NDSM: Are You Tough Enough?

 

What you’re looking at are a handful of pictures of the former NDSM shipyard in Amsterdam (NDSM stands for Nederlandsche Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij – Netherlands Dock and Shipbuilding Company). It’s a place I’ve visited often the past two years researching a book on creativity and the city. The yard was built in 1946, largely supported by US Marshall Plan funds, and until it closed in 1984, it built up to six vessels per year, including some of the largest tankers for the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Shell, whose headquarters can be found nearby. You get there by ferry from Amsterdam Centraalstation – it chugs downstream for twenty minutes through a landscape of enormous skies and rehabilitated industrial ruins, depositing you in an unearthly, description-defying place….which I am now going to try to describe.

NDSM is building on an epic scale, but its qualities exceed architecture in the strict sense. It is heterogeneous and informal and the only unifying feature is a colossal slipway, most surfaces of which are covered in graffiti. It now forms a kind of accidental piazza. Scattered around are buildings of every kind and none: two vast assembly sheds, among the biggest single span buildings in the world. In the distance, a brightly painted assemblage of shipping containers forming a student housing complex that is simultaneously chic and extremely grim. Then there is smelting works converted by Group A architects in 2014 for the local headquarters of Pernod-Ricard and (bizarrely, in the same building) Greenpeace; a crane turned into a boutique hotel; and for no particularly obvious reason, a Soviet submarine from the mid-50s. Nobody really knows why it is here, or how it got here.

If NDSM has a core, it is the ship assembly building, or Scheepsbouwloods at the head of the slipway. Since 2000 this has been the home to a community of artists and designers who have occupied this colossal space with a set of temporary and informal structures of varying degrees of sophistication (there are about 100 artists in the complex, occupying some 140,000 sq ft of space). Some of these occupations are bodged out of plywood and found materials, while others have the polish of designer clothes stores. This, the so-called ‘Art City’ has recently (2014) been incorporated as a foundation and appears to be headed towards a more formal future. But in its present condition it describes something important about the subject position of the creative city. It is a city of a city of encampments and occupations, a modern-day Wild West. As much as the art city represents a set of practical solutions (cheap, abundant space, freedom from official intervention) it also represents a set of lifestyle choices that imagine the city as a set of defensive enclaves, sometimes quite fortified, even hostile.

In a 2012 film about NDSM, one of the original artists, Bart Stuart elaborates this outsider’s subject position. NDSM he claims is a city on its own terms, standing in friendly but critical opposition to the official city across the waters of the IJ. It’s not for sale; it’s not to be recuperated into the general ‘project’ of the city’s regeneration. The city is ‘not an office where you can plan everything and organise who is sitting where and how much is that…’

So – as a prominent bit of graffiti asks – what’s happening? What is going on in places like NDSM? What kind of a city are we creating in the name of creativity? I certainly think in a way analogous to Reyner Banham’s exploration of LA, I think there is an architectural history to be written of places like this. In fifteen years, the creative city has moved from hucksterish rhetoric to a reality with distinct architectural forms. And as Banham discovered in the LA of the 1960s, it makes little sense to describe only the formal architecture as the creative city, as the vast majority of it is produced informally. It’s a city of occupations, a precarious, temporary city whose undeniable dynamism is also a barrier to the weak: it’s a place where the strong survive. This attitude has become economically prized. In Amsterdam, the broedplaatsen, in the first instance a panicked government response to large scale squatting, has become core urban policy. Edgy is now mainstream, you might say, and exploring its informal architecture is a good way of understanding what is happening. NDSM is good at identifying the complexities and contradictions of the creative city, its superficial openness (‘everyone is creative’, as Florida says) butting up against a defensiveness and exclusivity. That exclusivity is inseparable, I think, from the cultivated harshness of this and similar environments. The persistence of the squatter aesthetic, the choice of industrial readymades such as the shipping container, the tolerance of graffiti, these things all say: you have to be tough to survive here, to survive the creative economy. Are you tough enough?