Retracing the Garden City

For almost fifteen years now, the area to the west of Amsterdam’s ring road has been subject to large-scale redevelopment, in what is considered to be Europe’s biggest urban renewal program. The district called the Westelijke Tuinsteden (Western Garden Cities) has been built on the basis of the modernist General Expansion Plan of Cornelis van Eesteren. Presented as an advanced, modern living environment for the new Man, the area’s reputation has long been in decline. It’s image changed into that of a backward neighborhood, a ‘concentration area’ marked by segregation and social issues. The architecture has generally been seen as intrinsic to these problems, leading to the present large-scale demolition. Though officially the renewal program is supposed to protect the Garden City qualities of the area, in reality the restructuring lacks any coherent vision of what that would mean. Ironically, some of the same mistakes of the modernists planners are now being repeated, most notably the fixation on form in stead of the social use of space. This essay traces the origins of the ideas behind the planning of the Western Garden Cities, to see whether some of these can be salvaged and put to use again in the 21st century.

In 1898, Ebenezer Howard published his book, Garden Cities of To-Morrow. In it, he laid out a basic proposal for a utopian city that would combine qualities of urban and rural life. Meant as a solution for the urban crisis that followed the agricultural depression in the late 19th Century, it became the prime inspiration for the Garden City Movement. The progressive inclination of this movement was also to be found in Howard’s proposals: the Garden City model he proposed included a mechanism whereby gradually, ownership would transfer from the hands of the financiers to those of the inhabitants, with rents henceforth directed towards the maintenance of a local welfare state. The cooperative aspects of the original Garden City ideals were thus not only expressed in the community gardens and popular kitchens present in the designs, but also through the general mechanisms for inhabitants to appropriate space.

As Peter Hall and Colin Ward have observed more recently, the closer the Garden City came to large-scale application through the New Towns programme, the further it became removed from its original ideals and designs. In Amsterdam, the Social Democrat Party was an enthusiastic supporter of Howard’s ideas, but the modernist planners that presided over the next wave of urban development resisted the anti-urban mentality of these ideas. In the 1930’s, Cornelis van Eesteren and Theo van Lohuizen developed the General Expansion Plan for Amsterdam. Expansion was to happen mainly in the West, the Westelijke Tuinsteden. Some aspects of the Garden City were adopted, such as the sizeable amounts of green space. But unlike Howard’s designs, in the planning of the Westelijke Tuinsteden ideas on how people use and appropriate space, were mostly absent. In Seeing Like A State, the anthropologist James C. Scott revisits some of the world’s most well known modernist utopian projects, to find out why they have – almost by definition – failed to live up to the expectations of their founders. He argues that modernist “scientific” theories about the betterment of life often fail to take into account “the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability”[i]. The working hypothesis of this essay is of a similar nature: the problems of the Westelijke Tuinsteden can partly be linked to the lack of flexibility and social sensibility of its modernist planning.

After the Second World War, when a rationalized and more economical version of the Western Garden Cities plan was realized, the newly built area soon became the object of criticism. Ever since it was first inhabited it has had a tainted image, that of a problem area, lacking social cohesion. The Westelijke Tuinsteden became an often quoted reference in the strident critiques of modernist architecture’s lack of attention to the ‘human aspect’, formulated in the sixties and seventies. Aldo van Eyck criticised the lack of a ‘sense of place’, the lack of identity inherent in the plans; architecture had “to facilitate human activity and promote social interaction”[ii], which he claimed van Eesteren omitted. All too soon the area become a symbol of the problems of modernization in general and modernist architecture in particular. At present, large-scale demolition is taking place in the area, showing a remarkable lack of attention to both existing inhabitants and the ideas behind the original architecture and planning. An important factor is the ongoing privatization process of the housing corporations and the housing stock, which has led to a renewal process that concerns itself more with the needs of the local real estate market, than the needs of the inhabitants themselves, with corporations increasingly withdrawing themselves from government oversight and neighborhood control. Ironically, some of the same mistakes of the modernist planners are now being repeated, by paying little attention to inhabitants and their use of space.

1 The Garden City ideal

An attractive name, coming to be associated with an attractive form of development, rapidly acquires prestige. Men having sub standard goods to offer will put the popular label thereon; and in time the odium attaching to the substitute will diminish the prestige of the label, and therefore of the original goods. That has happened to Garden City.” Frederic J. Osborn[iii]

An agricultural depression plagued England at the end of the 19th Century. It resulted in a massive wave of migration towards the cities, where most of the new arrivals found themselves trapped in overpriced slums, with bad sanitary conditions and a structural lack of employment. It was in this context that Howard’s book, first published in 1898 as Tomorrow! A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, and re-issued in 1902 as Garden Cities of Tomorrow, slowly established itself as a major reference in urban planning. The book spelled out in great detail the social and financial logic behind the building of Garden Cities, new towns in the English countryside that were to combine the best of both the rural and urban environments. The publication, together with Howard’s own tireless efforts, spawned the Garden City movement that pressed for the implementation of the Garden City proposals in England, and provided the inspiration for many to follow up on his ideas internationally. Howard’s Garden City concept was to have a tremendous impact worldwide, since his proposals were not only an appeal for the building of Garden Cities but also a plea for integrated urban planning as such, as opposed to the haphazard and spontaneous development of cities by private developers.

garden city
A group of smokeless, slumless cities
Ebenezer Howard
Ebenezer Howard

“There are in reality not, as is constantly assumed, two alternatives – town life and country life – but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination.”[iv]

As the famous magnet diagram shows, Howard wanted to combine the attractions of urban life (employment, intensity of civic life) with those of the countryside (abundance of cheap land, natural beauty), thus ameliorating the shortcomings of both. This was to be achieved through the creation of an entirely new town in the middle of the English countryside, out of reach of the big city, but with independent means, that is, with its own industries and employment, a small city of mixed functions with a maximum of 32,000 inhabitants, and surrounded by a sizeable green belt. The ideal layout of the Garden City, as sketched in the well-crafted diagrams, was of circular design. Factories would be located at the outer ring, connected to the rest of the country via a railway line. Allotment gardens provided a buffer zone between industry and town. In the centre of town, a glass arcade positioned around a central park housed shopping centres and civic institutions. Six broad boulevards would traverse the city from centre to circumference, dividing the city in six equal parts, the so-called Wards: neighbourhood units providing services and amenities on a smaller scale of around a thousand families. Here was the residential area; houses were always within walking distance from either factory or city centre. The intermediate ring of the circle was again a park, called Grand Avenue, where most of the schools would be located and kids had room to play.

The three magnets
A diagram of the design of the Garden City, not a blueprint, but a suggestion to “be much departed from”.


Possibilities for extending this model were already present in the plan. When more and more people arrived from an overcrowded city like London, the limit of 32,000 would soon be reached. Then a new Garden City could be built, a short distance from the old one, and connected to the original Garden City via a railway system. Thus the final proposal was not that of a single town, but rather that of a network, an array of towns, which could be extended infinitely. Meanwhile, in the case of London, the pressure relieved from that city was to lead towards a decline of London land prices, resulting in an opportunity to replace the now deserted slums with green space:

“These wretched slums will be pulled down, and their sites occupied by parks, recreation grounds and allotment gardens […] Elsewhere the town is invading the country, here the country must invade the town”[v].

But as important, if not more important than the material design of the Garden City, was the design of its organisation, as Lewis Mumford has noticed in the foreword to Howard’s book: “What strikes one about Howard’s Garden City’s proposals was how little he was concerned with the outward form of the new city and how much he was concerned with the process that would produce such communities”[vi]

The Vanishing Point of Landlord’s Rent. The financial model of the Garden City.

Sadly enough, most of these ideas were ignored and unknown to a later public. Essential to the plan was the financial model, which was ingenious. First, a group of financiers would be sought out and engaged to supply a loan to buy the land at the then depressed agricultural land values. The scheme was built on the stark contrast between the low price of agricultural land (4 pounds an acre) and the high price of urban land (30,000 pounds an acre in the centre of London). With the arrival of the new inhabitants, the value of the land would quickly rise, as it changed in function from agricultural land into a dense residential area. Howard’s scheme was aimed at appropriating the appreciation of land values for the municipality and residents themselves. The proceedings would make it possible to both repay the long-term debt of the initial loan with added interest, to construct and maintain municipal infrastructure and to build up a local welfare state consisting of old age pensions and insurance. In this way, incrementally, and through cooperative means, the land would become the property of the municipality and inhabitants themselves. During this process, the control of the municipality would be progressively handed down to the inhabitants, in what was almost a form of direct democracy. In Howard’s eyes, this was the path to peaceful reform as referenced in his book’s first title: an incremental way of bringing all the land under municipal ownership. In this sense, the Garden City was what Howard called, a form of ‘common sense socialism’, albeit a socialism of a very peculiar type. Howard stated, ‘no rigid monopoly is sought’, and top-down government is to be replaced by a form of entrepreneurial cooperativism:

“My proposal appeals not only to individuals but to co-operators, manufacturers, philanthropic societies, and others experienced in organisation, and with organisations under their control, to come and place themselves under conditions involving no new constraints but rather securing wider freedoms.”[vii]

Colin Ward and Peter Hall point out that the Garden City was more than just a town, “it was a third socio-economic system, superior both to Victorian capitalism and to bureaucratic, centralised socialism”[viii]. Thus the Garden City as proposed by Howard was one part political utopia, one part feasibility study. There was always a tension present between idealism and pragmatism. Howard in his book even explicitly stated that his description of the Garden City was, “merely suggestive, and will probably be much departed from”[ix]. It was a prescient statement. The first cities to be built after Ebenezer Howard’s ideas, Letchworth (1904) and Welwyn (1920) departed from the model in significant ways. Instead of merely financing the new cities, and progressively granting ownership and control to the local community, the investors remained the sole proprietors and decision makers. Howard’s cooperative vision was therefore never realised. Another far-reaching change took place with regard to the architecture of the new Garden Cities that was taken on by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, both inspired by the anti-industrialism of the English Arts and Crafts movement. Whereas Howard envisioned a town built using the latest of modern techniques, as epitomized by the Crystal Palace projected in the centre of the city, Unwin and Parker preferred the nostalgic aesthetic of the traditional pre-industrial village. Instead of the linear boulevards in Howard’s design, Unwin took inspiration from the rambling street patterns of German medieval towns. The Garden City would become associated with the pre-industrial, pastoral architecture of Unwin and Parker. They did however introduce new ideas that were more in keeping with Howard’s original plans, for example the development of common standards for affordable housing, and the introduction of standardised and therefore cost-effective production of building materials.

In his book Town Planning in Practice, Unwin also devoted a chapter to surveying, which examined traffic distribution, industrial development, school and public building requirements, the demographic development of the population, and so forth:

“Before any plan for a new town or for a scheme of town development can with prudence be commenced, a survey must be made of all existing conditions, and this survey cannot well be too wide or too complete.”[x]

In sum, by the time the Garden City concept had been globally acknowledged, it was already a set of contradictory ideas and practices that had been continuously adapted through differing coalitions and agendas. But its popularity was not only due to the appeal of Howard’s ideas, but also to the fact that it was one of the first comprehensive models for city planning at a time when the haphazard and speculative development of cities by private developers was still the norm. Also, it was one of the first planning models to attain a material shape, and one that would have a much greater role in defining it’s future image than the municipal cooperativism Howard aimed to achieve with it.

It was only after WWII, in the midst of a severe housing shortage, that the Garden City movement, now renamed the Town and Country Planning Association, was able to convince the British government to adopt the Garden City ideas as national policy in the form of the New Towns Programme. Possibly more than the Garden City itself, the New Town was to become an important international reference. But these developments, variegated as they were, had overall even less in common with the original garden city idea: a lot of the new towns functioned as commuter towns, lacking their own industries and related sources of employment. This was the antithesis of Howard’s original motivations:

“His Garden City was not only an attempt to relieve the congestion of the city and by so doing lower the land values and prepare the way for metropolitan reconstruction, it was equally an attempt to do away with that inevitable correlate of metropolitan congestion, the suburban dormitory, whose open plan and nearer access to the country are only temporary, and whose lack of an industrial population and a working base make it one of the most unreal environments ever created for men. […] The Garden City as Howard defined it, is not a suburb but the antithesis of a suburb, not a mere rural retreat, but a more integrated foundation for an effective urban life.”[xi]

By 1946, as the Wageningen professor Wieger Braun was to notice in his inaugural address[xii], the word Garden City had become a common misnomer for any kind of suburban development that included large quantities of green space, and this up to such a point that the “odium of the substitute”, and the “prestige of the label”, as described by Osborn, could no longer be distinguished.

2 From Garden City to Western Garden Cities

“It seems to be the rule, that the power of a model, in the course of time transforms into the power of a form. The model of the Garden City thus became the form of a Garden City.”[xiii]

As much as in England, concerns about rapid and uncontrolled urbanization were at the basis of the popularity of the Garden City ideas in the Netherlands. Partly due to a relatively late industrialisation process, the Dutch urbanization rate accelerated heavily in the second half of the 19th Century. Accordingly in Amsterdam, from 1865 to 1923 the population nearly tripled, from 265,000 to 700,000 inhabitants. At the same time, a liberal laissez faire approach to urban development remained dominant until the beginning of the 20th Century, leaving it to private initiative to deal with these matters. The result was that large parts of the urban population were housed through speculative housing developments, with little space and bad sanitary conditions. Increasingly, the scale of the housing shortage and the abundance of urban slums and accompanying epidemics made this situation untenable. The Housing Act (Woningwet) adopted in 1901 was the start of government regulation in the housing market and provided the legal basis for large-scale government planning to take place. Also, for the first time, the allocation of green space was included as a prerequisite for the construction of new areas – mostly as a hygienic measure, but not altogether unimportant for Garden City advocates. An important factor in these developments was the rise to prominence of the Social Democrat party as a political force in the big Dutch cities. The Social Democrats were strong advocates of government intervention to deal with sub-standard living conditions of the urban poor. They were also the principal promoters of the building of Dutch Garden Cities and garden suburbs.

The first acknowledgement of Howard’s ideas took place as early as 1906, when J Bruinwold Riedel[xiv] wrote his book Tuinsteden, a report of his visit to Letchworth Garden City. In it, he proposed the building of a Dutch Garden City in ‘t Gooi, a natural area 30 km to the east of Amsterdam. It was a proposal that would become the subject of intense debate in the ‘Twenties. In the preceding years, so-called Tuindorpen, or garden suburbs were planned and constructed in different parts of the country, mostly by industrialists right next to their factories, in industrial towns such as Rotterdam, Hengelo and Eindhoven. A further building boom of garden suburbs took place right after the First World War, when the perceived threat of a socialist revolution caused the government to set aside large funds for emergency housing development, to ameliorate some of the worst living conditions and dampen social unrest. The result, the Emergency Housing Act of 1918, made possible the realisation of the first government funded Tuindorpen, which were often rapidly built on a semi-permanent basis in the romantic style of Unwin and Parker, with plenty of green space. In Amsterdam, Tuindorp Oostzaan, Tuindorp Watergraafsmeer and Tuindorp Nieuwendam were constructed in the twenties. The director of the Amsterdam Housing Service (de Woningdienst), Arie Keppler, was one of the driving forces behind this development. The resemblance of these suburbs to the Garden City model as developed in England was, however, quite superficial in nature, besides the pastoral architecture and the abundance of greenery, none of the more profound ideas of Howard’s Garden City were realized. As Maarten Hajer points out:

“Nowhere the connection was made – as Howard did – between living in a garden city and the possibility of common ownership and administration of the land, and the development of self-government. Thus, the garden city, in stead of providing the basis of a radical change of society, became a historical symbol of class compromise and the pacification of labour relations.”[xv]

In 1921, the annexation of several surrounding municipalities by the city of Amsterdam, started the debate on the Garden City in earnest. The Great Amsterdam Commission was set up to look at the potential expansion of Amsterdam, but it neglected to examine the possibility of building a Garden City to accommodate population overflow. In response, the socialist Alderman of Public Housing De Miranda called for the realisation of a Garden City in ‘t Gooi : a town of 50,000 people between Bussum, Laren and Hilversum. At his insistence, another commission was set up, the Tuinstad Commissie (Garden City Commission). In the following years a long and protracted debate took place between proponents of a centralized city model and those of a more decentralized garden city model. The latter group was comprised of socialists like Alderman de Miranda and the director of the Housing Service Keppler, while the centralists were primarily to be found amongst the public officials of the Department of Public Works, in particular the director A.W. Bos[xvi], though some socialist aldermen, such as Wibaut, were also proponents of a more centralist approach.

Meanwhile the International Urbanism Congress was held in Amsterdam in 1924, with Ebenezer Howard present as an honorary guest. The Congress discussed the theme of centralisation and decentralisation, green space and the construction of Garden Cities. At the conference, Howard and Unwin moved towards the redefinition of the Garden City from a completely independent city, towards a satellite city, in close proximity to bigger urbanisations, taking care to differentiate them from dormitory towns: “they are to form unities with a life of their own, offering the opportunity of education and development, relaxation and spiritual life.” Several proposals at the conference pointed towards a third model somewhere in between Howard’s original Garden City model, and the centralist city model, namely a crystal shaped satellite city, an urban core surrounded by satellite towns, called Finger City by the Belgian planner Raphäel Verwilghen. A similar idea was presented by the American landscape architect Henri Vincent Hubbard, who pleaded for the interpenetration of city and country. For Unwin, the formation of community was now the main point: “the technical organisation is in itself admirable but our civilisation has sadly fallen short to form the great masses into real communities.” According to Unwin, a healthy urban community was to be construed from “the life of smaller component parts which form organisms by themselves”[xvii]. In this way, he anticipated future ideas about the neighbourhood unit that were to resurface after the war as the wijkgedachte. Finally the congress also advanced a new, more integral conception of town planning:

“Town planning means more than creating charming squares, building pleasing ‘traffic walls’ along the streets and deciding on the most advantageous sites for important buildings. Town planning means above all taking into full account the diverse demands of life in the city in its countless expressions.”[xviii]

This way the conference became a form of coalescence between the old Garden City ideals and the emerging modern planning methods. As Mumford notes[xix], the 1924 congress was to advance most of the ideas that would make up the founding document of the modernist architecture movement CIAM, the La Sarraz declaration of 1928.

When the Garden City Commission’s report, long stalled due to differences of opinion on the desirability of urban decentralisation, was finally published in 1929, its lukewarm recommendation for the eventual construction of a Garden City was already irrelevant. A new department called Stadsontwikkeling (Urban Development) was to be set up, with a view to supplanting the previous incremental policy of localized expansion plans with a modern and holistic planning method, priding itself on a ‘scientific analysis’ on the scale of the entire city and even the region. The result was the General Expansion Plan (AUP) of 1934, which provided the outlines for the construction of the Westelijke Tuinsteden and functioned as a guideline for urban development in Amsterdam for decades to come. The authors of this plan were two distinctive modernist planners, Cornelis van Eesteren and Theo van Lohuizen, where van Eesteren fulfilled the role of designer/architect and van Lohuizen coordinated most of the scientific research. Though they were to choose a central city expansion instead of the independent Garden City as proposed by Miranda and Keppler, their work presented, more than they were prepared to admit themselves, not so much a clear break with the Garden City ideas, but in fact, a continuation by other means[xx].

3) The Garden City in the General Expansion Plan

The General Expansion Plan of 1934 is generally seen as a landmark in modern urban planning, it exemplified the ambition to make urban planning into a proper scientific discipline through the use of extensive statistical forecasts of developments in demographics and transportation. The plan projected the expansion of Amsterdam would  happen largely in the West, in what were to become the Westelijke Tuinsteden (Western Garden Cities). In name the expansion referred to the Garden City, but the relationship to Howard’s ideas is more complex than is often thought. On the one hand, as we have argued earlier in this text, it would be a mistake to see developments such as the Westelijke Tuinsteden as literal incarnations of the Garden City model. In that sense, Garden City would not be the proper label. On the other hand, to treat the Garden City and modernist planning as two mutually exclusive paradigms, or to reduce the influence of the Garden City on the General Expansion Plan to that of merely a name, to placate the Garden City enthusiasts in the Amsterdam City Council, is also misguided. Important lines of continuity can be found amongst the two planning traditions. Seen in this light, the Garden City comes to the fore as an early germ that contained in incipient form most of the modern planning practices the General Expansion Plan is famous for.

The modernist avant-garde emerged in Europe in the ‘Twenties as a response to new technological developments as well as the profound cultural shock of World War I. It was an interdisciplinary movement that aimed to renew established forms of artistic expression and revolutionize society in the process. In the Netherlands this movement was identified mostly with De Stijl, which sought to develop a new universal artistic language through the use of abstract geometric forms and primary colours, accepting the inevitability of technological progress and modernisation[xxi]. Out of this context modernist architectures developed, bearing many names, their precise connotations never demarcated too clearly from one another: Nieuwe Zakelijkheid (New Objectivity), het Nieuwe Bouwen, the International Style and Functionalism.

The variety of names attached to the modernist movement in architecture already points to a certain diversity of practices, though there was such a thing as a common programme, with a varied set of elements: the use of the latest building materials and technologies, such as glass, cement and steel; the reliance on scientific data, such as statistics and demographics to assess the future needs of inhabitants; the analysis and planning of cities, regions and neighbourhoods according to the identification of spatial functions, in particular work, housing, recreation and traffic; the modernisation of the construction industry, involving mass production, prefabrication and standardisation of building materials to lower the price of housing; a political engagement that involved prioritising the accommodation of lower incomes in spacious housing and green surroundings, later to become known as the programme of light, air, and greenery; and finally an aesthetic minimalism with a preference for functionality and simplicity.

Both Cornelis van Eesteren and the General Expansion Plan were to play a key role in the modernist architecture movement. Van Eesteren was an important member of de Stijl, he joined Opbouw, the first modernist architecture group in Rotterdam, where he met Theo van Lohuizen, the other driving force behind the General Expansion Plan. In 1928, van Eesteren became part of De 8, which gathered the modernist architects in Amsterdam. From 1930 till 1947, Cornelis van Eesteren served as president of the CIAM (Congresse International de Architecture Moderne) the most important international platform of modernist architecture. At the CIAM congresses, Opbouw and De 8 played a pivotal role, organizing the Athens Congress of 1933, the most famous of the CIAM congresses, where van Eesteren introduced the General Expansion Plan as an example of modern scientific planning based on the separation of functions[xxii]. It resulted in the controversial Athens Charter, drafted nine years later by Le Corbusier in 1943, that became the basis of Functionalism, which had a profound influence on architectural practice in the time of the reconstruction after the Second World War.

At first sight, naming the city expansion after the Garden City seems to be that of a symbolical political gesture. When Cornelis van Eesteren and Theo van Louizen drafted the General Expansion Plan, one of their concerns was satisfying the supporters of the Garden City agenda in the Amsterdam City Council. Their principle argument against the building of an independent Garden City in ‘t Gooi or elsewhere was based on the demographic forecast they made. It projected the growth of Amsterdam’s population up until the year 2000 to be quite moderate, and argued that since the Garden City idea was based on the imposing image of a mega-city like London, with its millions of inhabitants, something similar was not needed in Amsterdam. Indeed, decentralizing urban development was deemed to be too costly. This having been said, they tried to appease the Garden City supporters by marketing the new plans as something different but yet very similar; they proposed to, “design the expansion plan in such a way that conditions in the new residential neighborhoods would come very close to those in the ideal Garden City”[xxiii]. The centralized form of the new plan took into account all the positive aspects of the Garden City; its independent character, its overall consistency, the predominance of the single family dwelling, whilst excluding the negative aspects; the economic and infrastructural difficulties posed by a more isolated development. For a large part, this was political maneuvering, as Cornelis van Eesteren would later comment:

“Well, it is a city with lots of green and if you are at peace with that, that it contains lots of gardens, and that it’s called a Garden City because of that, well then, why make a fuss about it?”[xxiv]

One could say that the Westelijke Tuinsteden, besides the large amounts of green space and gardens in the plans, were Garden Cities only in name. And that there is little, if any, connection between the Garden City and the modernist agenda underpinning the General Expansion Plan. But the influence of the Garden City movement on modernist planning was actually extensive, the most important connection was arguably the German experience of the Siedlungen. Inspired by the Garden City movement, German architects started building garden suburbs, so-called Siedlungen, as early as 1913; these incorporated many of the elements of the English Garden Cities, but were designed with a much more modern aesthetic. The case of Ernst May, a German architect and co-founder of the CIAM, is an interesting example. He received training under Unwin and Parker, and took in the lessons from the Garden City movement. In 1925 he became the principal city planner in Frankfurt, where he started building garden suburbs on a massive scale, the so-called Siedlungen. They were semi-independent areas, separated from Frankfurt by a large green belt, and well equipped with community elements like playgrounds, schools, theatres, and common washing areas. Like Unwin, May drafted common norms for working class housing and experimented with the standardisation and prefabrication of building materials. In 1929, May presided over the 2nd congress of the CIAM, dedicated to the theme of the Minimum Dwelling.

The Garden City movement was a formative inspiration for much of the German wing of the modernist architecture movement. Le Corbusier was also heavily influence by Howard’s ideas, adapting his ideas to propose vertical Garden Cities, and translating Howard’s Peaceful Path to Reform in to his well known slogan of Architecture or Revolution. Even the survey, which was such an important part of the General Expansion Plan, was an urban planning technique already pioneered by Unwin and Parker. Despite these lines of continuity, as Eric Mumford explains, references to these earlier experiments were hardy acknowledged by the CIAM and the modernist architects[xxv]. They were a movement, after all, which has become associated with the idea of tabula rasa: the desire to make a clear break with the past, and start with a clean slate.

In the General Expansion Plan, the Westelijke Tuinsteden were still thought of us largely comprised of single family dwellings. This changed in 1932, when De 8 and Opbouw were commissioned to research the ideal form of residential district. Whereas the General Expansion Plan specified the objectives for the construction of the Westelijke Tuinsteden and assessed the general requirements of the new expansion, no definite building form had yet been defined. The study, called ‘de Organische Woonwijk in Open Bebouwing’, developed the concept of Strokenbouw, an open ended, free-standing block, a form that had already been experimented with in the German Siedlungen of Ernst May.

The General Expansion Plan. The red areas are the Westelijke Tuinsteden en Buitenveldert.
The General Expansion Plan. The red areas are the neighborhoods still to be constructed:Westelijke Tuinsteden and Buitenveldert.
Bird’s Eye View General Expansion Plan.


Looking back, what seems to emerge as the most important line of continuity between the Garden City and the Westelijke Tuinsteden is, surprisingly enough, the rationalisation and standardisation of urban planning and architecture. What made Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow stand out from the other utopian projects of its time was the underpinning of his idea by extensive calculations of both the financial means necessary to build such a space and the amount of green or living space which needed to be reserved for the inhabitants. These assessments, together with Raymond Unwin’s insights into the importance of the survey, or the definition of minimal standards for affordable housing and the standardisation and mass production of building materials, were to become part and parcel of modern urban planning. While modernist architecture fully embraced this rationalisation process, at the same time it would soon overshadow all other aspects of the planning and architecture of the Westelijke Tuinsteden, and fulfill Unwin’s fear that though technical means were advancing, ideas on the formation of community were still far behind.

The stress on community formation in the Garden City, exemplified by the Civic Centre and the Wards or the collective housing arrangements and participative government, was echoed in Dutch modernist architecture by the wijkgedachte, of which the Rotterdam group Opbouw was a particular proponent. After the war the wijkgedachte did have an influence on the architecture and planning of the Westelijke Tuinsteden, but the overall lack of funding and the continuing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of the building process made it increasingly impossible to implement such a vision. According to Hellinga, “little more was heard about this idea”, because “in the end it was considerations of a more down to earth nature such as the number of dwellings per hectare and the cost per dwelling that induced the planners to choose a particular parcelling system”[xxvi].

The construction of the Westelijke Tuinsteden started in earnest after the Second World War, beginning with Tuinstad Slotermeer, but due to massive financial constraints and an urgent need for housing, a “dressed down” version of the plans was implemented. The alderman of housing and public works pointed out there was only one possibility: “not building, or building according to the stripped down plans that were acceptable for the national government”[xxvii]. In the years that followed, housing corporations, city bureaucrats and the national government took control of most of the building process, making decisions on the form of parceling, on the type of roofs used, even drawing floor plans. While the General Expansion Plan already provided very little autonomy to the architect, after the war the little room that remained became even more constricted. The architects themselves were the first to be highly critical of the development, such as Merkelbach, the architect responsible for parts of the Slotermeer area:

“Not a single Amsterdam architect can afford to say directly: I think it’s a rotten plan, so I refuse to collaborate. But everyone, without a single exception, says this in the privacy of his study! […] The architect is not given enough freedom in this kind of situation.”[xxviii]

Tuinstad Slotermeer
Tuinstad Slotermeer

Others criticised the lack of a clear concept of how cities function. Van Eyck criticised the “sterile bourgeois intimacy” of the area, and Bakema the lack of diversity to be found. Also the green space lacked possibilities of interaction. A notable exception and illuminating example is that of architect Van Tijen who wanted to give shape to the wijkgedachte in Geuzenveld. He tried to get the inhabitants active and self-organised in their neighborhood by reserving space for vegetable gardens in between the housing blocks, and giving the neighborhood a central street with shops, workspaces and studios. Van Eesteren blocked the proposal, since it interfered with the existing parceling scheme in the plans. In this manner, not only the cutbacks but the General Expansion Plan itself prevented architects from implementing their personal vision. Much of the criticisms revolved around the notion of the General Expansion Plan as an end plan: it was drafted with the sincere conviction that it would layout the final form of the city of Amsterdam and could prefigure all future needs. In reality, it needed updating already after the war, and its profound lack of flexibility soon proved problematic. This extreme desire for controlling the future use of the area was most obvious in the discussion around the laundry: inhabitants were not allowed to dry their clothes outside, because it was seen as a corruption of the cityscape by the Urban Development department. Meanwhile at the CIAM, opposition took hold against the functionalist agenda; van Eyck was one of its most vocal members. “Functionalism has killed creativity”, van Eyck stated in an article in Dutch magazine Forum, “it leads to a cold technocracy, in which the human aspect is forgotten. A building is more than the sum of its functions; architecture has to facilitate human activity and promote social interaction.”[xxix]

Summing up, the Westelijke Tuinsteden adapted elements from the original Garden City idea, and everything, including the Expansion Plan itself, was transformed by the modernisation and rationalisation process. In that process, some of the more interesting elements of the original Garden City ideas have been lost or have never been implemented in the first place. Though the General Expansion Plan is almost unparalleled in the amount of space and greenery it provided to the inhabitants of the Westelijke Tuinsteden, the planning of the area lacked a clear vision of how people use and inhabit space. After it was constructed, and ever since it was first inhabited, the Westelijke Tuinsteden have been seen as problem neighborhoods, lacking in social cohesion, perceived to be caused by the heterogeneity and anonymity in the area. All too soon the area become a symbol of the ills of modernisation in general and modernist architecture in particular. In 1955 the City Council even organized a congress on the question, only to be told by sociologists that the wijkgedachte, the idea of creating a village-like social unity in the new area, did not apply to the Westelijke Tuinsteden, and was hopelessly romantic and regressive: the new areas were modern urban areas and couldn’t be brought back to a village-like socialisation pattern[xxx]. Also the present concerns about the integration of migrants in the area are nothing new: in 1960, a report[xxxi] appeared with the title “Migrants in Slotermeer”, discussing the integration problems of new arrivals in the Westelijke Tuinsteden from the Dutch countryside. Strangely enough, in the redevelopment plan the area is now equated with the wijkgedachte, which never established itself in the Western Garden Cities in the first place.

4 Garden City and Functionalist City: Two forms of Utopia?

“Bad Utopia persuades us to desire the unfeasible, and so, like the neurotic, to fall ill of longing, whereas the only authentic image of the future is, in the end, the failure of the present.” Terry Eagleton[xxxii]

In his article de Stad als Utopie, Maarten Hajer loosely describes the two utopian traditions that were major intellectual inspirations for the Westelijke Tuinsteden: Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, and the neo-plasticist ideals of de Stijl which were a founding influence on modernist architecture. He goes on to equate these utopian traditions with the two primary ailments of the modern city, namely unsustainable suburbanisation, and the unpopularity of functionalist planning[xxxiii] as exemplified by the fate of the Bijlmermeer. As Hajer concludes, we should not blame the original utopians for these failures, since in both cases “the purity of the utopian idea was tarnished by the maelstrom of societal realism”[xxxiv]. It is the familiar narrative of utopia gone bad.

We could of course conclude something similar here: the story of a utopian project, clothed in the millenarian expectations of the birth of a new society, only to be shamefully undressed by the sober exigencies of everyday reality. But it has been regurgitated so often that there seems to be little need of repeating such an exercise here. Then why trace the idea of the Garden City, from its utopian inception to it’s modernist adaptation, and finally to it’s rationalized implementation in the Westelijke Tuinsteden? The argument behind such an investigation could appear to be that the perceived inadequacies of the present Westelijke Tuinsteden are grounded in the perversion of the original utopian ideas of Ebenezer Howard, or those of Cornelis van Eesteren and Theo van Lohuizen. Were the Westelijke Tuinsteden to be built true to the original utopian ideas, we would by now be in a state of bliss. Of course, this is not the argument we would like to advance here.

What is specific to the utopian thinking of both the Garden City and the modernist General Expansion Plan is exactly the conviction that the “purity of the utopian ideal”, could be grounded in “the maelstrom of societal realism” through the use of extensive calculations and modern scientific methods. Utopia is no longer a distant fata morgana, seducing travelers in its wake, but becomes a tool for acting upon social reality. Utopia and realism go hand in hand; they are even considered inseparable, as evident from this quote of van Lohuizen: “In order to make plans, which signify a true improvement, in which the dreamed fantasy, the ‘Wunschbild’, is also grounded in reality, it is necessary that the tendencies which are presumed to exist, really do exist.”[xxxv] In this context, according to van Eesteren, the utopian ideal image becomes a precondition for controlling reality as such: “Without such an abstract reality (mental image) it is not possible to deal with reality (speculation, prejudice, inertia, etc) and control it.”[xxxvi]

The main difference between the Garden City and the functionalism contained in the General Expansion Plan is that Howard predefined no specific aesthetic for his Garden City. He sensed and accepted that his descriptions would be ‘much departed from’: they could be built in the nostalgic style of Unwin and Parker or the modernist style of the German Siedlungen. According to Unwin the role of the planner was a much more humble one:

“He should remember that it is his function to find artistic expression for the requirements and tendencies for the town, not to impose upon it a preconceived idea of his own. He must first make himself thoroughly acquainted with that for which a form of expression is needed and only after he has done this will he be in a position to determine that form.[…] He will, no doubt, have very definite ideas and preferences, and will express the requirements in the terms of that form which most appeals to him; … he has no need to go beyond that, no right to usurp the functions of a dictator decreeing what shall be expressed.”[xxxvii]

For the modernist architect the ideal image of the functional organisation of space soon became more important than the reality it served. Reality had to adapt to the ideal image, in stead of the other way around. It would lead to a very authoritarian role for the planner, legitimized by the idea that the modernist urban planner, like the avant-garde artist, had a privileged understanding of the ‘new man’ and his or her sentiments and needs, effectively making these needs ideal images by relegating them to the future. Thus, the modernist planner becomes a prophet, able to divine the future for coming generations:

“The object of town planning and art in general is basically to give expression to the feelings that modern man experiences as his own. Here the difficulty arises that there is a temporal discrepancy between the contemporary work of art which expresses the contemporary feeling on the one hand and the public on the other. I need only refer to the relation between Van Gogh and the public of his day, between the public and Mondrian, Van Doesburg, and van der Leck, between the public and a Kruyder, a Willink and many others.”[xxxviii]

More so in the General Expansion Plan, than in the open ended shape of the Garden City, the idea that only the modernist planner could see the future and the rest had to follow, led to a lack of flexibility and participation, reason for Hellinga to point out that in the end, the General Expansion Plan contradicted the imperatives of modernist architecture itself: instead of liberating city dwellers, it aimed at controlling them. The historical mistake has arguably been to misunderstand the function of utopian thinking, to reduce utopia to a blueprint, a ‘pure idea’ that is to be followed to the letter. Hans Achterhuis points to a similar tendency: the constructed environment, which is supposed to generate a desired form of human behaviour and association, becomes a stand-in for utopia as such. In this process the complexity of utopian thinking is reduced to the singularity of an idealized spatial form[xxxix].

Not unsurprisingly, in the ‘Nineties, when much of modern planning came under fire, utopian thinking also lost much of its popularity. A big wave of demolition is now rolling over Dutch post-war neighbourhoods, paying little respect either to the architecture, the inhabitants, or the ideals those areas were originally inspired by. As Henk Hofland has argued, the destruction of large scale post war housing is at the same time “the destruction of a part of our postwar history with all its ideals and hope for a better future”[xl]. Instead of critically re-examining those original utopian ideals, the tendency has been to do away with utopian thinking altogether. As cultural critic Terry Eagleton observed a decade ago, “utopia is hardly in fashion in these skeptical, politically downbeat days”, where “the only future we shall ever witness will be the repetition of the present”[xli]. Indeed, these last years there appears to have been a broad desire for exorcising the demons of utopian thought and to simply ‘get on with things’. A fine example of this broader sentiment is the call of Arnold Reijndorp for a ‘secularisation’ of urban planning[xlii]. To abandon any illusion of building with a vision of ‘man’ and ‘society’ and have architects and planners focus on what they know best: the bricks and nothing but the bricks. Of course one problem remains, namely that human beings tend to inhabit those bricks, ‘man’ and ‘society’ cannot be wished away so easily.

Lately, there has been a reappraisal of utopian thinking by authors such as Frederic Jameson, Terry Eagleton and Russel Jacoby. Here, the function of utopia is not that of restricting our future to that of an idealised image, instead it takes on an iconoclastic form: a way of critiquing and moving beyond the present. Looking back on the utopian Garden City, we can depart from a similar perspective, by looking at what aspects of its intellectual history can be used to break away from the present of the Western Garden Cities and re-imagine it’s future in an open ended way.

At present, large-scale demolition is taking place in the area. An important factor is the ongoing privatization process of the housing corporations and the housing stock, which has led to a renewal process that concerns itself more with the needs of the local real estate market, than the needs of the inhabitants themselves. Corporations increasingly withdraw themselves from government oversight and neighbourhood control. Strangely enough, in stead of basing itself on the qualities of the Westelijke Tuinsteden, the renewal plan proposed for the area aims to privatize the green space and do away with the open character of the area by intensifying the density of construction. Though officially the renewal is supposed to protect the Garden City quality of the area, in reality the restructuring lacks any coherent vision on what that would mean. Ironically, some of the same mistakes of the modernists planners are now being repeated, most notably the fixation on form in stead of the social use of space. If one of the main shortcomings of the General Expansion Plan and the planning of the Westelijke Tuinsteden was the lack of a clear idea of how a city should function, how space is used, then that lack has still not been dealt with, since the renewal plan advances no alternative vision. In stead it bases the renewal on the abstract, ideal image of the Scottish Diamond (Schotse Ruit)[xliii]. Furthermore it wrongly equates the Westelijke Tuinsteden with the wijkgedachte, which is subsequently constrasted with some broad generalizations, an ideal image of present society: “The basic premises of the wijkgedachte are no longer applicable in the present society. Individualisation, heterogeneity, emancipation, telecommunications, mobility, pluriformity and more leisure characterise society today.”[xliv] This coarse and mistaken opposition is subsequently used to declare the original ideas behind the Westelijke Tuinsteden obsolete.

The argument in this essay offers another route, which is to reengage with some of the original ideas behind the Garden City. In particular Howard’s ideas on cooperativism and entrepreneurialism could provide inspiration for the renewal of the Westelijke Tuinsteden today, now that the Amsterdam harbour is no longer the economic backbone of the area and work can become much more functionally integrated and mixed within the residential areas. If the previous social infrastructure of the area relied on the public services provided by the pillarisation system, what new forms of socialization can take their place today?  As recent community garden projects have shown, one of these forms is the garden itself. These are part of the most promising architectural interventions taking place in the area. Projects that explore ways of incorporating social appropriation into the old infrastructure. Thus allowing the old Garden City ideals to resonate and to make the area once again into a symbol of the future, in stead of merely an ideal of the past.

[i] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed. New Haven, 1998, p6.

[ii] Aldo van Eyck (1959) ‘Het Verhaal van een Andere Gedachte’. In: Forum 7/1959, Amsterdam and Hilversum.

[iii] From his foreword to: Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow. London: 1946 (1902).

[iv] Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow. London: 1902.

[v] Howard 1902, p146.

[vi] Lewis Mumford, from his introduction to: Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow. London: 1946 (1902).

[vii] Howard 1902, p100.

[viii] Peter Hall & Colin Ward, Sociable Cities, the Legacy of Ebenezer Howard. Chichester: 1998, p28.

[ix] Howard 1902, p22.

[x] Raymond Unwin, Town Planning in Practice. An Introduction to Designing Cities and Suburbs. New York: 1994 (1909), pp140-141.

[xi] Lewis Mumford, introduction to Garden Cities of Tomorrow, p35.

[xii] Wieger Bruin, Ebenezer Howard :de Tuinsteden van Morgen. Wageningen: 1947. Inaugurele rede, Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen, 15 dec. 1947.

[xiii] Frank Smit, De Droom van Howard, Het Verleden en de toekomst van de Tuindorpen. Rijswijk: 1991, p11, (author’s italics).

[xiv] Riedel was secretary of the Society for the Common Good (Maatschappij tot Nut van het Algemeen), a charitable society stemming from the 18th century, working on the emancipation and edification of the workers, which developed strong links with the socialist movement and the Social Democrat party.

[xv] Maarten Hajer, ‘De stad als utopie’. In: T. van Helmond en J.J. Overstegen (red.),Voor Arthur Lehning, Maastricht: 1989, p130.

[xvi] Helma Hellinga & Piet de Ruijter (red.)., Amsterdam Uitbreidingsplan 50 jaar, Amsterdam: 1985, p26.

[xvii] Raymond Unwin quoted in: Frank Smit, 1991, p175.

[xviii] Helma Hellinga et al., Het Nieuwe Bouwen, Amsterdam 1920-1960. Delft: 1983, p56.

[xix] Eric Mumford, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism 1928-1960, Cambridge: 2000, p25-26.

[xx] Maybe more influenced by the geographical constraints for the expansion of Amsterdam, than the ideas expounded at the International Urbanism Congress of 1924, the General Extension Plan largely takes after the finger shaped model, which has become known in the Netherlands as the “lobbenmodel”.

[xxi] As Tafuri noted: “The De Stijl technique of complex elementary forms corresponded with the discovery that the ‘new richness’ of spirit could not be sought outside the ‘new poverty’ assumed by mechanical civilization.” Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia, Design and Capitalist Development, Cambridge, 1979.

[xxii] Hellinga notes that often the General Expansion Plan is seen as the embodiment of the functionalist ideals, while the relationship was actually almost the other way around: The General Expansion Plan was put forward by Cornelis van Eesteren and provided the inspiration for the modernist thinking on the functionalist city, as written down by Le Corbusier in the controversial Charter of Athens in 1941. Here he laid out the CIAM program of building on the basis of an analytical distinction between the functions work, housing, recreation, and traffic.

[xxiii] Algemeen Uitbreidingsplan, Nota van Toelichting, Amsterdam: 1934, p31.

[xxiv] Cornelis van Eesteren quoted in de Droom van Howard, p17.

[xxv] Eric Mumford, 2000, p25-26.

[xxvi] Hellinga et al., 1983, p82.

[xxvii] Hellinga et al., 1983, p82.

[xxviii] Hellinga et al., 1983, p83.

[xxix] Aldo van Eyck, 1959..

[xxx] Hellinga, Onrust in Park en Stad, Amsterdam, 2005.

[xxxi] [xxxi] J.A.A van Doorn, Migranten in Slotermeer, Amsterdam: 1960.

[xxxii] Terry Eagleton, ‘Utopia and its Opposites’, In: Socialist Register, vol. 36, 2000.

[xxxiii] Though the link between the neo-plasticism of Mondriaan and the functionalist ideas of Cornelis van Eesteren and modernist architecture is, as Hellinga (1983) has noted, complex. Mondriaan believed that in the society and conditions of his time, the artist should not engage with practical urbanism, he had to wait for a new society and new needs to emerge to be a able to fulfill his aesthetic agenda. In contrast, van Eesteren believed one could build for the future, by anticipating that future through the continual interaction of modern scientific methods and artistic sensibility (Hellinga 1983, p70).

[xxxiv] Hajer 1989, p82.

[xxxv] Theo van Lohuizen quoted in Hellinga et al., 1983, p69.

[xxxvi] Van Eesteren quoted in Hellinga et al., 1983, p68.

[xxxvii] Raymond Unwin Town Planning in Practice An introduction to the art of designing cities and suburbs. New York:, 1994/1909, p141.

[xxxviii] Van Eesteren quoted in Hellinga et al., 1983, p69.

[xxxix] Hans Achterhuis, De Erfenis van de Utopie, Baarn 1998.

[xl] Henk Hofland & Jacqueline Tellinga, De Grote Verbouwing, Rotterdam, 2004, p6.

[xli] Terry Eagleton, ‘Utopia and its Opposites’, In: Socialist Register, vol. 36, 2000, p 34.

[xlii] Reijndorp, Stadswijk, Rotterdam, 2004, p201.

[xliii] Gemeentelijke Dienst Ruimtelijke Ordening (dRO), Parkstad, een veelzijdig perspectief voor de Westelijke Tuinsteden. Amsterdam: 1995.

[xliv]  Gemeentelijke Dienst Ruimtelijke Ordening (dRO), 1995, p3.