A sequence of four sturdy building complexes separated by narrow streets recently rose up on Westerdokseiland, near the centre of Amsterdam. The location is close to the main railway station and is bordered on all sides by water. The blocks get deeper towards the station, from almost 0 to around 80 metres. Westerdokseiland is one of the last islands in the IJ to undergo development since the harbour activities moved away from the city. Planned on the north side of the site and extending halfway into the water, is IJDock, a large building block cut by sightlines, by Mastenbroek and (ze werken namelijk niet meer onder 1 naam) Van Gameren. On Westerdok to the south is a spacious, attractive quay lined with boathouses. The area has been directly connected to the city centre (Haarlemmerdijk) for some time already by an aluminium bicycle bridge by Meyer & Van Schooten.

The master plan for the entire area is the work of OD 205. The views of the city and the IJ are magnificent, both from the upper dwellings and from the shared roof terraces – terraces in the tradition of Siemensstadt in Berlin and Van den Broek in Rotterdam, and familiar to us from Una Giornata Particolare. You can look over the IJ to Java Island and beyond, and over the city centre to Zuidas, Sloterdijk and further. The inner courts are the most successful when they offer a view of the Westerdok or the IJ on one side. That quality, oddly enough, isn’t exploited to the full. Unfriendly looking steel fences, many of them large, close off all the courts. But it is apparently essential to close off courts in the city centre. A striking feature is the large number of street-access dwellings. The scheme includes not only apartments but also townhouses facing the inner squares, and that produces a differentiated residential environment.

The complex to the front, La Grande Cour, containing buildings by Meyer & Van Schooten, Architekten Cie and Heren 5, was the first completed. The buildings by the different architects merge seamlessly with one another, a clever combination of stacking and hollowing out, with bridges and periscopes. Holes are thus made at the right places in the solids, which leads to a sense of compact airiness. The periscopes start out as towers on the inner courts and then turn into bridges that protrude out over the skin of the block. That creates gateways, with plenty of building volume on a narrow footprint and so there is plenty of public – or in this case collective – space at street level. Most of the dwellings are located where the conditions for daylight, sunshine and views are best. Surprising through-views and vistas are also created in this intelligent three-dimensional puzzle.
The materials deployed by Meyer & Van Schooten are dignified and the detailing is careful. The effect is one of distinction. The materials deployed by Architekten Cie have a gimmicky quality because of the red ground surface and the panels with prints. Heren 5 opt for a more informal, less defined character.

The second ensemble, VOC Cour, with buildings by MVRDV and Jeroen Schipper Architecten, is more a composition of individual buildings, a sequence of apartment complexes that could also have been built separately. As a result, the inner space is clearly a leftover area between buildings, unlike La Grande Cour, where the inner space is carefully designed in harmony with the buildings. We must say, however, that we’re stating this before the landscaping of the inner area has been completed.

The tip by Bob van Reeth (left) and the Westerkaap II block by DKV, AWG and Baneke van der Hoeven, and garden by DS Landschapsarchitecten

The inner courts of the third complex, Westerkaap II, display a subtle interaction between architecture (by DKV, Baneke Van der Hoeven and AWG) and landscaping (DS Landschapsarchitecten), although that sometimes happens very literally through the deployment of the same material. Spatially, the complex is less surprising than Grande Cour, but it does possesses a subtle appeal. The designers calculated that it contains 175 dwellings per hectare.

The final building complex, Westerkaap I, is positioned on the narrowest extremity of the strip and was designed by Bob van Reeth in collaboration with Baneke Van der Hoeven. The building by Bob van Reeth extends to the tip of the site – well almost, for it lacks the sharp edge unfortunately, like a triangle of cheese with the tip scraped off. Yet from a particular viewpoint it looks as if it consists of façade alone with no built substance behind, just like the Flatiron Building in New York. Because the site is not very deep, the inner court is more a street than a square.

The courtyards of building blocks usually grow larger as the size of the blocks increases. La Grande Cour makes clever use of the space within the block. Connecting the circulation spaces of the buildings to one another means the escape routes are also efficiently designed. A resulting disadvantage is that people can easily go from one block to another, and that isn’t conducive to social control. The connected complex is too large to know or even recognise all residents.
Density has been at the expense of residential quality here and there. Those living at the tip have views on all sides, but others have to make do with a dwelling oriented in one direction only. In the VOC Cour there are even dwellings with balconies facing north!

So which block has the highest density in the end? That depends on the scale at which you look. At the scale of the site, the block by Van Reeth scores highest in terms of FSI (Floor Space Index). And as the building block gets bigger, more air necessarily has to enter. At identical heights, the GSI (Ground Space Index) and the FSI of the site drop. But if you include the space you need around the site and look at the FSI at the scale of the city, then La Grande Cour probably has a higher density. At the scale of the city, the division of solid and void is more favourably divided/distributed? there.

With high density you offer more people the possibility of benefiting from the potential and the pleasure of the city. If development and surroundings are skilfully attuned to each other, the disadvantages of density can be limited as much as possible and even compensated for. With the right materials and details you can create a sense of metropolitan grandness – as La Grande Cour shows – without giving the impression of living on top of one another in a barracks.