Amsterdam Gasworks Reborn
The design of the Westergasfabriek was efficient, and the plant operated successfully for seventy years. The buildings were of a Dutch neo-Renaissance style blended with elements and themes from the Dutch Golden Age: distinctive red and yellow brick combined with natural gray stone, lightly adorned facades, and stepped gables with obelisks and spheres.
The refinery continued in its original capacity until natural gas was found in The Netherlands in 1960. Then, until 1992, Amsterdam's municipal power company used the site for storage. In 1989, the buildings were designated as a national monument.
Debating the Fate of the Site
Today the Westerpark District City Council owns the site and has taken the initiative to restructure it on the themes of park, culture, and enterprise. Although a debate was held with the local residents about the future of the site, not all the residents greeted the plan with enthusiasm.
The local community had been campaigning for a park instead of the buildings for over thirty years. Many wanted to tear all the buildings down to maximize the park size. But because the buildings were listed as national monuments, a new concept had to be devised to keep them intact.
The current plan incorporates culture, nature, sports, open grassland, and stone. The park area will be 14 acres (6 hectares), nearly half the area of the whole site, and it will integrate small green spaces and large open areas for noisier activity.
The buildings will be used for all types of cultural activities, production offices, and restaurants. Two of the three gas tanks that were constructed underground will be filled with water and used as ponds.
Evert Verhagen has been the Westergasfabriek project manager for ten years. He explains: "We had to overcome the type of thinking that has always been there, to demolish the whole thing and start from scratch. It is very complicated for many people to work with an existing situation and try and make something new from the old. A lot of people felt, and still do, that the more buildings we have the less park we get."
Dealing with Contamination
The greatest obstacle to devising a plan for the long-time use of the site was the heavy pollution of the soil. At first, any use of the area was unrealistic because of the high cost of soil remediation.
In the 1980s, the estimated cost for such a task was 80 million dollars. Today that estimate is 6 million. The decrease in cost is due to a new method of decontamination.
Up until the early 1990s, the only proposed method of remediation was the complete removal of the polluted soil. Today, it is accepted that there is no need for a full remediation as long as visitors do not come into contact with the contamination.
In some places, the solution will be to cover the area with concrete and make a "cemented park." In other uncemented areas, the contaminated soil will be covered with fresh soil at least three feet (90 centimeters) thick.
Soil may be moved as long as it stays on the site, so there is a plan to build a sheet-pile wall into the ground, all around the park, to prevent spreading. New grass will be planted on top of a mixture of sand, fertilizer, and plastic matting to ensure that the fields will not disintegrate easily.
"When I started to work on the project," says Verhagen, "the main difficulty was to find temporary use for such a huge site considering the soil contamination. But it was imperative that we buy time until a long-term plan had been devised."
Verhagen believes that the key to the success of the Westergasfabriek project was in the temporary use of the site. "When we started to use the first building for cultural activities, it was not with the idea that this would be its final usage. However, it proved so successful that we decided to incorporate these cultural events into the long-term plan."
A Cultural Venue
The appeal of the Westergasfabriek for artists, theater groups, and event organizers has much to do with its architectural ambience and distinctive but versatile appearance. The sheer size of the interiors of some of the buildings inspires large-scale events and shows.
Meanwhile, the smaller structures are suitable for more intimate activities. The smaller buildings, which once housed the offices of the gas company, have high ceilings and large windows and are ideal for production use.
In 1992 a competition was held between five different architects to determine the permanent park design. The winning entry was by the American landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson.
In March, 2000 the private property developer MAB, an international integrated property group, took over ownership of the buildings. MAB is now renovating the structures to make them available for cultural activities, in step with the overall concept.
The entire project will cost $40 million. Half of the cost will be for the renovation of the buildings, which will be covered by MAB. The Dutch government will pay for the remediation.
MAB has started with the renovation of the 32,000-square-foot (3,000-square-meter) Gasholder, the most recognizable structure on the Westergasfabriek site, which can house large, spectacular events.
When complete in March 2003, the Gasholder will include three basements for a coatroom, toilets, and changing rooms. In conjunction with the renovation of the existing buildings, MAB is developing a further 32,000 square feet (3,000 square meters) of new buildings on the edge of the site for cultural activities.
Verhagen says: "A lot of these industrial wastelands are cut off from their surroundings. We want the Westergasfabriek cultural park to be an integral part of Amsterdam. I personally believe that it is important that it will be a place that people of all ages can enjoy."
Steven Allan is a freelance photographer and writer born in London, currently living in Tel-Aviv.