On 5 november 2015, in geschiedenis, infrastructuur, planningtheorie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Building Gotham’ (2003) of Keith Revell:

We met at Penn Station, New York. From there we would take the train to Boston. He had the tickets. The station, dating from the sixties, looked like Dante’s Inferno, but then as if you’re in a science-fiction movie, from the Jetsons, a world deep under the ground. My friend – also a planner – said I should read ‘Building Gotham’ of Keith Revell if I wanted to know more about Penn Station and its history. The book, he said, describes the engineering works of New York City from the end of the 19nth century untill the beginning of the Second World War, the Progressive Era. And yes, Keith Revell, a historian from John Hopkins University, did a great job by studying the regulation of skyscrapers and railroads in the city. All the great experts – mostly engineers – who were doing those difficult urban projects, were his heroes. The first chapter is about ‘conceiving the new metropolis’; next a chapter on private infrastructure follows, one on public infrastructure, and the book ends with a chapter on urban and regional planning – zoning – as a new expertise. So after our trip I started reading the book. A great book.

In his preface Mr. Revell writes that at first he thought his project would be an inquiry into the ways that the concept of efficiency affected the building of New York. Instead, he discovered quite something else. “As I learned more about what the experts engaged in those projects were doing, I discovered that efficiency played a less important role in their worldview than interdependence – the latter far more powerful concept with profound political implications.” He calls it ‘a civic culture’, leading to the formation of new public institutions. That’s what urban and regional planning is about: a civic culture. But all those institutions are weak now. People very much disagree on the future. So Revell wonders if “bureaucratic organizations (can be) the proper instruments for determining and carrying out the public interest in a democratic society.”  The answer is no of course. And interdependence is ever more a problem. That’s why we have to rethink planning.

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International solidarity

On 14 oktober 2015, in demografie, geschiedenis, by Zef Hemel

Read in Historisch Nieuwsblad nr.9 2007:

On an excursion last week, my students visited the Spaarndammerbuurt, Amsterdam. There, in museum Het Schip, they listened to the story of the Great War. The neighborhood, our young guide explained, was built in 1914-1920. In 1914 one million Belgian refugees had fled to the Netherlands in only a few days time. The Great War had started, with the Germans occupying Belgium. The city of Antwerp was evacuated. What did the Dutch government do? Not much. Mr. Cort van der Linden, the Dutch conservative prime minister, kept quiet for more than six weeks. It was Queen Wilhelmina who asked the population to help their neighbours and welcome them with open arms. In Amsterdam, a national committee – the ‘Amsterdam Committee’ – was installed by citizens. At last the government decided to build concentration camps all over the country, but mostly in the southern provinces. The refugees, it decided, should be imprisoned and leave the country as soon as possible. From then on, the Belgians had to live behind barbed wire, waiting for the moment to be sent back. To make things worse, the Dutch government started negotiations with the Germans in the hope to get rid of the Belgians as soon as possible. The Germans decided to build a fence of electric wire on the northern border of Belgium to stop the Dutch implementing their evictions.

The guide – a master student Social History at the University of Amsterdam – was telling his story with passion. The architects of the Amsterdam School, he told my students, were ordered by socialist deputy mayor Mr. Floor Wibaut personally to keep on building, thus creating new dwellings for the Belgian comrades. The magic architecture of Michel de Klerk was a political statement: socialist Amsterdam voting against conservative The Hague. The beautiful tower in the building of ‘Het schip’ – now a museum – is a symbol of international solidarity. Afterwards I asked the young guide why he told us all this. He said, “Well, because the same is happening in our country right now.” Mr. Rutte doing nothing. Even the king is holding his tongue. The refugees from Syria, Iraq and northern Africa have to stay in asylumseekers camps on the countryside. We should build dwellings in Amsterdam for them now. With beautiful architecture. And towers! We need Wibaut again!

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Dutch enlightenment

On 13 oktober 2015, in economie, filosofie, geschiedenis, by Zef Hemel

Read in NRC handelsblad of 9 August 2015:


Early August this year, some thousand historians gathered in Rotterdam for the 14nth ISECS conference on ‘The Long Eighteenth Century’ (1650-1815). A long report of the conference proceedings I read in the science supplement of NRC Handelsblad, written by Dirk Vlasblom. Fascinating stuff. It was about how capitalism and freedom were being invented and promoted, and how they were to be seen as ‘natural’, thus building trust among traders in order to foster trade. “Capitalism is also a product of imagination,” professor Inger Leemans from the Free University Amsterdam stressed in his lecture on ‘The Nature of the Economy’. Vlasblom: “A wide variety of concepts is needed in order to let the capitalist system look ‘natural’, to build trust amongst merchants in the economic process and to serve them with a compelling self image.” An enormous engraving of the exchange building of Amsterdam (1693), made by Casparus Commelin, accompanies the newspaper article (picture). The exchange was the first building in the world where bond shares were being traded, a true ‘beehive’ according to the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel.

The Dutch Republic was a special case. It was a unique confederation of city-states in a sea of mighty kingdoms, led by multicultural Amsterdam. Till 1720 the decentralized urban republic was an intellectual space where radical new thoughts could be published, exchanged and freely discussed. It ended, when conservative powers started dominating the Low Countries. The balance of power was no longer favoring Amsterdam, but the countryside. The urban population started shrinking, immigration was no longer possible, an intellectual braindrain was being felt, nationalism marked a narrowing space of thought, centralisation of power became the new political trend. The proclamation of the Dutch kingdom in 1815 was the outcome of this conservative, anti-intellectual and anti-urban national trend. The closing lecture of professor Wijnand Mijnhardt from Utrecht University (‘The Swansong of the Dutch Enlightenment’) I found reveiling, utterly relevant too. In what times are we living?

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