Campus & Community

Rudge Green Prize goes Dutch:

4 min read

Prestigious urban design award goes to Rotterdam-based firm

If the Harvard Gazette ever decides to send me to Amsterdam as a correspondent for Dutch affairs, I want to live in the Borneo Sporenburg residential development.

One of the three-story waterfront townhouses would suit me fine, but if I couldn’t afford that on my foreign correspondent’s salary, I would be happy to make do with a flat in one of the three large apartment buildings, all with spectacular water views.

Borneo and Sporenburg are the names of two large docks that jut out into Amsterdam’s eastern waterfront. In 1996, the Rotterdam-based firm of West 8, headed by Adriaan Geuze, was commissioned to transform the abandoned docks into residential neighborhoods with 2,500 housing units.

The commission called for the seemingly impossible – suburban-style, low-rise housing, but with a density three times that of the typical suburban development. Responding to this challenge, Geuze and his associates created a highly original design that evokes the traditional Dutch canal house as well as the paintings of Dutch masters like Pieter de Hooch and Jan Vermeer.

For their achievement, Geuze and his firm have been awarded the Harvard School of Design’s Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design. The prize was established in 1986 and is awarded every two years to recognize excellence in urban design with an emphasis on projects that contribute to the public realm and improve the quality of urban life. To be considered for the prize, projects must be larger in scope than a single building and have been constructed within the past 10 years.

Geuze came to Harvard Wednesday (Dec. 4) to receive the prize and to speak about his work. An exhibition charting the evolution of the project through plans, drawings, models, and photographs can be seen in Gund Hall through Jan. 12.

Although Borneo Sporenburg is dedicated to solving the very down-to-earth problem of providing people with a place to live, the transfigured docks seem to inspire flights of poetic adulation. Rodolfo Machado, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design and chairman of the Green Prize jury, described them as “two peninsulas of incomparable urban beauty shimmering in Amsterdam’s harbor waters. I call them incomparable because, simply put, there is nothing else like them.”

Machado’s point is well taken. Where else can you tie up your boat outside your front door and park your car in a sheltered carport in the basement? Where else can you find the pleasures of urban living together with the open space and individual home ownership of the suburbs? And in what other urban environment can you enjoy watersports a few steps from home in what is apparently a waterway of exemplary cleanliness, judging from photos of Borneo Sporenburg residents ecstatically flinging themselves from the sinuous footbridges that span the two peninsulas?

These bridges not only make it easier for inhabitants of Borneo to visit their neighbors on Sporenburg and vice versa, but they also add to the beauty and celebratory spirit of the project. Painted bright red, they soar in fanciful arcs above the waters of the harbor, inviting pedestrians to walk from one side to the other just for the sheer pleasure of the crossing.

As for open space, the project’s designers have managed to smuggle it in, seemingly without interrupting the dense urban fabric. This deception is reflected in the unusual title of the exhibition: “30-50 % Void: Residential Waterfront Borneo Sporenburg, Amsterdam.”

The explanation is that each townhouse contains an inside void comprising 30 to 50 percent of the parcel, in the form of patios, courtyards, and roof gardens. More than 100 architects participated in the planning process, developing new housing prototypes that incorporate these voids. In addition, the spectacular water views offer a unique and exhilarating visual space.

The plan also incorporates collective open spaces in the form of courtyards and gardens, contained within the three high-rise residential buildings or “sculptural blocks.” These buildings, known by the fanciful names of Fountainhead, PacMan, and the Sphinx, also create significant landmarks within the harbor landscape.

The Borneo Sporenburg project was completed in 2000, a mere four years from start to finish, impressive for such an extensive project. The alacrity with which it has come into being implies a degree of cooperation between private firms, financial institutions, and municipal authorities rare in such cases.

I have not been able to determine what percent of the units are occupied at this point, but considering the project’s attractions, I would expect the number to be high. Perhaps I ought to put my name on the waiting list, just in case I get that assignment.