From social engineering to spatial engineering

As must be clear to anyone crossing the IJ, if only with the gaze of the eye, the North of Amsterdam is an area undergoing rapid transformation. It was a longtime container of everything unwanted in Amsterdam, starting with the early gallows, to trailer camps, polluting industry and the surplus of urban poor. Now, finally the North seems on it’s way to become a more accepted part of Amsterdam, but this newfound interest seems to apply more to it’s undervalued real estate which is now energetically being redeveloped, than to the original inhabitants of the North itself.

This is surprising, as the population of the North was for a long time a favorite object of state intervention. The legacy of the North presents us with a powerful symbol of the social democrat dream of uplifting and ‘civilizing’ the working class to middle class norms. But today, with the strategic shift from heavy industries to creative industries, we are witnessing an altogether different development. The focus on the local population has given way to effervescent marketing strategies to import a new middle class, rather than uplifting the existing population. As I will argue in this presentation, we have seen a change in governmental strategy, which is shifting from social engineering to spatial engineering, in the words of Foucault, from discipline to security.

I Social Engineering

This text is the result of a chance encounter with two altogether different, but intimately connected phenomena, having to do with sculptors. One was the encounter of the old entrance gate of the resocialisation camp Asterdorp, in a soon to be redeveloped industrial area in the North. In these last decades it served as the studio of the sculptor André Volten, but in the thirties it served as one of the two long forgotten so called ‘living schools’ in Amsterdam. At about the same time, I contacted a befriended sculptor in the North, Hartmut Wilkening, to explain me more about the local political context. As soon as I walked into his studio, at the Zamenhofstraat, next to the former AKZO factory, I was confronted by a giant clay head of philosopher Michel Foucault. It recently got moulded into a more solid shape, and is now ready for it’s final destination, an elderly home. The coincidence of Foucault and Asterdorp seemed something I couldn’t ignore.

For Michel Foucault, social engineering – large scale behavioral manipulation and control of the population – is intimately connected with re-socialization camps. He saw them as emblematic spaces, where the disciplinary codes of conduct that are normally less visible in our society are out in the open for everyone to see. Foucault famously suggested that a “carceral continuum” runs through modern society, from the maximum security prison, through secure accommodation, probation, social workers, police, and teachers, to our everyday working and domestic lives. All are connected by the (witting or unwitting) supervision (surveillance, application of norms of acceptable behavior) of some humans by others. The objective being the creation of “docile bodies”, productive and obedient individuals adapted to the demands of the industrial age. A rest product of this disciplining technique – that aimed at creating normal people and revolved around the binary distinction between normal and abnormal – was a large group of abnormal people on which again, all sorts of institutions and techniques were deployed oriented at classification, surveillance and correction.

An essential aspect of these techniques was a constant observation and registration of the disciplined bodies and the eventual internalization of the disciplining technique. The logic of this process is most aptly embodied by the architecture of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: a circular structure, subdivided in individual cells, with a big tower in the middle of the ring, from where the detainees in their cells could be observed without seeing the observer or the other detainees. The constant presence of the possibility of being observed, would lead to the internalization of the disciplinary technique, the precondition for the creation of “docile bodies”.

The North of Amsterdam served as a laboratory for social engineering, which started to take place rather late in the Netherlands, due to a dominant liberal tradition of limited government intervention, and an industrialization process which only kicked off at the end of the 19th century. At the start of the 20th century, with the rise to power of the social democrat party, an extensive administrative machine was set up with the aim of uplifting and civilizing the urban poor.

On the one hand this took the shape of new social laws and policy, on the other hand, the civilization offensive, as it was called in Dutch, took it’s shape through all sorts of civil society initiatives: evening schools, library work, nature associations, theatre clubs, choirs, and so forth. New forms of care were invented for the sick, for criminals, single mothers, neglected children, alcoholics etc. Central to this program was the teaching of middle class faculties such as devotion to duty, self constraint, the saving of money, and the development of a proper work ethic. It was thought that through the provision of welfare, such as housing or financial support, new morals could be imposed, by threat of withdrawal of the given support (Dercksen & Verplanke, 1987). Most of this early welfare work was done as volunteer work by women of higher standing. They laid the early foundations of the subsequent profession of social work.

In the early beginning of the twentieth century, rising concerns about hygiene and urban epidemics led to the policies of slum clearance in poor popular neighborhoods such as the Jordaan, Uilenburg or Oostelijke eilanden. An extensive program of public housing provision was set up, of which Amsterdam North is still a living catalogue. Besides the social ideals behind the program, it had also an explicit economic aim, in creating a compliant, cheap and efficient workforce. I quote from one of the first housing corporations:

“The houses are only to be rent out to neat people. There has to be strict supervision of the regular payment of rent. Weakness in this will lead to lazyness, and the goals of proper housing is promoting the work ethic.” (quoted in Ottens, 1975, p5)

Problems soon arose with the former slum dwellers, who were not considered to be neat people. Tenants not paying rent, not maintaining their houses properly or causing trouble to their neighbors, were all too soon kicked out of the newly build public housing units. To prevent further incidents, an extensive administrative system was set up to review new tenants for public housing. Superintendents would inspect the houses of families applying for public housing, checking each and every detail of their household and requiring information from employers, landlords, police etc. Between 1926 and 1938, 56.692 of these reports are made. 1292 families were declared asocial and “inadmissible”, in other words unfit for public housing (Dijk & Steinmetz 1983).

A solution for the inadmissible was found in the re-socialisation camps, of which two were planned in Amsterdam. Zeeburgerdorp opened in 1926, and Asterdorp in 1927. The camps were built in isolated areas of the city, with the explicit aim of setting the inhabitants apart from the rest of the population. Arie Keppler, the director of the woningdienst, in charge of the public housing development, was personally in charge of the projects. He stated:

“In such an institution what is firstly needed is discipline, a discipline that imposed from the outside through the skilled and tactical behaviour of the superintendent, slowly proceeds to an inner discipline, as a consequence of the change in being and thinking of the people conferred to her.” (quoted in Dercksen & Verplanke, 1987, p44)

In general a-socials were seen as a homogeneous group, but soon distinction was to be made between those salvageable and those not. An article in the magazine for public housing made the subsequent distinction between “societal wreckage”:

“The backward families, the wretches, the lazy, the unemployed due to lack of energy, the drinkers but not yet alcoholics, the squanderers, the indifferent, the unskilled, stupid and untidy housewives; all people with some sort of mental defect, as a consequence of which they never truly belong. These are not in the strongest sense of the word to be called inadmissible, but have every tendency to become just that.
And then, almost without transition, the same cases, but a degree worse: the hopelessly dirty, the quarrelsome, the paupers, the unbound, the defaulters, the women always going out, not capable of running the household, and that don’t feel the need to. In one word, the degenerate in every sense of the word.” (quoted in Dercksen & Verplanke, 1987, p46)

Asterdorp was comprised of 132 houses, built as a pentagon, surrounded by a wall of 2m20. Access to the terrain was only to be had through the gate, which was open, but supervised by the superintendent. She came to collect the rent every week, which was the occasion for a house inspection: she checked the wardrobes, the bed, the clothing, whether the kids were well fed and going to school, whether boys and girls of a certain age were sleeping in separate beds, etc etc. She kept a register of whether people were having their weekly baths and whether the women were doing their laundry. People were not supposed to stay and socialize outside, which was considered unfitting for modern family life. If the family’s problems were considered to be amendable, they could apply for re-entry in the public housing administration. The director of the public housing service, together with several other institutions would pay a surprise visit to check on the quality of the household. But very few people actually got through.

Living in Asterdorp imbued a potent form of stigma. The kids were sent to school with red armbands on denoting their asocial background. Men had trouble finding work or alternative housing, whenever they even mentioned the name Asterdorp. On top of that, the houses were suffering from moisture and were generally of poor quality. As a consequence, anyone that was strong enough to leave Asterdorp left as soon as possible. Only the most problematic families stayed behind. In 1940, when the second world war starts, the institution looses it’s function. After and during the war, it has some temporary purposes, after which it is finally destroyed.
Asterdorp is an interesting and powerful symbol of social engineering, the dream of a perfectly malleable social body. Even though it’s apparent failure at assimilating the abnormal, it serves as an illustration of what normality was supposed to be.

Spatial engineering

Spatial engineering entails a reversal of means and ends with regards to social engineering: in the old model, the location was used to uplift the population, while presently, a new population is attracted to uplift the location.
As mentioned earlier, social engineering was not an idealist program, but it had a clear economic function in the creation of a functional labour force. In the North, the model worked, as far as the subject and the electorate was formed by the working class, social welfare – such as housing and unemployment – lowered the cost of living and the price of labour, giving the industry a competitive advantage, while industrial policy strategically extended this support for heavy industry. At the end of the eighties, this integrated model started to fall apart. As the ship wharfs in the North of Amsterdam went broke at the end of the seventies, a shift in governmental strategy started to appear.

The first instances of this development take place in Amsterdam in the beginning of the eighties, when branding and marketing strategies are used to attract new residents to the city or to depressed areas of the city, in order to upgrade them. The creative industry policy appears in the nineties, which makes the attraction of human capital for urban cmpetition into a new policy guideline. Illustrative of the transition with regards to the urban population is the appearance of the SWOT analysis in governmental policy oriented at depressed neighborhoods. Suddenly it is the location that has the problem and not the inhabitants. These problems are inherently different, being one of image, and a weak position in the real estate market. The key to the significance of the SWOT analysis is that the inhabitants come to be depicted as a threat or weakness for the neighborhood. The notion of “one-sided composition of the population”, becomes a recurrent motive in planning documents legitimizing the wholesale demolition or sale of social housing.

The transformation of the Northern waterfront is an expression of this new strategy. The new developments in Overhoeks, Buiksloterham and the old NDSM terrain are primarily oriented at the attraction of pioneers. With the focus on creative industries a new industrial policy sets in, that primarily revolves around creating working and living milieus for higher educated and well capitalized part of the population. While the official goal of the plans is to bring the North back to the waterfront, more realistically it entails the colonization of the North by it’s rich neighbor, the centre of Amsterdam.

In the shift from social engineering to spatial engineering, social democracy exits it’s classical territory and enters the identity crisis it finds itself emerged in presently. In the new model of spatial engineering, social democrat politics finds itself caught in a split. The new industrial politics is aimed at fomenting the creative industries, and at attracting a higher educated workforce. Welfare entitlements no longer serve as a competitive advantage and become a symbol of economic backwardness. Social democrat politicians no longer know how to merge the interests of the lower classes with those of the middle class.

The populist right has jumped in this hole and have appropriated the legacy of social engineering. Resocialisation camps are on the agenda again, though now for the immigrant underclass. A new, more interventionist and more repressive government is in the making.


Dijk, A. & Stephen Steinmetz (1983) Asterdorp. Uitgeverij Monstrans, Amsterdam.
Ottens, E. (1975) Ik moet naar een kleinere woning omzien want mijn gezin wordt te groot. Gemeentelijke Dienst Volkshuisvesting, Amsterdam.
Dercksen, A. & Loes Verplanke (1987) Geschiedenis van de Onmaatschappelijkheidsbestrijding in Nederland 1914-1970. Boom, Amsterdam.
Smit, F. (2001) Arie Keppler. Wonginghervormer in hart en nieren. Toth, Bussum.
Gemeente Asterdam (2004) Amsterdam Ruimte voor Talent. Gemeente Amsterdam, Amsterdam.