“A completely stonen city seems to me a kind of horroscenario. Green is the calm component of the city, a constant factor. That is why I have a somehow obsessive relation to trees. Trees are to me something very important in urban life. I think I could never miss this basic quality.”
Bjarne Mastenbroek


BCJ: Bjarne, You are a friend of nature living in the in the center of Amsterdam. How do You perceive nature within a dense urban environment? BM: A completely stonen city seems to me a kind of horroscenario. Green is the calm component of the city, a constant factor. That is why I have a somehow obsessive relation to trees. Trees are to me something very important in urban life. I think I could never miss this basic quality.
The Netherlands do not know any real urban density, that is why inner-city green is mostly reduced to trees. The need to make real green spaces within the city is not seen. BCJ: Do architects have an influence on that? As You mentioned earlier, the profession is more and more reduced

Bjarne Mastenbroek: The realisation of green is only made possible by building enough square-meters next to it. In contradiction to this economic fact neighbours and future inhabitants always push the building volume down within the planning process. They think of highrise-buildings of the sixties which makes them afraid of height in general. What they do not realize is that in this way pressure on width and depth of the built volume grows bigger – and green has to be skipped.
What we fight for in all our plans is to care for a balanced proportion of built and not-built and an immediate connection of the inhabitants’ living environment with a high-quality green space.

BCJ: Especially families leave the city for suburbia because they miss green and free space for playground and recreation. What should one offer them to stay?

Bjarne Mastenbroek: The GWL- quarter in Amsterdam is a good example. It is a beautiful neighbourhood. I know some families living there. With the private and public gardens and the close Westerpark they do not miss much. However, the flats are too small for families with many children, that is the only problem. But the environment, a slow traffic zone and the well designed outside spaces are greatly accepted. There is always need of a buffer between living, playing and traffic – it can take many different shapes.

BCJ: Energy shortage and climate change are no pessimism any more but reality. However, sustainable buildings are often very technical and do not touch as aesthetically. Yet recently we witness a new ‘green aesthetic’, especially in some french designs such as by Edouard François, Roche & Sie and others. We need a new beauty, a movement comparable to the modern 20ies.
Together with Dick van Gameren you built the Oeverpad housing block in Amsterdam Slotervaart with its green courtyard, which feels quite like an urban oasis.


Bjarne Mastenbroek: These projects become more and more impossible, because they are more expensive than standard: nobody wants it. The only way for us to do it is keep struggling for it against all odds. There is a system of building production and commissioning which keeps itself running. The moment a developer dares to say: I want a different, a better design – there are ten others who do it for the lower price and he goes bankrupt.

So there should be exstremely strict governmental rules which say: a house with a garden is impossible, but what You get is a good appartment with a beautiful balcony and a good outside space within the city. Because we are not going to stuck in the traffic jam all together every morning getting into town and in the night getting out.

BCJ: There is also a growing interest in single groundbound houses within an urban context.

Bjarne Mastenbroek: Here lies a fact I do not agree with. The prize of the ground beneath a groundbound house is much too cheap in this country, and the ground-prize of where appartments stand on is much too high. If the prize was actually a true reflection of the costs made for infrastructure, transport and building, appartments would be much cheaper and attractive for both developers and clients. A single house in the Polder [dutch artificial grasslands, red.] needs all these facilities and infrastructure and is a sacrifice of open landscape. Much more expensive actually than appartments in the city docking on all kinds of existing networks, making these even more efficient. Cities become, in spite of digital networks, even more important, economic concentration around them. The density of our cities should be higher.

BCJ: You say that we architects do not have any more influence on the process of spatial planning, that we just give a more or less nice form to a building mechanism ruled by the principles of economic growth. You say that we miss strong governmental rules. If You had a free wish to say: give me that tool, and I will make it, what would that be?

Bjarne Mastenbroek: A very clear vision, which is detached from finances. First vision, then finance. And the vision is: a dense city with high quality green spaces. What bothers me, is that if we continue expanding our cities with the actual speed, You don’t want to know how this country will look like within twenty years! We have to build less fast and much better. I complain a lot about this situation, and my anger is my drive to make it better.
Very often our office has to struggle for its proposals because they provoke resistance, yet a lot turns out to be faisable with a strong spatial quality and people recognize this in the end.


Questions and translation by Kathrin Hanf and Daniel Höwekamp for BIOTOPE CITY JOURNAL