Where Great Things Were Once Built

This is one of my favourite places in Amsterdam.

It’s an old shipbuilding wharf, the kind of landscape you don’t see much of anymore, at least in the west,

but a kind of landscape that immediately lets you know the scale of things (see those kids having lunch under the crane?): how big ships are when they’re out of the water, how much space is needed to piece one together.

This is what I call REAL space, not a space that belies the magnitude of what it does. Take a Starbucks café. It sells coffee. But when you walk into one, you have no idea what that involves: the coffee plantations on another continent, the pickers, the transport across oceans, the giant roasting facilities (also in Amsterdam, in case you didn’t know, though you’d be hard-pressed to find a Starbucks in all of Holland… there are less than twenty, and five of those are at Schiphol airport). Basically, an entire, mostly invisible infrastructure behind a café.

But here, on this old shipbuilder’s wharf, one gets a sense of the scale of things, its importance. The size of the pulleys, the train tracks inside the building.

The wharf was shut down in the late 1970s and sat empty for a while until the city decided what to do about it. It was squatted for a great deal of that time, and about 10 years ago, the city agreed to turn the place into a space for artists, architects, theatregroups and even skateboarders. The skaters have their own indoor skate park (sadly closed on the day I went to take pictures, so you’ll just have to imagine it) on the upper level of the building and look down on the offices and studios of the others, which are clumped in the middle of the building, stacked beside or on top of each other like kid’s building blocks.

Some of them are, closing the circle nicely, housed in old shipping containers.

Five years ago, the city “gave” the property to the initiative. It’s a classic example of how the Dutch deal with abandoned spaces: first the squatting, then the artist’s initiative, then the subsidization and donation of land or property, then the creation of a mini-economy. It’s hugely innovative, but also necessary in a city where space is at a premium. They could have chosen to turn it into luxury condos, but they didn’t (the current government might have, though).

And the result is a dynamic work place that everyone – even those who don’t work there – can enjoy, and still see and understand the history of a place while doing so.

And which also asks: where did all of these places go? Ships are still being built, bigger than ever. Just not here, or anywhere else in this country – a country famous for centuries for its shipbuilding, but which has since turned its love of water into waging a war against it. No longer are the Dutch world-renowned for big boats. People know them now for their ability to keep water at bay, and to create land out of sand, particularly on the coasts of faraway seas.