Vice. Excess. Indulgence. The Las Vegas Strip holds a number of well-deserved stereotypes that emerges from a tourism sector that is almost uniformly centred around gambling, late nights, and a sense of corporate-sponsored hedonism.
Neon lights at the Golden Goose (Photo: Adam Nowek)
Martini-shaped neon on Fremont Street East (Photo: Adam Nowek)
Llamas stay for free on East Fremont Street (Photo: Adam Nowek)
19 March 2014 was a historical day for the city of Amsterdam. On this day, the ‘Kremlin at the Amstel’, which was one of the rather cynical nicknames of Amsterdam’s city hall due to the decades of hegemony by the local labour party, has fallen. Since WWII the party had always been the biggest. Hence, the Dutch capital was a reliable strong hold for the social democrats. Where the labour party lost, others won. Big winner of this most recent elections was D66, who are presenting themselves as progressive and pragmatic, or ‘social-liberal.’ This striking shift in the political landscape raises questions. Can the collapse of labour be regarded as a one-off incident, or is this electoral outcome a logical result of Amsterdam’s recent demographic and socio-cultural changes? To what extent are similar patterns visible in other European capitals? And is there a reason to worry about a growing urban-rural divide?
D66 is one of the political parties in Holland that has its own boat at Amsterdam’s annual gay pride (picture by Geoff Coupe, flickr)
In recent years, numerous plans for New Towns have been developed throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Ambitious initiatives include Hope City in Ghana, Kigamboni City in Tanzania and Konza Technology City in Kenya. The visualizations of these future cities look very modern and aesthetically pleasing, and in the plans the ambition to create a “world-class city”, an “eco-city” or a “smart-city” is put forward.
The emergence of New Towns throughout Africa is a very recent phenomenon. Although the actual construction of most of them has not started yet, they already have a prominent role in the media. Many find these plans very promising, as the visions for these New Towns reflect the notion that Africa is “rising”. However, they have been heavily criticized as well. It has been argued that these planned cities stand in stark contrast with the contemporary urban situation in Africa, which is plagued by housing shortages, congestion and pollution. Why are these New Towns being developed and how feasible is their construction really?
Figure 1: An impression of Konza Technology City by the New York-based firm SHoP Architects. Source: Shoparc.com
The case of the student occupations in Amsterdam
The past two weeks Amsterdam has witnessed the rise of a rapidly growing student mobilization. On Friday February 13, the student collective ‘The new University’ occupied the Bungehuis, in an act of protest against the financialization of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the unwillingness of the university’s executive board to take student claims into consideration. The Bungehuis is one of the iconic buildings of University of Amsterdam wherein the Humanities Faculty is primarily located. The occupation has moved on to the Maagdenhuis, the building from which the university is governed, as of Thursday night. By then, the protestors of the New University were joined by the ‘Humanities Rally’, another group of students with a similar mission.
The initial spark of the student mobilization, however, was the squatting of the former common room of the Spinhuis back in September 2014. The common room was an autonomous student space located at the heart of a historic UvA building in the city center of Amsterdam which was to be eradicated due to the organizational reforms that led to the relocation of the faculty against the will of many students and staff. The squatting of Het Spinhuis was a public act of defiance and protest that not just called attention to property speculation and to the physical struggle over the use of privatised space, but also to the reclamation of a space symbolic to multiple generations of UvA students whose political ideas, memories and friendships took form in that very room. Although the collective was forced out of the building in January after the court ruled in favour of their eviction, its impact on rendering student politicization and mobilization visible both on and off university grounds remains significant.
Picture of het Spinhuis during occupation (picture from WordPress)
Finding the local at the international airport
“Are you sure this is Paris, France?” — In Jacques Tati’s famous film Playtime (1967), an American travel group arrives at the airport of the French capital and is obviously puzzled with the identity of the place. The uniform architecture, with its glossy polished marble floor and endlessly reflecting glass façades, allows no other option than a great confusion among the travellers. The vast emptiness of the airport misses any sign or hint of the desired travel destination.
That first sequence of Playtime holds the mirror up to the urban and architectural utopias of modern rationalism in the 1960’s and humorously illustrates what happens when homogeneity becomes alive; much to the cost of the American travellers, who keep desperately looking for the familiar Parisian historic buildings they know from their travel guides.
Schiphol and the Amsterdam ‘Vibe’
If we were to adapt Tati’s movie to the present, this scene would have to be rewritten. Today, arriving at Schiphol leaves no doubt about where we are. Little is left from the seemingly heartless and dehumanised monotony of airport-architecture. At Schiphol, we literally blunder into the “cultural taste” of Amsterdam and – by extension – the Netherlands. Excessive imagery of windmills, clogs (Klompen), kissing couples, Gouda, among others, spread out over the entire Schiphol Plaza – the shopping and welcoming area of the airport – giving us the assurance, yes; ‘I am [in] Amsterdam’. Literally, we encounter the articulation of a pronounced symbol-driven localism, almost a false sense that we are already in the heart of the city, gazing at Dam square’s Koninklijk Paleis.
Welcome to Schiphol Airport; welcome to the Netherlands (picture: Michael Schwind)
Coping with change
This is a story of the old versus the new, of conflicting city cultures, of gentrification of the mind – this is the story of Amsterdam-Noord. “Noord” is Amsterdam’s iconic city district located on the northern banks of the IJ-river, perhaps best known for the free ferries that bridge its physical separation from the rest of the city.
In recent years, Amsterdam-Noord has seen a surge in popularity, both in actuality and in the media. Unfortunately, much of the existing coverage fails to do justice to Noord. It is either depicted as a historic area readily being colonized by the hipsters, or a backward blue-collar neighborhood rich in social and economic poverty. Neither picture is complete – and this story aims to raise attention to the diversity of the area. It also seeks to caution against claims of authenticity and the importance of framing, while simultaneously acknowledging the need for Noord to move forwards and embrace the new economic and social opportunities that lie ahead – for everyone.
Film museum EYE and the A’DAM tower, seen from the southside of the IJ. Credits: Tina Monumentalia, Creative Commons. Taken in May 2014.
For those of you expecting a critical assessment concerning the ridiculousness of the ‘theme park-look’ the city of Zaandam recently obtained, I will disappoint you right from the start. Through this blog I would rather like to show the positive effects this ‘plastic looking’ city centre creates for the economy of the city as well as for its inhabitants. After introducing Zaandam and explaining the changes that were made to the city centre, the need of cities like Zaandam in the current cognitive-cultural economy will be discussed.
Zaandam Central Station and the city hall. (Photo by author)
Zaandam is in fact a city within another city, namely Zaanstad. Zaanstad is a city adjacent to the northwest of Amsterdam. Zaanstad as a whole includes over 150.000 inhabitants, known as so-called Zaankanters. The municipality of Zaanstad has been created in 1974 by uniting the city of Zaandam and six surrounding villages. Zaandam itself is situated in the southeast of what is now ‘Zaanstad’, so it is located closest to Amsterdam, and entails about half the municipality’s population, namely 75.000 people. With a population density of 2252 inhabitants per square kilometre and an OAD (address density) of about 3000, Zaandam can be placed in the highest urbanization category of the CBS (Statistics Netherlands).
Tehran, Iran’s capital and its primary city with 8.5 million people, is experiencing a particular socioeconomic phenomenon. The city similarly to other metropolitan areas in developing countries, is becoming increasingly polarised, the gap between the rich and poor is widening, whilst the middle class is shrinking. Tehran is, geographically, economically, socially and culturally divided into two parts: north and south. A street (Enghelab (revolution) Street, running from east to west through the centre of Tehran) forms the line between these parts. In the north, the most expensive parts of the city, wealthy people live; and on the contrary, the south is mostly populated by lower middle class families and poor people. Moving along Valiasr Street (a north-south street, not only the longest street in Iran, but also in the Middle East), one can perceive how gradually the urban form, residential architecture, cars, shopping habits and even men and women’s clothing styles change. This polarisation derives from Tehran’s transitional society; as a city in a developing country, Tehran is leaving its tradition for modernity. Consequently, this transition manifests itself in almost every aspect of urban space; and one of those reflections is the dichotomy of tea houses and coffee shops. This duality can be explained through what Allen J. Scott calls regimes of capital accumulation in which he states that every period of capitalism has its own distinctive urban form with its own corresponding, equally distinctive, type of social stratification. In this respect, tea houses symbolise workshop capitalism and a traditional lifestyle, whilst coffee shops signify industrial capitalism and a modern way of life.
Tea house as a masculine space
The first tea house in Tehran appeared approximately four centuries ago; it has almost always been a place to serve the bazaar and provide a space for those who work in the bazaar. Since in contemporary Tehran, the majority of the citizens live in the southern areas, spatially, tea houses are located mostly in the south (see map below), where the majority of customers belong to bazaar and working class and are mainly in their middle aged.
The spatial distribution of tea houses in Tehran (Source: Municipality Tehran, 2014)
The reuse of churches in the Netherlands
Although the vast amount of Belgian beers makes Olivier (a beer café in Utrecht) immensely popular, the place will probably leave you with a sore throat at the end of the night from shouting across the table to your drinking buddies. The acoustics in Olivier are a remnant of its former purpose as a Catholic church and the high ceilings echo sound in a way that must be great for choir practice but doesn’t work that well for group conversations. Charmingly enough, the organ and some religious texts are still on display inside Olivier. Just like you can still see stained glass in Amsterdam’s Paradiso (church turned pop temple) and Arnhem’s Skatehal (church turned skaters’ paradise). Adaptive reuse of churches in cities across the Netherlands is not rare anymore, Paradiso was opened in 1968 and since then various empty(ing) churches followed suit. And it’s not a purely Dutch phenomenon; cities across Western-Europe are developing their churches to suit today’s needs. What initiated this trend and what does it say about our European cities today?
Around a week after I moved from Berlin to Amsterdam, I was out at night taking a walk when a sudden craving for chocolate overtook me. Looking around, the only thing open to me was the beautiful cityscape, its typical small canal houses, and the reflections of light on the water. As I strategically scanned the area, it slowly began to dawn on me: maybe they do not have them in Amsterdam. It was hard for me to imagine, and even more so difficult to accept, how life in Amsterdam could be possible without one: a Späti.
What is a Späti?
In its simplest incarnation, a Späti is a convenience store. Open 24 hours, day and night, Spätis are an intrinsic element of Berlin’s cityscape. Pretty much exclusive to Berlin, except maybe Hypezig, there are over a thousand of them and the one commonality that they share is their uniqueness. With a product range that includes the obvious, such as beer, wine (but in Berlin you drink beer), cigarettes, snack foods, soft drinks, and general convenience goods – you are just as likely to stumble over items ranging from volumes of poetry, Chinese pottery, or an almost complete collection of a hardware store.
The typical shop front of a Späti: uninviting but still so familiar © Daniel Gregor