Part of the

Amsterdam, the Magic Center Art and counterculture 1967-1970

Jul 7, 2018 until Jan 6, 2019

Longread — Jul 27, 2018 — Eric Duivenvoorden

In the sixties the city hall plans to transform Amsterdam into a modern metropolis, with unrestricted space for the city’s expanding office sector and traffic network. An extensive metro system will open up Amsterdam’s business district and rapidly transport commuters from the new housing developments in the suburbs to the city center. Yet, as the decade draws to a close, Amsterdammers from all segments of society rebel against these blueprints for a new city.

Amsterdam in decline

The municipal policy of the sixties pursues a program of aggressive urban development designed to promote commercial and financial services at the expense of the inner city’s residential function. In the new “city,” dwellings are increasingly viewed as obstructions. The strategy decimates housing stock in the city center. By the sixties, large tracts of the capital are poorly maintained and decaying. Many properties in the Grachtengordel (canal belt) stand vacant and are due to be torn down or converted into a modern office complex, shop, parking garage, or hotel.

Residential neighborhoods on the fringes of the historic center were designated for renovation or demolition in the 1930s and since then have been left to rot—a state of affairs that the war years only exacerbated. As the sixties progress, homes on Kattenburg are bulldozed and, before breaking through to the Haarlemmer Houttuinen, hundreds of homes are sacrificed to the wrecking ball, while the Jordaan is on the verge of becoming an airy, spacious residential area with a business district to match. The first office monolith appears on Bickerseiland and apartments are being torn down in the Nieuwmarkt to make space for a throughway to Central Station. What’s more, if no one acts quickly, the belt of nineteenth-century development—from Spaarndammerbuurt to the Dapperbuurt—will almost certainly collapse from sheer misery.

Extensive regeneration and urban renewal are on the agenda but, apart from the Wibautstraat and the Weesperstraat—Amsterdam’s own Stalin Allee—very little has materialized by the late sixties. First, new residential developments need to be built in the expansion areas of Buikslotermeer and Molenwijk in North Amsterdam, and in Geuzenveld and Osdorp to the west, not to mention the Bijlmermeer, where apartment buildings are shooting up at an alarming rate by the end of sixties. Here lies the future for most Amsterdammers who are forced to move out of their former homes and abandon the old city to the wiles of unscrupulous urban planners.

Ban the bank 

The first major conflict concerning the inner city’s future erupts in late 1966. The Algemene Bank Nederland (ABN) is about to build a gigantic head office on the Vijzelstraat, and the plans have been approved. Many believe the project is ill-conceived, partly because the building, designed by Marius Duintjer, towers over the surrounding, smaller-scale historic architecture, and also because it is the latest of many urban redevelopment projects to be foisted upon the city. Led by architectural heritage conservationists, opponents of the ABN project bare their teeth for the first time, chanting “Ban the bank!” in their war to block construction. Their efforts are fruitless. The municipality stands its ground, and the ABN colossus is shoved down Amsterdam’s throat (fig. 1).

For the moment, opponents do nothing but bark—they haven’t yet decided to bite back. Towards the end of the sixties, however, this starts to change. Adding their voices to the storm of protest against the gigantic ABN building, youthful activists demonstrate just how much they care about what happens to Amsterdam. With the slogan “Keep your City Livable,” the Provos and the Socialist Youth party organize a demonstration and a teach-in against the ABN project. As the group worst hit by the housing shortage, which has been unremitting since the end of the war, young people have a stake in this, too. Throughout the sixties, these young postwar baby boomers sign up en masse for homes that simply do not exist. 

Some months earlier, the Provos presented the “White House Plan”. (fig. 2) However, the plan amounted to little more than a call to occupy the city’s innumerable empty buildings. At this stage, no concrete steps are taken in that direction. Young activists are content to team up with the venerable members of architectural preservation societies such as the Bond Heemschut and Hendrick de Keijser, and (in the background) the distinguished club De Amsterdamse Kring. All are respectable organizations that, due to the “steady destruction of unique urban beauty” and “attacks on our most important cultural heritage” in the late sixties, are campaigning ever more forcefully to save Amsterdam’s historic city center from ruin. Remarkably, the collaboration leads to a sizeable coalition of incipient activists and representatives of the traditional societies founded—and still led—by the very same Amsterdam patriarchs against whom the new generation are rebelling on other fronts.

Ban de bankier (Ban the banker), cover design unknown, 1966, Collection International Institute of Social History (IISG)
Fig. 1 Ban de bankier (Ban the banker), cover design unknown, 1966, Collection International Institute of Social History (IISG)
Witte Huizenplan (White Dwellings Plan), pamphlet, 1966, Provo, Collection International Institute of Social History (IISG)
Fig. 2 Witte Huizenplan (White Dwellings Plan), pamphlet, 1966, Provo, Collection International Institute of Social History (IISG)
Na ‘Sit In’ en ‘Love In’ nu een enorme ‘Live In’ in Amsterdam (After “Sit In” and “Love In” now a huge “Live In” in Amsterdam), Amsterdaad ‘75, 1967-75, Collection International Institute of Social History (IISG)
Fig. 3 Na ‘Sit In’ en ‘Love In’ nu een enorme ‘Live In’ in Amsterdam (After “Sit In” and “Love In” now a huge “Live In” in Amsterdam), Amsterdaad ‘75, 1967-75, Collection International Institute of Social History (IISG)


Thus, it is not the students and Provos who lead the battle to preserve and restore the city in Amsterdam. The man at the helm of preserving Amsterdam’s architectural heritage, KVP councilor Geurt Brinkgreve, one of the first-ever such campaigners, resigns from the municipal council in protest after attempts to block the ABN project in the Vijzelstraat fail. In the autumn of 1967 he co-organizes a petition to end the decay and unnecessary bulldozing of the old city center. Under the name Amsterdaad 1975, more than a hundred thousand signatures are collected in a few weeks. These are sufficient to compel the city council, in early 1968, to make its first concession: the demolition of the Nieuwmarkt is halted to conduct further investigations into the existing plans to raze the neighborhood (fig. 3).

With this decision, an opportunity arises to seek a new (temporary) purpose for the quarter’s already vacant, shabby premises. In the Nieuwmarkt neighborhood the municipality permits a foundation consisting of architects, Provos, and artists to use a number of buildings originally destined for demolition. Known as “De Straat,” it would be a place where one could “learn, work, and play” in “freely accessible spaces, with equipment for welding, and other machinery you wouldn’t normally have at home.” Postponing the demolition allows the buildings where “De Straat” flourished to become a hub for community activists who will protest against the arrival of the metro until 1975. The De Pinto House, built in 1605 on the Sint Antoniebreestraat, is also spared. Although this fails to avert the arrival of the controversial metro, it manages to stop the construction of a broad thoroughfare through the neighborhood. 

In the mid-sixties, artists, bohemians, and other young people (including Jeroen Henneman and Johnny van Doorn) have already taken possession of the buildings listed for clearance in Kattenburg. But they generally did so without the consent of the owners or the municipality. This “Mokums Montmartre” (mokum is Yiddish for “place” and refers to Amsterdam), however, enjoys a brief existence. The wrecking ball ends up transforming one of the city’s oldest residential communities into a desolate sand pit. The plot is initially reserved for the offices and printing presses of the newspaper De Telegraaf, but eventually becomes a residential area, although one adrift in a sea of concrete and parking facilities, and with no shopping amenities in sight. Other than a handful of mock historic buildings at the tip of the island, not a trace of the old neighborhood remains.

Woningburo de kraker – doet het steeds vaker

At the end of 1968, Geurt Brinkgreve, who had established the Diogenes Foundation to restore and lease historic buildings to artists, gives a group of young activists access to a cellar at Koestraat 7, between the Oudezijds Achterburgwal and the Kloveniersburgwal. Here they start a small printing press and focus their efforts on such projects as saving the Bethaniënbuurt, which is threatened with losing much of its historic character if the municipality proceeds with plans for the area’s urban renewal. As long as the young radicals concentrate their efforts on the inner city, they can count on the support of architectural conservationists. The activists spearhead unexpected, experimental protests and occupations, and publish Amsterdam’s first independent neighborhood newspaper (Geïllustreerd Bethaniënnieuws, or Illustrated Bethaniën News), leaving the moderate community and conservation groups to attempt to curb any further demolition of the old city at the negotiating table. But before long it becomes clear that the architectural heritage groups have their own agenda in this distribution of tasks. Their priority is to prevent the demolition of old buildings, such as the De Pinto House. The preservation of housing elsewhere in the city—and in the nineteenth-century belt in particular—is of little interest to them. In fact, as far as they are concerned, there is no reason to preserve this district as a “primarily residential area”; for all they care, the entire mess can be razed to the ground. The heritage conservationists consider the working-class neighborhoods as “potential urban areas” that could be redeveloped as office complexes and parking facilities that would otherwise be an eyesore in Amsterdam’s historic center. Areas they deemed especially suitable for this purpose are De Pijp, the Dapperbuurt, the Kinkerbuurt and the strip between the Amstel and the Wibautstraat.

With the end of the sixties in sight, hot-button redevelopment topics included not only slum clearance, but the future site of the University of Amsterdam, and the A-faculties in particular. As student numbers exploded, pressure to expand the city’s dwindling housing stock mounted. The university was in favor of eventually relocating the entire institute to Flevoland, or to a polder between Muiden and Weesp. But the city council was determined to keep the university in the city. In the end, precisely for this purpose, the municipality had set aside the old islands of Uilenburg and Marken (Valkenburg) for years, as well as the area around the Oudemanhuispoort and the Binnengasthuis. They considered the Dapperbuurt as well. As a result, the houses there, which are standing on land intended for the prospective new metro line, fall into decay. Even though there are no concrete development plans at this stage, the council decides to demolish the first housing blocks in the Dapperbuurt.

A group of activists who had once worked with the architectural preservationists in the Nieuwmarkt and the Bethaniënbuurt takes a very different view. In the basement of the restored building in the Koestraat, they put their heads together, come up with a plan, and create a new brand of activism. One of the activists, former Provo member Rob Stolk, has recently completed a pending prison sentence dating from his Provo period, based on an alleged inflammatory “subversive letter” opposing the council’s demolition policy. While imprisoned, he struck on the idea of applying the term kraken (which literally means “to crack,” and soon became synonymous with squatting) to breaking into and occupying premises. The term was normally associated with the activities of thieves and bank robbers. “Woningburo de Kraker (doet het steeds vaker)” (The Squatter’s Housing Agency) is established to protest the housing shortage in general, and the vacant properties due for demolition in the Dapperbuurt in particular. (fig. 4)

Handleiding Krakers (Squatters Manual). Cover design Tjebbe van Tijen. Collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Gift of P. Boersma, 2018
Fig. 4 Handleiding Krakers (Squatters Manual). Cover design Tjebbe van Tijen. Collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Gift of P. Boersma, 2018
Kraakactie Nationale Kraakdag (Squatting campaign Annual Squattingday), 1970, Spaarnestad/ANP Photo: kraakactie Aktie '70
Fig. 5 Kraakactie Nationale Kraakdag (Squatting campaign Annual Squattingday), 1970, Spaarnestad/ANP Photo: kraakactie Aktie '70
Kraakactie Nationale Kraakdag (Squatting campaign Annual Squattingday), 1970, Spaarnestad/ANP Photo: kraakactie Aktie '70
Fig. 6 Kraakactie Nationale Kraakdag (Squatting campaign Annual Squattingday), 1970, Spaarnestad/ANP Photo: kraakactie Aktie '70

Squat vacant buildings

Other squatters’ groups rapidly spring up. In addition to Woningburo, Buro De Koevoet and the Commune Nieuw Nederland are established. The latter group attempts to be the first to squat properties outside the condemned parts of the city, on the Damstraat and on Museumplein, in the summer of 1969. The police, however, eject the squatters immediately. Yet growing numbers of young people continue to occupy the city’s abandoned buildings. At sites designated for clearance and urban redevelopment, buildings stand empty. Young people move into these premises on an increasingly larger scale in the course of 1970, motivated more than ever by opportunities to lead alternative lifestyles, such as communal living or combined living and working space. Squatting effectively conjoins the overall battle for the city and the fight against urban renewal with the new generation’s justifiable self-interest in desiring a place of their own.

Aktie 70 is the Department of Housing of the Orange Free State, the shadow republic founded by the Kabouterbeweging. Together with Socialist Youth they organize the first National Squatters’ Day on May 5, 1970 (fig. 5). On that day, several buildings are squatted in Amsterdam, but the squatters are evicted hours later by the police. A great deal of legal tug-of-war will take place before the Supreme Court rules in early 1971 that there are no legal grounds to eject a squatter who is settled on the premises and possesses least a table, a chair, and a bed. This ruling results in squatting taking root and spreading through Amsterdam like wildfire. As a strategy, squatting proves a formidable weapon in the fight against urban redevelopment and will define the flavor and fabric of the city until deep into the eighties. Ultimately, it will lead to the inner city regaining its residential function and to many empty buildings receiving a new (cultural) role that reflects the new era. It also means that a large number of young Amsterdammers are able to live close to the center, because the entire nineteenth-century belt remains a residential area.

Eric Duivenvoorden (The Hague, 1962) is a Dutch sociologist, philosopher and publicist. Among other things he wrote books about the history of the squatters' movement and Robert Jasper Grootveld. In 2015 his work Rebellious youth. How nozems and provos changed the Netherlands, was released by publishing house Nieuw Amsterdam.