Perimeter blockTower
Westerdok Island/La Grande Cour
Meyer + Van Schooten, Architekten Cie, Heren 5 | Amsterdam, The Netherlands | 2007
Image of Westerdok ...
South facade converted RxR bridge to the right

ProjectWesterdok Island/La Grande Cour
ArchitectMeyer + Van Schooten, Architekten Cie, Heren 5
CountryThe Netherlands
Building TypePerimeter block
Number of Dwellings253
Date Built2007
Dwelling Types1,2,3 BR flats, 4 BR duplexes
No. Floors2-6-10
Section Typeflats & maisonettes, skip-stop gallery access, skip-stop double loaded
Exterior Finish
brick, metal windows, reinforced cement panels, aluminum panels
Construction TypeR-C frame
Ancillary Servicesparking 263 spaces, 2500 sq. meters commercial

Most of the amazing transformation of Amsterdam’s waterfront between 1990 and 2010 occurred along the southern edge of the IJ River in the Eastern Harbor District east of the Central Station. Built on land left vacate by the changes in the shipping and maritime industry, whole new communities were built on the abandoned Abattoir, Veemarkt and Entrepot sites and the old shipping docks in the IJ; KNSM, Java, Borneo and Sporenburg. In addition, other new communities have been built further east on a string of new islands created on land reclaimed from the IJ designed to house about 40,000 people. West of the Central Station, however, there were fewer opportunities for large housing projects. The Westerdokdijk had been built in the 19th century to control the silting that occurred in the harbor area. In the early 20th century, the dike was widened and used as a railroad-shunting yard that was connected to the mainland by a pivoting steel bridge that was built in 1922. The railroad use was discontinued in subsequent years leaving a long, narrow strip of land vacant between the IJ and Westerdok basin. By the end of the 1990’s, the city was considering housing construction in the western dock areas and Westerdokseiland was a very attractive site within walking distance of the Central Station. Master planning studies were undertaken for Westerdokseiland that were exhibited in an ARCAM show in 1999. This included the trapezoidal-shaped area of the shutting yards, and a diagonal peninsula that jutted out into the IJ at the south end of the island called IJ Dok. Peter Defesche of the planning firm OD 205 developed the master plan for the Westerdok part of the site and Dick van Gemeren and Jarne Mastenbroek developed the plan for the IJ Dok site. At about the same time work was progressing on another site further west along the line of the dike where there was a row of old grain silos that were being converted to housing. A design competition for this site resulted in the construction of the huge Silodam slab designed by MVRD and opened in 2002.

The early master plan concept for Westerdokseiland was to combine a perimeter block typology of closed courtyards with one of freestanding buildings. The long narrow site was divided up into 4 blocks between a straight quay along the west side opposite Westerdok, and a curving wall along the east side facing the IJ. Three of the 4 blocks were variations of a perimeter block typology. The 4th block was a 13-story narrow triangular building that tapered to a point at the north end. At the south end there was a large plaza facing the channel connecting Westerdok with the IJ. The 4 blocks are organized on a repeating E/W grid. This resulted in a consistent pattern even though there was a lot of variety in building height, shape, and materials. The logic of the perimeter block typology idea seemed to be that there should be enclosed spaces on the interior of the block but also a row of towers that framed views from the courtyards to the Westerdok and the IJ. The curving building along the east side of the block is taller and more continuous with distant views of the marine landscape of the IJ. The quay along the west side of the island was developed as a zone for bicycles, community activities and to moor boats. The total program was for about 900 dwellings with cafes, restaurants and commercial uses. There were two levels of basement parking, a series of interior courtyards, public spaces along the quay, and a plaza at the southern end were included where the rail bridge was later converted to a café.

A different team of architects developed each of the 4 courtyard blocks: La Grande Cour (253 units): Meyer & van Schooten; Heren 5; De Architeken Cie; VOC Cour (362 units): MVRDV; Jeroen Schippen; John Bosch; Art Zaaijer; Westerkaap II (191 units): AWG Architecten; DKV Architecten; Baneke, van der Hoeven; Westerkaap I (111 units); AWG Architecten; Baneke, van der Hoeven

Le Grande Court was the first of the 4 sites to be built. Meyer & van Schooten were in charge of the master plan and the design of the southern parcel and de Archikten Cie, and Heren 5 were the architects of each of the other two parcels. Each firm then had the responsibility for the design of one of the three parcels including the courtyard and one of the taller “periscopes”. Each firm thus had clearly defined but overlapping design tasks requiring a lot of coordination. City requirements included the different building heights, brick as the exterior material on the perimeter walls, and the use of the ground floor for commercial space. Still the work of each office is differentiated by different wall treatments on the courtyard elements, different windows, the roof terraces, balconies, and the design concept for the courtyards.

The combination of point tower and perimeter block typologies for the Westerdokdijk suggested by Peter Defesche in the 1999 master plan was a clear response to the site conditions. The construction sequence began with the south block and was finished in 2007. The basic perimeter block is 6-stories high, continuous and curving along the east side. Along the west side, the arrangement is more open with three semi-detached 6-story towers that stand on a continuous 3-story high plinth overlooking Westerdok. These elements defined a zone of small courtyards on the interior of the block that were further populated with other semi detached tower-like elements called "periscopes" because of their shape, that extend and bridge over the top of the perimeter block. The long concatenated interior zone was first divided into 4 parts, and these parts were further sub-divided on the east/west axis into a repeating module of about 12.5 meters. A lower, 2-sory building and a type of semi-free -standing block were used to structure and subdivide the courtyard space. Thus the paradigm evolved of a building system that offered the urban qualities and definition of public/private space typical to the perimeter block, but that also provided the views and lighting qualities of the freestanding tower.

The idea of a “periscope” developed as a way to build in the courtyard consistent, with the good view and good lighting mantra. The “periscope” was more of an inverted “ell” with a tall vertical leg that extended above the 6-story perimeter that was topped with a 3-story occupied “bridge” of dwellings that spanned between but were only casually aligned with the elevator towers. Vertical circulation in La Grande Cour occurs as a grid of 10 elevator/stair stacks. Both the perimeter walls as well as the 3 periscopes are part of this organizational grid. Part of the objective of the periscopes was to limit the mass of building elements in the volume of the courtyard for better views and lighting, but a downside to this concept was that they are also the source of obvious building inefficiencies.

Like most large Dutch housing projects, Westerdokseiland has a diverse mix of rental and owner-occupied dwellings and a great range of apartment types and sizes. Of the 253 dwellings, in La Grande Cour, 120 are owner occupied homes, 80 are government -sponsored rental housing, 30 are designated for middle income families, 24 are top end rental, and there several penthouses. Some of the apartments have balconies and access to roof terraces. There are 263 parking spaces and about 2500 square meters of commercial space. La Grande Cour is a virtual lexicon of dwelling types. The two-story elements that define the courtyards are duplex units with private access from the courtyard. The alternating three-story buildings used on the perimeter of the block are gallery access flats but the 6-story perimeter blocks are gallery access (on the south) or skip-stop maisonettes (on the east). The grid of service cores give access to one or two flats per floor and the double-loaded skip-stop configuration on the top 3 floors. The elevators also service the roof terraces. These small towers would not be allowed under fire codes with multiple egress requirements. It is a credit to the architects that this extreme range of dwellings is provided while maintaining a semblance of overall building unity.

In spite of chaotic massing, the result is a very regular plan that is obvious at the 2nd floor where there is a more-or-less continuous perimeter with the 2-east west bars of duplexes defining 3 long narrow courtyards. The periscopes have a small footprint as they rise through the lower floors but expand horizontally above the 6th floor partially covering the courtyards so that the space of the courtyards is quite enclosed.

The combination of the 6-story perimeter wall, the alternating heights generated by the plinth, the 2 story heights of the townhouses that separate courts, the vertical structure of piers within the volume of the courtyard, and especially, the discontinuous, 3-story high surfaces of the “bridges” that define space within and partially cover the upper reaches of the court yards. This results in a dynamic spatial interpenetration within the confines of each block but that also extend horizontally between blocks. Windows, balconies, and roof terraces offer framed views at a variety of scales from within these complex volumes creating urban windows to the surrounding landscapes. The periscopes are clad with more reflective materials, aluminum, reinforced cement panels and glazed brick and along with the openings in the perimeter create a more luminous interior. The very substantial quality of the brick walls is not matched by the compositional quality and detail development of the windows, doors, and balconies. The bleak landscape of the 3 courtyards, minimalized because of the basement parking, recalls very little of the rich tradition of urban gardens associated with the perimeter block typology. The high openings at the ends of the courtyards are a critical part of the spatial dialogue between the inside and outside, however, the gates needed for the security of the ground floor dwellings have compromised this quality.

There is an on-going debate in Holland over the density requirements of new housing developments. People like Maarten van Poelgeest, for example, an Amsterdam alderman, believe that the Dutch have no choice but to conserve arable land and build at higher densities on inner city sites like Westerdokseiland. The density here is high, 300 dwellings per hectare (about 120 /acre) as compared to the 30-40 du per hectare typical of 2-3 story housing built under the “Vinex” program, for example. The perimeter blocks used in the Eastern Harbor District, like KNSM and Java islands, while denser than other suburban precedents, do not seem as compact or dense as Westerdok.

An important part of the La Grande Cour program was the small peninsula, IJ Dok that juts out into the IJ at an angle from the long axis of the island. In contrast to the perimeter block typology being used on Westerdokseiland, IJ Dok s treated as a separate smaller element, a large rectangular block, 13 floors high, that had been eroded and deconstructed in response to site angles and geometry resulting in a sculptural shape consisting of a long interior courtyard defined by two parallel slabs that have been defragmented to admit light to the interior spaces and provide enhanced views of the surrounding maritime landscape. This multifunctional element includes a hotel, offices, and other functions and is separated from the south end of the island by a marina area for small boats. IJ Dok, along with the converted old rail bridge that was converted to a restaurant and new bike bridge, help define the presently undeveloped plaza at the southern end of Westterdokseiland. IJ Dok is scheduled to open in 2012.

Architecture, 11May, 2009

Architecten Web Magazine, March, 2008, pp. 36-43.

Architecture in The Netherlands Yearbook, 2008-09, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, pp. 112-115

De Architect, Nov. 2006

Kolls, Maarten, Yvonne de Kote, Amsterdam Architecture 2006-2008, ARCAM/Architecture +Natura Press, Amsterdam, 2008, pp. 123-129

Uytenhaak, Rudy, Cities Full of Space, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2008.

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