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For years the Over-Amstel Penitentiary with its tower blocks, at 48 Wenckebachweg in Amsterdam – or the ‘Bijlmerbajes’ (Bijlmer lockup) as it was popularly known – was the most famous and infamous prison in the Netherlands. The Bijlmerbajes, though it’s hard to imagine now, was one of the first prisons to be designed on the basis of enlightened ideas, albeit after 15 years of design meetings. The penitentiary was completed in 1978 as a ‘community-style prison’, which meant that cells were replaced by rooms situated within pavilions and given reinforced glass with alarm wiring. Bars were no longer needed. Some prisoners even got their own keys. The concept was based on the idea that inmates could readapt to life and society outside more quickly. So it was important that they could see the outside world. The term used was ‘housing’ instead of imprisonment and the design was completely in line with the then modern trend for residential complexes at the time. Also in terms of urban planning, the location fit into the contemporary expansion plans for Amsterdam, in which the city centre’s Wibautstraat was to be extended out to the complex. The architect was the female half, Koos Pot- Keegstra (1908-1997), of the architectural partnership she formed with her husband, and a well-known architect of many residential projects.

The enlightenment years are behind us now. After several escapes and attempted breakouts, it seems prison bars were needed after all. The view onto the outside world was quite a bit less than anticipated because the urban plans were never realized and the prison ended up in a no-man’s land. The story goes that for the prisoners it was actually better and clearer that they saw and experienced the prison bars because it reinforced their sense of confinement. The level of security at the prison was gradually increased. The greater goal of architecture influencing the well-being of inmates was appeased by painting the interior walls in bright colours.

A new, more secure prison has been built in Zaanstad. At the moment the Bijlmer building is inhabited by the anti-squat organisation LOLA, to keep building deterioration at bay, and by a centre for asylum-seekers. Favela painters have coloured the exterior of the former prison in a gesture of welcome.
Since 18 September 2005 the Wenckebachweg property is also home to temporary student housing in shipping containers. The residences are being rented out by housing association De Key and were built by project developer and owners  Stichting Keetwonen  (meaning ‘container living’) who developed the idea.
A shipping container is 2.4 x 12 x 2.6 m, giving ca. 28 m2 of liveable space. A small prefab wet room and kitchen unit can easily be inserted. This makes the cost of such a container, depending on the finish, about € 10,000 per unit.

The Bijlmer container project was one of the first in the world. It was a makeshift solution and has little architectural quality. While the idea seemed a little unpleasant initially, with the location and resemblance to cells, the containers proved to be quite popular among students who get to have their own front door for a reasonable rent, and as a result (of having an individual address) improve their chances of obtaining housing benefits.  The complex of 1000 residential containers, stacked into six buildings and surrounded by a small supermarket, café/restaurant and bicycle repair shop, functions as a little urban enclave.

The ‘housing’ of the Bijlmerbajes was built after years of studies and negotiations, according to the most contemporary architectural visions regarding light and airiness and on the conviction that architecture is a reflection of the social aspects in society and that it therefore has a great social responsibility.  On the other hand, the container homes were an initiative conceived by property developers who wanted to provide a quick and cheap solution to the student housing shortages, without any urban design planning or architectural underpinning.

What are we to make of the fact that the concept behind the Bijlmerbajes did not live up to expectations while the container homes turned out to be hugely popular? Is that because of or in spite of the lack of (or presence of) architecture? Or is architectural  design a luxury that is irrelevant here anyway? Dominique will be putting together a photographic report to visualise how Bijlmer residents are using their space during their last year. Maybe this will reveal to us where exactly its qualities lie, what contributes to its popularity. In any case, it will produce interesting documentation on the very first shipping container town.

By December 2017 the students will have to find other accommodations. This is then the end of an era. The government put the Bijlmerbajes terrain up for sale on 30 June 2016, for €60 million. The 1030 containers and 6 buildings are also for sale. The municipality of Amsterdam is zoning for 1000 homes on the land.

In the meantime, shipping containers as houses have gained the attention of serious architects who have begun to see the container as a building block that can replace load-bearing structures of concrete, stone or wood. This allows for a quick build within a limited budget. Containers are no longer an emergency or student housing solution, but a trendy architectural solution, and interesting in terms of sustainability, for projects worldwide. Who knows, perhaps we’ll see them return to the Bijlmer as hip new houses for young professionals or something similar.


Dikkie Scipio
Kwartaal 3, 2016

Hanane Metalsi News, Publications, Quarterly winner