Moored in Amsterdam

‘The future for living on water looks very good indeed.’ Those were the optimistic words with which Jan Wolff opened the exhibition about living on water at the ARCAM gallery.

As a former occupant of an Amsterdam houseboat, I was wondering if all that much has changed in the big city since I sold my arc four years ago. Is the ground lease still the subject of discussion? Is there a lot of fuss anywhere about boats that have to go? Is the Real Estate Appraisal value (known in Dutch as ‘WOZ’) of houseboats calculated just like that of other types of housing? Are the legal fees for housing permits and houseboat permits the same? Of course not. Nothing has changed. All I have to do is open or phone a few boat friends and I hear the same old familiar stories told with a passion.

The exhibition Mooring site Amsterdam highlights a new development, in the sense that living on water has now become a design issue. Maybe there are still some DIY boatbuilders, anarchists and other freedom seekers out there, but ARCAM shows that architects are playing an increasingly important role on the water. Living in a houseboat is therefore not as adventurous as it was, say, 30 years ago. There’s more certainty today: mooring sites are largely legal, and banks offer mortgages. Urban boroughs establish limits on size, which are then exploited to the full. And that only encourages more uniformity and less of a ‘boat-like appearance’. Now boaters turn their back on the street and focus exclusively on the water. The result: blank faces to the street. All are developments that make the involvement of designers both desirable and possible.

What is striking is that although the new generation of houseboats is more varied, it is also more ‘domestic’ in character, as the designs by Marc Prosman show, with their rectangles and voids. These houseboats look like houses, except on water. Dirk Jan van Wieringhen Borski goes a step further. ‘The aim is to awaken interest for living on water among people who don’t live on houseboats. So the design has to express the fact that houseboats are full-fledged dwellings, with spatial effects […].’ It’s as if all the through-views, stairways and alcoves on a traditional ship don’t make for any spatial effects. The full-fledged water-villa is a reality, and the occupant will definitely not bang his head.

ARCAM considers the issue in more depth of course. Buildings with all sorts of functions can be placed on a concrete substructure. The exhibition contains models of a floating youth hostel (Marlies Rohmer, 2003), a floating stadium (TMZ Architecten, 2004), a floating restaurant (Onno Vlaanderen, 2007), a library boat (Jord den Hollander, 2006), plans for floating neighbourhoods at IJburg, and much more besides. Wonderful designs, but I’m wondering why they don’t look different. Why does a house remain a house, except for the fact that it floats? A mosque remains a mosque, only placed on a vessel? Apparently, the phenomenon of water doesn’t lead to fundamentally new design insights, not even to bigger windows sometimes. An exciting exception is the design by Ronday Winkelaar Architecten for floating dwellings in De Groote Wielen in Rosmalen, which have a sunken shell containing a garden below water level.

But no matter what these floating buildings look like, no matter how beautifully designed and socially acceptable they may be, they remain outsiders. That’s also noted perceptively by Maarten Kloos and Yvonne de Korte in their introduction to the book that accompanies the exhibition. Despite more than 2500 mooring sites containing houseboats, floating hotels, student accommodation and restaurants, there’s not a single map of Amsterdam that shows where all this moveable property is located on the city’s waterways. The book is a welcome supplement to the exhibition. It’s got a wealth of information – Amsterdam has been home to houseboats since the17th century, and even back then there was something of a policy on mooring sites. It examine the first ‘architectural’ boats, which date back to the 1920s. With historical images of houseboat designs by well-known architects like Frank van Klingeren and Jan Rietveld. And it looks to the future. The rising water levels, the (incidental) lack of space on land, the flexibility of the building form, and especially the natural appeal of water are all factors that press home that prediction of Jan Wolff.