Ever Changing Waterfront

note: to pronounce “IJ”,  say “eye” but then more like “I-eeh.”  But not too much on the final “eeh.” 

The IJ in the Eye of the Beholder

Two new books show the old and new of our busy water banks.

By Sunny Bleckinger

The old industries and the squatters were pushed away from the southern banks of the IJ some time ago, replaced by new apartment buildings with waterside views. Photographers Henk Wildschut and Raimond Wouda are among the folks who miss the old dirty dockyards. They’ve spent years documenting what’s left of it, and their new book, A’dam Doc.k, presents a view of the IJ’s industrial workers and working situations—the first documentation of its kind in roughly fourty years.

For them, the comparison between the erstwhile industrial harbour and the new IJoevers is very important. ‘Those new areas are for fast moving, good communicating, good looking people,’ says Wildschut, while walking past an enormous dry dock near NDSM. ‘Here, there’s more a sense of community. If this will be pushed out for the creative industry, that will make me really sad, and nostalgic.’

Specializing in group and individual portraits, Wildschut is interested in human interaction. ‘[Regarding shipyards], people have this image of tough, working men,’ he says, ‘but they’re actually very sweet, and vulnerable.’ This is seen clearly in their new book, which has numerous shots of men during and after a hard days work.

‘This one is funny,’ says Wildschut, looking at a picture of three grungy workers. ‘I asked them to pose, and this other guy walks up and sits on his lap. Normally, with CEOs and other working groups, I put them closer together to see their intimacy zones, which gives an interesting vibe, a level of discomfort. But with these workers, I didn’t have to ask, they’re already naturally close.’

‘These men work 20, 30, 40 years for the same company,’ adds Wouda, who grew up in the small labour village Tuindorp Oostzaan. ‘That makes them very reliable, loyal. Not only friendly, they’re also honest and sincere. This is very valuable.’

Another photo shows a worker in only underwear, cleaning his flip-flops in the locker room. ‘I wanted to show the routine,’ says Wildschut. ‘Everyday, this guy washes up, puts that mat on the floor and cleans his sandals. He’s had that mat for thirty years.’

Complementing the portraits are Wouda’s large scenic port photos. ‘Harbour work is still inside the city,’ explains Wouda, ‘but most people don’t really know about it. This book can be a guidebook for the people who live here.’

Their previous book, Sandrien, documented a Bolivian tanker riddled with asbestos. The ship, soon tangled in bureaucracy, was moored in the Amsterdam harbour, and the matter remained unresolved for years. Wildschut and Wouda photographed the stagnant life of the mostly Indian crewmen, who were no longer receiving paychecks. Six weeks after their book was published, the matter was resolved.

‘That’s an example of how we try to make books in a documentary style,’ says Wildschut. ‘But we don’t make any money with them,’ he smiles. ‘We’re just happy if we can break even.’

On the other side of the water, Sabine Lebesque, architecture historian and advisor for the ontwikkelingsbedrijf (development company), a branch of the gemeente, recently finished Along the IJ, a guidebook about the fast developing southern banks. She and co-author Daphna Beerdsen filled the book with a dizzying array of factual information, including architects, building dates and commissioners, all coupled with photographs of existing structures and digital representations for those still coming.

‘It was a helluva job to get the figures right,’ says Lebesque. ‘There are no city records of architects, commissioners, etc. Other guidebooks made mistakes in the past and we corrected lots of them.’

As for viewing the new development with apprehension, Lebesque points out that growth is part of the city’s history. ‘Amsterdam has been building into the IJ for centuries,’ she says. ‘The funny thing is, when you look to what happened when Central Station was first built, there was also suddenly big development happening on Prins Hendrikkade. For example, under the Victorian Hotel you still see little houses below it. The owners at the time did not want to move so they built the hotel over it.’

She also highlights the importance of the city council having allotted certain areas for cultural buildings, like the Muziekgebouw. ‘They chose to build this on a prime piece of land. It is of course, a very elite building, but you could imagine if they chose to be more commercial with the space, there would be some sort of IMAX theatre there.’

Of strong importance to Lebesque are the city’s urban plans, which dictate how and what is built along the IJ. ‘On the Oostelijkehandelskade, the plan was to make a long strip of buildings as a kind of train, with the Muziekgebouw as the locomotive. The buildings are all sleek and no difference should be seen between the housing and offices.’

And it’s not only for rich people. Next to large office buildings, you have buildings like the Gibralter, for social housing. ‘The city ensures that all areas have thirty per cent social housing.’

She points to a picture of a prison-like square structure full of windows without balconies. It looks unmistakably like social housing. ‘At the moment, that’s a big issue,’ she admits. ‘People don’t like this building. But you must remember: this is just one strip of land. You can complain about it not having gardens or balconies, but there are enough people that like it that way.’

Lebesque finds the development on the north side of Central Station particularly appealing. ‘This was always considered the back of the city—the bad area,’ she says. ‘But the new approach will make the water the new center—a promenade, where everything is happening.’

She also emphasizes the IJ’s mixture of old and new. ‘There is this old push boat on Minervahavenweg with people now living on it. Near that is a trendy design—still in development—which is attractive to young creative businesses. And near that is an ugly office building.’

The book makes a point of not ignoring the ugly buildings, which inevitably pop up in any area. ‘It’s not a selection of good architecture per se, there are some very ugly buildings in the book. But every structure has a story, and this says something about the city.’

A’dam Doc.k and Sandrien are published by Stichting Bytheway, with limited distribution. Along the IJ is published by Valiz and is mostly sold out. Reprints are being made. Your local bookstore can order all three.