City of Glass

Lured by tax concessions and a climate like northern California’s, dozens of multinational companies had moved in the business park that now employed over ten thousand people. The senior managements were the most highly paid professional caste in Europe, a new elite of administrators, énarques and scientific entrepreneurs. The lavish brochure enthused over a vision of glass and titanium straight from the drawing boards of Richard Neutra and Frank Gehry, but softened by landscaped parks and artificial lakes, a humane version of Corbusier’s radiant city. Even my sceptical eye was prepared to blink.”

– JG Ballard, Super Cannes

Along a twelve hundred meter stretch of Amsterdam’s southern ring road, a business park is being developed, Zuidas (South Axis), the Netherlands’ new prime business location. Billboards of building companies with promising presentations of what the near future has on offer stand amongst the ghostly lit cement skeletons of newly constructed office towers. Both the height of the towers and that of the project’s ambitions are – for Amsterdam standards – unprecedented. Over a period of twenty-four years, until 2032, the plan is to quadruple the current amount of floor area, to a grand total of 2.7 million square meters. The aim is to lure corporate headquarters to Amsterdam, vying for the economic success of the London City and Paris’ La Defense.

The Zuidas project is symptomatic of several long-term structural shifts in Dutch urban planning, and part and parcel of what has been hailed as the ‘second modernity’ of Dutch architecture. A new policy of spatial resource concentration has set in, combined with a newly acquired taste for big projects, public private partnerships and boosterist architecture. But unlike the first urban modernisation drive in Amsterdam, a wave that broke on the urban revolt of the new left in the sixties and seventies, the new development agenda is faced with next to no opposition. Using these developments as an occasion for some broader reflections, this article is a short exploration of the changing spirit of urban development, using a material as metaphor: glass.

City of Glass is not coincidentally the title of a book by American novelist Paul Auster, a writer that has become well known for his innovative take on the classic detective genre. Whereas in the typical modernist detective – take for example Raymond Chandler’s writing on Los Angeles – it’s the detective that bends the complexity of society to the singularity of his will, in Auster’s work it’s exactly the other way around; it’s society that does the bending. Sooner or later his characters become trapped by their surrounding. In City of Glass, the unraveling of the plot does not lead to disclosure, the protagonist doesn’t find or get any closer to what he’s looking for, in stead he loses himself and his very identity in the process. Wandering through the streets of New York, he finds himself in a city of glass, in the sense that it’s intangible, unknowable. In the reflecting glass of the surrounding buildings, the protagonist looks at his reflection and doesn’t recognize himself. The rhythm of renewal in the city, the indefinite character of the surrounding, the fleetingness of social relations and the all-encompassing lack of identity being portrayed in the novel, are interpreted in the literary field (Willet 1996, Jarvis 1998) as a comment on the current stage of capitalism and it’s relation to urban space.

The illustrated version of Paul Auster's City of Glass
Paul Auster’s City of Glass, the illustrated novel

For it’s use of glass as a metaphor, the book by Paul Auster has become a literary expression of a development that has also been noted in academia, by sociologist Richard Sennet: while in the modern age glass was the material expression of the revolutionary ideals of modernism to physically unite space, in late capitalism, glass equals exclusivity, impenetrability, fragmentation and dystopia. In that sense the changes in the conceived function of glass in architecture is a telling story about the changes in urban development logic that underpin the construction of a prime business district like the Zuidas.

Glass was first widely applied in the Victorian age for the building of palaces and roofed shopping galleries, the arcades. The famous Crystal Palace in Londen and the Palais de l’Exposition in Paris, the first big buildings of glass, were constructed for the world exhibitions and became grand inspirations for modern architecture. It was now possible to construct in far less time and much bigger scale, and the distinction between inside and outside seem to give way. The latter quality of glass, to unite space physically, was a long coveted enlightenment ideal, now taken up by modern architecture, most notably by the German novelist and modernist Scheerbart, who published the now famous manifesto for Glass Architecture:

We mostly inhabit closed spaces. These form the milieu from which our culture develops…. If we wish to raise our culture to a higher plane, so must we wily-nilly change our architecture . And this will be possible only when we remove the sense of enclosure from the spaces where we live. And this we will only achieve by introducing Glass Architecture. (Scheerbart quoted in Sennet 1990, p106)

Glass was a practical modern material, easily mass-produced and flexible in use, but it also fulfilled a symbolic role. Walter Benjamin refers to it in his essay ‘Experience and Poverty’:

“Glass is not for naught such a hard and smooth material, on which nothing sticks. It’s also a cold and sober material. Glass items have no ‘aura’. Glass is by definition the enemy of secrecy. It is also the enemy of property.”

But by far the most important symbolic quality of glass was it’s transparency. Leading modernists such as Gropius and Le Corbusier professed the glass ideal of universal transparency, aimed at the radical renewal of the working class dwelling. The fluffily decorated cramped confines of the worker’s private sphere were to give way for schmuck-less, spacious and rationally planned collective housing. The application of transparent building materials was to bring forth a new man, and was an essential part of the program of light, air and greenery of the modernist open building blocks that were to replace the compressed, ‘irrational’, maze-like street patterns of the old popular neighborhoods. Accordingly, architecture critic Anthony Vidler states

“Modernity was haunted (…) by a myth of transparancy”, “transparancy of the self to nature, of the self to the other, of all selves to society, and all this represented (…) by a universal transparancy of building materials, spatial penetration, and the ubiquitous flow of air, light, and physical movement (Vidler 1992, p217).

The ideal to transform space to rationally functioning, integrated units was not restricted to working class housing, but was to be implemented to the city as a whole by modern spatial planning. Planners at that time were still dressed in the white overcoats now only worn by doctors and phycisists. The ideal of a “transparent city” was to subject the urban patient to the homogenizing force of urban development, with the spatial apparatus of the modern state clothed in the professional garb of modern science. Transparency took shape in the idea that the city had to be freely traversable and accessible, not only by sight, but also by car. Influential Dutch urban planners, such as Van Eesteren and van Lohuizen, prominent members of the modernist CIAM (Congresse Internationale de Architecture Moderne, which featured also Le Corbusier and Gropius), implemented the functionalist ideals in the Netherlands, most famously through the Algemeen Uitbreidingsplan (General Extension Plan) of 1934. A plan underpinned by modern scientific prognosis of demographic developments, economic growth and traffic expansion, which was to become the guideline for urban development in Amsterdam up to the 70’s. The modernist movement was to become known by their large-scale development of working class neighbourhoods, such as the Westelijke Tuinsteden and Buitenveldert in Amsterdam. But the modernist ideal of a functional city, where according to the principles of the CIAM, housing, work, traffic and recreation where to be functionally separated and integrally planned, did not only lead to the typical post war building blocks with large amounts of light, air, greenery and monotony, but also resulted in the conclusion that the city centre’s economic function had to be further developed and the city had to be “opened up” to traffic. New and modern construction in peripheral neighborhoods were to relieve the old inner city of their populous burden, in order to make way for a sizable extension of the Central Business District, for which, according to the planners “entire neighborhoods had to be sacrificed”. Popular but derelict 19th century neighborhoods such as the Jordaan, de Nieuwmarkt and de Pijp were to host modern office buildings, car parks and “contemporary residential forms”. This new office economy would attract large amounts of traffic, which meant, according to the planners, that the city had to be traversed by several big highways. The plans only came to life after the second world war, when also the development of an extensive metro grid was added as a new component.

What was on the agenda in the sixties, was the wholesale modernization of the city of Amsterdam. The almighty public works department fulfilled a function not unlike Robert Moses did in New York, often cited on his willingness to use the ‘meat axe’ to cut through whole neighborhoods, driving his express ways through New York. The tabula rasa practice of modernism, the desire to start with a clean slate, preferably by razing all existent to the ground, showed itself most poignantly in the Netherlands by the concept of “slum clearance” taken up in the fifties and sixties. Dutch Historian Geert Mak made an interesting reference to the then Amsterdam elderman Hans Lammers, who while being driven through the Nieuwmarktbuurt and de Pijp gives an interview on the future of the degenerated neighbourhoods: “he waved continuously with his hands and said: ‘void, void, void’”(Geert Mak in Opnieuw, 2004).

Van Eesteren's conceptual designs for a business area
Van Eesteren’s conceptual design for a business area, 1934

Thus the modernist ideal of the functionalist city was part and parcel of the agenda to construct a large Central Business District in the centre of Amsterdam, to accommodate the expansion of especially the financial sector. In many ways, it was the failed precursor to the Zuidas. The modernization plans were to become a major battleground for the upcoming new left youth movement, represented by students, hippies and squatters. They formed a powerful coalition with local residents and conservationist, sabotaging development both through legal, political and physical means. Maybe as important, was a simultaneous scalar transformation taking place: because of modern transportation and  communication technology, companies started to become less dependent on the city center, and started to move out of the embattled territory towards traffic nodes in the periphery. When the smoke finally cleared, city hall achieved a pyrrhic victory: the metro was built in Amsterdam, but the modernization project and the rest of the metrogrid were off the agenda. Small scale renovation and restoration for the local population were to be the guidelines in the next ten years. The painful memory of this powerful anti-modernist rebellion made large scale development a taboo subject till the mid eighties. The modern urban development apparatus was now applied to a proliferation of small projects. Top down government gave way to extensive small scale participation and project development in neighborhoods. For a short time, small was, indeed, beautiful. Large swathes of the housing stock were being bought up by the city councils, nationalization of the land was actually on the political agenda, but eventually caused the downfall of the famous left wing Den Uyl government.

Reflector Sunglasses

In the eighties a change in sensibility takes place. Economic crisis and the arrival of politics of the Tatcherite and Raeganite strand lead to a renewed focus on large scale development, and the prioritizing of economic over social policy. In the architecture literature it is referred to as the second modernity of architecture. Ambition is back, but with a different agenda. An illustrative way this shows itself is through changes in the use of glass. Frederic Jameson (1991) notes, for example, in his book, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, how the new architecture of reflective glass of the Bonaventure Hotel in L.A. serves to exclude the city, in stead of unifying space:

“Now one would rather want to stress the way in which the glass skin repels the city outside, a repulsion for which we have analogies in those reflector sunglasses which make it impossible for your interlocutor to see your own eyes and thereby achieve a certain aggressivity towards and power over the Other. […] [F]or it does not wish to be a part of the city, but rather it’s equivalent and replacement or substitute.”

los_angeles_usa_skyscrapers (17)

The latter statement is due to the fact that the architect, Portman, allotted the public space within rather than outside of the building, which is thus privatized. The same sunglass effect is further enhanced, according to urban scholar Mike Davis, by the hotel’s impenetrable surrounding of tarmac highways and concrete structures, that seal off the Bonaventura Hotel and the commercial centre of Bunker Hill from the surrounding popular (asian-hispanic) neighbourhoods. Mike Davis therefore names L.A. in his famous study a City of Quartz. Glass becomes quartz, an impenetrable and fragmented material representing dystopic space, where unwanted visitors are filtered out of public space by an extensive security system. In a similar vein, Sennet analyses how the glass facades of the luxury New York stores, serve a somewhat different function than the arcades in the time of Benjamin, thick security glass seems to say: look, but don’t touch. Armed security guards stand at the glass door entrance. Other theorists, such as Sloterdijk in his book the Crystal Palace give a comparably grim account of the new function of the once utopian material. While Davis describes Bunker Hill as a militarized fortress,  Sloterdijk’s book references an increasingly globalised inner space, that excludes an increasingly marginalized outside. Thus the crystal palace becomes a metaphor for the border regimes separating the West from it’s periphery, and the tendency to complement ideas of progress and development with defense mechanisms against those that are not allowed to partake in it. Architecture theorist Lieven de Cauter brings us his concept of a capsular society, that extends itself from Spanish enclaves such as Ceuta en Melilla to the modern shopping centres and gated communities. A new conception of modernity seems to have arisen where exclusion and exclusivity have become paired hegemonic qualities.

Zuidas as a Crystal Palace

Having taken this long detour, let us finally return to our original concern, which is how the development of a business district in the south of Amsterdam fits into this story. What I want to argue is that the contemporary ‘crystal palace’ being build at the Zuidas is predicated upon a comparable new exclusive modernism that tends towards fragmentation. The Zuidas represents a rupture with the past and a claim on the future. That architecture is, according to Mies an der Rohe, ‘the will of the age in spatial terms’, is not a lesson wasted on the coalition developing the Zuidas. In wide circles the Zuidas, in gross contradiction to it’s ongoing status as government-run subsidy sponge, is represented as a profound and paradigmatic shift from publicly oriented planning to market led development. What the Zuidas is exemplifying, is not so much a shift in protagonism from state to market, but much more the emulation of market dynamics by the Dutch state itself. In comparison to the Keynesian modernist planning of the postwar decades, that sought to subjugate, integrate and socially homogenize it’s territorial surrounding, the new approach to urban planning revolves around creating ‘spaces of excellence’; ‘peaks in the delta’, paraphrasing the title of a well known Dutch national planning brief. Using a typical oblique neoliberal discursive repertoire, it goes on to state that “the focus has changed from the removal of backwardness to the deployment of possibilities”.

That possibility is represented by a hitherto overlooked piece of land, which is now rapidly mushrooming into a full-fledged CBD. It’s central quality is the presence of major transport infrastructure and it’s proximity to the national airport. The possibility of almost instantaneous (5-10 minutes) access to air transportation, is hoped to be a counterweight to the lure of the city of London, that due to it’s scalar advantage, is siphoning off more and more employment from the Amsterdam financial sector. The most central, complex and controversial aspect of the Zuidas project is bringing the ringroad and the adjacent metro and railway tracks underground, allowing for office tower construction on top. This so-called “dock model”, a four-billion euro project, is to be executed by a consortium of different government layers (municipality, city region, province and several national ministries) and major Dutch banks. While public and private parties are still struggling over the division of risk, and with the official decision not even taken, the plans – and the accompanying marketing blurbs – seem to have gained a momentum which can no longer be halted. To fund this project the city of Amsterdam, owner of most of the land, as it owns roughly 80% of the land in the city’s territory, invests the present and future land lease income in the PPP. In this way it limits it’s own powers to act, by breaking with a long lasting tradition of redistributing land lease income: the business parks of Amsterdam have always served as land lease cash cows used for financing less profitable undertakings. By relenting control over it’s the prime office location, the city basically undercuts it’s own capacity to intervene in the city.

Thus the project breaks with the logic of earlier modernization, where transparency revolved around the generalization of mobility for the entire city (problematic in a very different way), to the excesses of “the near and the elsewhere” of supermodernity (Augé 1995, p7). Speaking in terms of philosophers Virilio and Sloterdijk, it is almost the policy endorsement of the arrival of a class division of speed, with the Zuidas as a playground for the ‘global kinetic elite’, leaving the other outskirts of the city for the (s)lower classes. Mimicking some of Portman’s Bonaventura ideas, the Zuidas is proclaimed as a new ‘urban centre’ in it’s own right, in the dreams of the municipality a center not only for production but also for luxury housing and conspicuous consumption that would bring consumers from around the world in shopping fly-by’s. Was the grid by far the most captivating modern planning concept (Harvey 1989), at present these have been replaced by corridors, clusters, and (blue) banana’s, visualizing a shift from the universality of space to the particularity of place.

In quite obvious contradiction to the proclaimed market conformity of the project, most of the market analysis reports the government has procured are stating there is not enough market demand for the amount of top range office space that the project has set out to develop (one of the consultancy agencies labeled the heightened ambition levels in the plans of the city council as a ‘political choice’). In a great example of what David Harvey has described as ‘speculative development’, the city is bend on penetrating to the international shortlist of top office locations. And what is needed for that are not market forays, but ‘vision’ and of course the right marketing strategies. By necessity, public decision is informed by the same marketing approach. While all reports warn for the risks involved, according to aldermen van Poelgeest “there might be an earthquake or something like that, but the risk is purely hypothetical”. Thus in aiming for an international market of highly mobile corporate players, the city is investing in it’s vulnerability. It is not alone in doing so:

In selling themselves, cities are…actively facilitating and subsidizing the very geographic mobility that first rendered them vulnerable, while also validating and reproducing the extralocal rule systems to which they are (increasingly) subjected. The logic of interurban  competition, then, turns cities into accomplices in their own subordination, a process driven – and legitimated – by tales of municipal turnaround and urban renaissance, by little victories and fleeting accomplishments, and ultimately also by the apparent paucity of “realistic” local alternatives. (Peck & Tickell 2002: 46)


As much as cities are generally built on the ruins of the past, the business center Zuidas is built on the failure of it’s modernist predecessor. In ecnomic theory, concepts such as lock in and path dependency explain that every development path that is taken, excludes other paths. Thus the unbuilt CBD in the seventies has brought us to a new CBD in the periphery, and a new logic of centrality that is related to proximity to the airport and international flows.

The new CBD will lock the city of Amsterdam into a fixed development path for the coming thirty years, draining it’s resources. In a time of crisis and transformation in the financial sector, this seems a highly questionable strategy. But even though the future of the city is at stake, resistance against the Zuidas plans is almost non existant. The lack of protest and resistance to such projects seems to stem exactly from their non-universalizing character. Were the protests against the earlier modernization drive easily translated to a struggle over the future of the entire city, the current lack of such an all-encompassing development strategy and it’s concurrent tabula rasa practice is one of the reasons resistance and alternatives fail to materialize. Unlike the focus on the neighborhood that became a rallying cry in the late seventies, at the moment the opposition lacks any spatial imagery it can propose. While the skyscrapers at the Zuidas (and similar business parcs elsewhere) symbolize the future for the the political powers that be and the global kinetic elite, we are in dire need of our own spatial imagery.