Zaandam Inverdan: unbridled power of design

A good urban design is only really good if it works at all scales. The way it is inserted into its surroundings, the relation between public space and built space, the clarity, legibility and design of traffic routes, height differences: everything has to be right. The Inverdan plan, the new centre in Zaandam, designed by Soeters Van Eldonk architecten, is such a plan. How did that happen? And why here exactly?

Zaanstad, a 10-minute train ride from Central Station in Amsterdam, is a mid-sized municipality with a population of 150,000. The municipality consists of a number of centres that include Westzaan and Koog aan de Zaan, but the biggest of them is Zaandam. I live in Zaandam, not far from the centre, and I pass through the station about 10 times a week. Up until a few years ago that area was dominated by an above-ground car park and a dry cleaners, an unused square, a footbridge across a wide street called Provincialeweg to the station and to a hotel, and a flight of steps to bridge the height — neatly inserted and hidden behind a McDonald’s and a heel bar. ‘It’s like the DDR here,’ Sjoerd Soeters apparently uttered the first time he came here. An apt description.
The first phase of the Inverdan plan, which will eventually extend across the tracks to the west, is largely linked to the station. The new bus station with the new town hall on top, both designed by Soeters Van Eldonk architects, is built on the side next to the centre, right beside the tracks. So to reach the station I have to pass through Inverdan 10 times a week. The pleasure I get from doing that is growing all the time. The footbridge across the street has, for example, made way for a well-surfaced pedestrian route across a much wider concrete bridge, which starts back in the shopping centre on the other side. The gentle though long incline allows pedestrians to negotiate the height difference effortlessly. Accompanying the route is a cascade, intended to carry water deep into the centre, and development on the bridge, something like a Zaandam equivalent to the Ponte Vecchio. But that’s not all of course.

Functional mix
For a start, the area now boasts houses, a cinema and shops. That means there are other reasons to be in Inverdan than simply going to the station or town hall. What’s more, lots of little bridges have been added, because the houses and shops are located on both sides of the watercourse. Narrow quays line the water, with galleries and even more shops above, just like in a big shopping mall. That’s clever, because first of all there are more shops. And second, it foreshadows the height differences with the station forecourt. See it as a mixture between Java Island with its quays and canals, and the ‘shopping street’ that Soeters previously designed in Nijmegen. Located between the shops and the station, on the city side of Provincialeweg, is the now world-famous hotel of stacked houses typical of the Zaan region, which suddenly makes the centre of Zaandam busy, much busier than in its ‘DDR era’ in any case, with all the people who come there to live, work, visit or just pass time. And all those people aren’t there to catch a train, as was previously the case. They come for various reasons — the foundations of urban life. And, as a result, all at once the volume of people is enough to enable the shops to open on Sundays too. It goes almost without saying that parking — in an underground garage — and traffic for deliveries have been elegantly solved and visually concealed. There you see the ability of Soeters Van Eldonk architects to learn, because these elements are embedded in a much more logical way than in, for example, ‘De Parade’ in Nootdorp.

Genius Loci vs Theming
But enough about the effect of the functions. After all, they were not determined by Soeters Van Eldonk architecten, but were the result of the municipal planning system. Nonetheless, the success is largely down to the immense design talent of Soeters and company. Taking Zaandam and the architectural history of the Zaan region as the theme for a few bigger buildings makes it immediately clear where you are. The architectural theme of Zaandam originates in Zaandam once again, not in the DDR. Is that correct? Of course it is. At some point in his career, Paul McCartney wondered if he could still sing Beatles songs during his shows. It was Elvis Costello who said: ‘If you’re not allowed to sing them, then who is?’ And the same goes for Zaandam. If an architecture of Zaan-style houses belongs anywhere, then it is here. And yes, it also deserves a wedding room with tulips and rings, and four whales on the balcony, which refer to the whaling industry of the 17th century, when the Zaan region was the first and biggest industrial area in Europe. We are therefore not dealing with a crude Disney-like themed setting here, as the reviews have occasionally claimed, but with an urban ensemble rooted in this very place. This is beyond theming.

You can also see the same design talent on the quays along the canals, which are so narrow that you can’t avoid meeting people. These have become places where people gladly go — because they come across other people. On Sundays the Dutch like nothing better than walking shoulder to shoulder through streets like Kalverstraat in Amsterdam — just take a look. Lack of space, the suggestion of congestion, works in Holland. It makes us feel comfortable. The bustle is further enhanced by the different façades in Inverdan: to the left one made up of Zaan-style houses, to the right the horizontal articulation of the residential and retail building by DOK Architecten, and over there the verticality of the skyscraper with eight stepped façades, or a fragment of Lübeck with apartments and the eight different Zaan-style volumes of the town hall. In such overwhelming surroundings we meander our way pleasantly past Japanese tourists taking pictures, who recognise the blown-up Zaan identity as truth and as Dutch exoticism: Inverdan as our own Bilbao effect.

If an architecture parlante exists, architecture that says something about its purpose or meaning, then there is also an urbanisme parlante, a city plan that says something about its own meaning. As far as I know, Inverdan is the first project in the Netherlands that deserves that title, made by an office in good form, perhaps even at the height of its ability up to now. Seeing is believing, and this project is believable, even though there is nothing to believe in. It just is, and Zaandam is alive again.