Amsterdam's NDSM Wharf

Most urban metropolises have a creative hub - a neighborhood, corner or few blocks - where the artists hang out. Such spots are often characterized by street art, 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, that offer artists a cheap canvas for creative expression. But in many instances, these areas can be isolated, only being graced by visitors from the "hipster clubs." One doesn't tend to see too many "non artists" in such places, such as the office goer, the woman with her kids, the baker and his crew, or the postman in the van. That was 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, manage it, generate money from it and make the process sustainable" 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 enveloped in a structure that manages it as reasonably as possible (considering the nature of the business). More importantly, safely and profitably.  

High quality, colorful graffiti grace many an old brick facade, changing weekly and constantly renewing the artistic fabric of the NDSM.

High quality, colorful graffiti grace many an old brick facade, changing weekly and constantly renewing the artistic fabric of the NDSM.

Container boxes being moved to form a venue for a street art festival in a few hours. The shipping containers have many uses, including a canvas. "Make art not €," prominently displays on a massive wall of one of the warehouses.

Container boxes being moved to form a venue for a street art festival in a few hours. The shipping containers have many uses, including a canvas. "Make art not €," prominently displays on a massive wall of one of the warehouses.

Portable toilets gel well with the background and are moved easily to festival and performance venues as needed, within minutes. 

Portable toilets gel well with the background and are moved easily to festival and performance venues as needed, within minutes. 

The local council authorities are involved in the maintenance and upkeep of the old shipyard; here water and sewage pipe repairs are underway.

The local council authorities are involved in the maintenance and upkeep of the old shipyard; here water and sewage pipe repairs are underway.

Shipping containers converted into colorful, modular, and super cheap student housing for emerging artists. Yes, it's basic and a metal box but one can't beat the price for being in the heart of Amsterdam. 

Shipping containers converted into colorful, modular, and super cheap student housing for emerging artists. Yes, it's basic and a metal box but one can't beat the price for being in the heart of Amsterdam. 

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 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, employees, marketers, social media gurus, social workers, housing developers, restaurateurs and the people of Amsterdam. 

Massive exhibition and display spaces used for gatherings, events and festivals are part of the Kunststad, one of the main hangars of the shipyard.

Massive exhibition and display spaces used for gatherings, events and festivals are part of the Kunststad, one of the main hangars of the shipyard.

The Kunststaad offers two levels of office space that renters can modify to their needs at very cheap costs. By my rough estimate, there must be at least 300 office spaces within this warehouse alone. 

The Kunststaad offers two levels of office space that renters can modify to their needs at very cheap costs. By my rough estimate, there must be at least 300 office spaces within this warehouse alone. 

Enormous art canvases (this one is 7 ft high) scatter the display halls, often shipped to other locations and then brought back to the mother ship. 

Enormous art canvases (this one is 7 ft high) scatter the display halls, often shipped to other locations and then brought back to the mother ship. 

A film crew waits for a business meeting with one of the local production houses. There are theaters, films, art projects, architectural designs, 3D prints, all happening right here at this ten thousand sq. meter shipyard.

A film crew waits for a business meeting with one of the local production houses. There are theaters, films, art projects, architectural designs, 3D prints, all happening right here at this ten thousand sq. meter shipyard.

Amsterdam's quirky charms are well reflected at the NDSM work spaces.

Amsterdam's quirky charms are well reflected at the NDSM work spaces.

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 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.

The Faralda hotel situated in a crane. The red cubes are super high end suites, offering probably the best views of Amsterdam. A hotel with 3 rooms situated in one of the tallest cranes in Europe, amidst rail tracks and abandoned carriages. 

The Faralda hotel situated in a crane. The red cubes are super high end suites, offering probably the best views of Amsterdam. A hotel with 3 rooms situated in one of the tallest cranes in Europe, amidst rail tracks and abandoned carriages. 

An enormous office space built on top of elevated rail tracks that were once used to haul frames and steel in and out of ships.

An enormous office space built on top of elevated rail tracks that were once used to haul frames and steel in and out of ships.

Love Holland, Amsterdam and the Noord.

Love Holland, Amsterdam and the Noord.

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 cultural hub and not another isolated artsy neighborhood.