Moshe Zwarts: City under the City 
An interview with Prof. Moshe Zwarts, director Zwarts & Jansma
Early 2008 an ambitious plan was launched to realize roads and car-parks under Amsterdam’ historic city centre, called AMFORA [Alternative Multifunctional Underground Space Amsterdam]. This is a plan by Strukton and Zwarts & Jansma. This infrastructural plan solves parking problems and contains facilities for sports, leisure and recreation.
The proposal for a city under the city of Amsterdam is to construct a network of 60-meter-deep (195ft) underground tunnels to provide up to 6m square meters of new space in the crowded historic center. MovingCities talked with Professor Moshé Zwarts from Zwarts & Jansma Architects about his proposals for an underground city in Amsterdam, a plan floating in-between futurism and necessity, the challenges involved in construction and culture, the state of the city, Amsterdam’s ambition to make it to the UNESCO World Heritage List and the possible future of the plan.
- – –
Who asked you to think about the Amsterdam underground city project?
Moshé Zwarts: About three months ago Strukton, the construction company, had the idea to think, from a technical point of view, about this possibility of a the construction of a city under the existing Amsterdam. They contacted us because we did a lot in civil engineering projects like bridges, parking garages… Strukton asked us to make a series of images, drawings and impressions. The essence of the exercise was to show what a plan like this could mean for Amsterdam. So we didn’t make a design – due to the complexity of it we need much more time – but showed how such a city under Amsterdam could look like. That was a nice exercise.
In the plan for an Amsterdam underground city the focus is on solving the problem of parking in the inner city of Amsterdam, that is the area that is enclosed by its canals. What where the criteria for additional programs?
MZ: The objective was to find a solution for the ground level of Amsterdam. Today it is almost impossible to walk there as the canals are full of cars. The question that is how to bring all these cars to another level? Strukton calculated that an underground solution would be economically viable when you build about six layers under the city. The argument for this is technical and economical as you need to make walls that are at least 30 meters deep. Going six layers underground means you can create a lot of space, about 6 million square meters. It would not be a good idea to use this space only for cars and parking.
At the other hand, people do not like to go underground, that is natural. In our plan we decided to keep the shops at ground level, as it brings life to the city, and to put those programs that do not need daylight, like cinema’s, sporting facilities, and supermarkets, underground. In our drawings we focused on the possible relations between these activities. Finally we present an image in which, disregarding the level one is on, one always sees a broad range of activities and feels the presence of other people.
Where does for Zwarts & Jansma lies the challenge in a project of this nature?
MZ: In my opinion there are two main challenges. The first one relates to the question how to design a tremendously big area where people feel comfortable. The second one is to think about what happens on the ground level of Amsterdam when one creates those levels under the water. Once the cars are gone from the ground level, public transport can take over. One can also use the canals in a complete other way, you can even swim in it as the water becomes clean. Today the buildings around the canals are devoid of any real public functions, there is a lot of housing and a lot of small and bigger offices, but fifty years ago there were shops over there. With our drawings we foresee that this plan brings new life to the street level. By placing the entrances to the underground city on the ground floor of the adjacent houses, both parts get connected and therefore livelier. But this is something you cannot really design, it grows by itself.
When did you first made this plan public?
MZ: That was on an international conference for building under the ground, on 29 January 2008, a conference entitled: ‘Enlightened Underground – Underground Space Challenges in Urban Development’.
The plan attracted immediate media attention, being both acclaimed and controversial. Some called it a cellar under the city, others a city under the city. What is it in your opinion?
MZ: I do not like the first expression, it is not a cellar. In my opinion it is a city under the city. We didn’t expect this immediate media attention. Absolutely not. We thought it was an interesting plan and that we might get some reaction, but the reaction was crazy, also from abroad, from BBC World, the Guardian and the Times. Currently we are really taking the next steps as we get invitations from different political parties. We talk with them, have other talks with some of the eldermen while Strukton is talking with private investors and the engineering office of the city of Amsterdam. Of course it is impossible to start next year, but there are a lot of possibilities at this moment to go further.
Amsterdam is trying to make it for more than three decades on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Is this plan a strategy to preserve the old city and make it finally onto this list?
MZ: You are the first one to ask this. I think the city must be happy with an idea like this. Of course there is an element of preservation, but the most important aspect is to create a lot of new economic possibilities in the city. You need that for a living city. The official policy in Amsterdam is to ban all the cars from the inner city. This is a fairly impossible ambition as there is currently no public transport system to support this. At the same time more and more companies move out of the city centre due to the traffic and parking problems. This turns the centre into an empty, dead, old heart of Amsterdam. That is the worst thing that can happen.
During the past decades the implementation of underground structures, like the subway line, has created a lot of tensions within the city of Amsterdam. These structures have left some scars in the city. How do you avoid such a thing with your proposal?
MZ: The system of the canals dates back to 17th century. It is so strong, beautiful and a really fantastic structure. Along the canals a lot is changing. When you analyze which houses are from the 17th century and which are not, there are more buildings from other centuries, than from the 17thcentury. So the system is strong, you can change things without disturbing the structure. I do not mean to change all the old houses, I am against this, but the structure has potential, and the plan continues to exploit this structure. The first subway line did not use this structure, and the second metro is better, because the techniques are better. In our plan we only want to build under the canals. I think it is very strong to use the structure of the city for infrastructure. I do not see this as a radical plan, this is a normal plan, this is the size of what they did in the 17th century when all these canals were built within a few years. If they could do it, we can do it.
Is there a lot of pressure on the city of Amsterdam to re-invent itself and update its urban functioning in this way?
MZ: I give you an example. About 20 years ago we had an official city office that was set up to rebuild the banks of the IJ. They made plans and nothing happened. After five years they closed down the office. After this you get something I call anarchistic as I do not know how it happens, but today you see a strip of 5-6-km along the banks of the IJ-river that is new and ready. That is something strange in this city. When you do it the official way, you get problems. So there is a combination of doing things unofficially, while at the same time you obviously need the city to cooperate.
Your office is part of a real Dutch tradition, where there is a necessity to combine engineering with architecture. How do you see this relation and how does this translates in your designs?
MZ: Before establishing the office I was professor at TU Eindhoven and TU Delft. My teaching always dealt with the relation between construction and architecture. My interest lays in how to use technique to give shape. In the 1990s I started working together with Rein Jansma, he was in his 20s and I in my 50s. We like to see ourselves as some kind of inventors as we like the technical part of the profession. At the time people said we were a high-tech office, but we didn’t call ourselves like that. We always denied it but, I admit, it was not completely untrue. Today we are still inventors, we like to experiment with techniques but you do not see that as clearly as before in our designs. But we also couldn’t make a project in which construction is not important. Today we have much more freedom in our shaping, because we feel more free due to the computer.
Which projects do best explain your work?
MZ: That is a rather difficult question. One recent highlight is the light rail in The Hague; in this project construction, town planning and big scale merges into one. Our first important project was an underground station in Rotterdam, Wilhelminaplein. It was also our first expensive project where we could work with sustainable construction, sustainable materials to keep it maintenance free. I still like this project. Another project is a big infrastructure work in Enkhuizen, in the north of Amsterdam. We designed a highway situated under a lock. We didn’t only give it shape, but created a complete new landscape because there came a lot of soil out of the Ijsselmeer. So we made an artificial island and a very nice house for the lock guard. For me, the best project is always the one I am working on right now.
How do you see the future of it, now the plan for the Amsterdam underground city is in public?
MZ: I have no idea. Yesterday I talked with the people from Strukton and they informed me that the mayor of London invited them because they also have a possibilities with the river Thames. Maybe we build it first in London and then in Amsterdam (laughs). I do have no idea.
What was the strangest reaction on this plan?
MZ: Maybe the reaction of this group that calls themselves the Friends of the Inner City. One of them published a small article stating that the plan was absolutely crazy. These are people that resist change, and refuse to think about other possibilities. For them the past is better than the present. I hate people like that.
- – –
– – -
Professor Moshé Zwarts interviewed by Bert de Muynck
Zwarts & Jansma office | Amsterdam, the Netherlands | March 11, 2008
New underground city planned for Amsterdam | Telegraph (Feb 9, 2008);
New underground city planned for Amsterdam | WAN + podcast (Feb 12, 2008)
Amsterdam looks underground to ease congestion | The Guardian (Feb 21, 2008)
(back to movingcities interviews page)