© Ayash Basu | May 2017
Amsterdam's NDSM Werf
Most urban metropolises have a creative hub - a neighborhood, a corner or a few blocks - where the artists hang out. These spots are often characterized by street art and graffiti on walls and windows, and sculptures made out of twisted metal, plastic and glass. They are labeled as eclectic, cool and off-the-edge, offering artists a cheap canvas for creative expression. But often times, these areas become isolated, graced only by visitors from the "hipster clubs." One doesn't tend to see too many "non artists" in such places - the office goer, the woman with her kids, the baker and his crew, or the postman in the van. That was indeed my frame of reference for the NDSM in Amsterdam until a recent visit with a local photographer on Loculars revealed a different world out there.
In order to attract individuals beyond artists, a hub needs to be more than a "creative spot with free paint." The NDSM is exactly that: a cultural hub that enriches Amsterdam's eminence as a lifestyle city and a breeding ground for creativity, collaboration and entrepreneurship. The Dutch pragmatism of "if you can't eliminate a problem, then manage it profitably and sustainably" is very much at play here. The NDSM is Amsterdam's 21st century approach to another centuries old problem - prostitution - which hasn't been eliminated but is enveloped within a structure that manages it as reasonably as possible (considering the nature of the business).
A key tenet of the NDSM is the symbiosis of art and business, and the overlapping lines between the two to extend Amsterdam's social fabric across the river IJ. This has meant not only retaining the creative community through cheap infrastructure, but also attracting small and medium businesses through small, yet targeted investments. The result is a rich cultural hub: sustainable start-ups, manufacturing shops, innovative housing projects, social impact organizations, cultural and music festivals, and exhibition spaces that celebrate its creative residents.
The NDSM is an extension of Amsterdam and yet a stark contrast. Cobblestone streets, canals, boats, charming 16th century Dutch architecture, Renaissance museums, delicate cheeses and lacework give way to exposed steel, warehouses, brick facades, gritty street art, industrial size exhibition spaces and a vibe that feels marginally edgier than Dam Square or the Canal Ring. Yet, ferry boats transport hundreds of people every 30 mins back and forth from Centraal station free of cost - artists, technicians, entrepreneurs, musicians, constructions workers, employees, marketers, social media gurus, social workers, housing developers, restaurateurs and the people of Amsterdam.
Until having gone there, one might perceive the NDSM as Amsterdam's second cousin, trying but not quite there, a competent side dish but not the main course. But there is as much Dam quirkiness, Dutch charm and pragmatism, refinement and stimulation that makes this place tick. Very effectively. Take the Faralda crane hotel for instance, yes this crane on the edge of the NDSM offers three of the most spacious and high end suites in the world. Or, the Lasloods, a welding hangar back in the day, now being modified to be the largest street art museum in the world with 7,000 sq. meters of floor space, twice the size of the turbine hall at the Tate Museum in London. Or that, this defunct shipyard is now a hot bed for start-ups, emerging technology and social media companies as well as for larger established players like Red Bull, who have moved their Netherlands headquarters to the NDSM.
Today, some of Amsterdam's best festivals happen at the NDSM, and it is home to Europe's largest flea market. There isn't a clear and defined outcome for the NDSM beyond the aim of transforming it into a metropolitan cultural hub. What that will become in the coming decades remains to be seen. While the destination is unknown, the journey is based on clear cut frameworks - respect for the shipyard's history, functional spaces rooted in creative expression, re-cycled materials, and a shared lifestyle within its community. So far, the NDSM laboratory has delivered successful experiments towards establishing that sustainable cultural hub and not another isolated artsy neighborhood.