstruction, arguing that its year zero approach crushed existing networks and the parochial loyalties of pre-war neighbourhoods.
The failure of architecture and planning to recreate forms of urban community and solidarity has come to haunt post-war Europe, as so many acclaimed housing estates, new towns, or newly designed urban quarters, whether on the outskirts of Paris, Stockholm, Newcastle, Frankfurt or Milan, have succumbed rapidly to vandalism, disrepair and residential flight. Schemes for “urban renewal” are now as regular a feature of European city life as carnival season, Gay Pride Week or the arrival of spring.
Van Eyck saw this coming. In 1947, at the age of 28, he went to work for the Office for Public Works in Amsterdam, and as his first project built a small playground (speelplaats) on the Bertelmanplein. While many of his colleagues were keen to start with a housing development or a new street plan, he had been encouraged to think seriously about play provision by Jacoba Mulder. Mulder and Lotte Stam-Beese were the first two prominent women planners in the Netherlands and had already completed the popular Beatrixpark in Amsterdam before the war. Delighted with the popularity of the playground, van Eyck designed over 700 more such play areas throughout the city over the next 30 years.
The Dutch, as we know from the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the tradition of kinderspelen paintings, have always regarded children’s play as a training ground for citizenship. As Simon Schama pointed out in The Embarrassment of Riches, these popular genre paintings often showed children playing games against a background featuring the town hall or other civic buildings. Such settings were intended to evoke the civic or public virtues to which the properly brought-up child should be led.…