Monday 28 August 2023

A Bitch That Needs To Be Tamed

The word, Gein, in Dutch, translates to English as "joke".

Amsterdam.  You shady bitch.

With the M53 now complete, it was time to head back out into the city's suburbs for the M50/M52 branch.  This was the final set of stations for me to collect to complete the entire Metro.

Gein, much like Gaasperplas, was on the edge of the city in every sense.  Once again I was out in a world of social housing and relative poverty, of immigrant stores and community centres.  The shopping street that extended from the station inland wasn't packed.  The main source of activity was the Jumbo supermarket, a chain I've always liked for its "does what it says on the tin" name - "yeah, we're a big supermarket, we're Jumbo, what's your problem?" Beyond it was a water feature with a small terrace lined with tables with chess sets inlaid in them.  The bird mess and general scratches decorating the black and white boards hinted that they maybe weren't used a lot.

From here, a footpath with a cycle route alongside took me through the estate to the next community along.  It was heavily shaded with trees and bushes, while the houses turned away from it, showing only their gable ends.  If this had been England I'd have been wary, waiting for muggers and rapists and murderers to leap out of the undergrowth.  Because I was abroad, everything had that glamorous patina of holiday, and I strolled along, thoroughly charmed, not thinking I could ever experience any kind of danger.  I sometimes worry that my sheer levels of stupidity are the only thing stopping me from being beaten to death, that psychopaths look at me and decide I'm actually too dumb to bother with.  I passed a bench where a large black man had a speaker system blasting out reggae music; next to him, on the same bench, a toothless man with a can of something in his hand (I'm guessing it wasn't sugar free Fanta) rolled around in a sitting dance.  The man with the speaker studiously ignored the person rocking out eight inches from his face; there may as well have been a forcefield between them.

Approaching the centre of Reigersbos, I was passed by a middle aged Asian couple.  He was bent over, a bag of groceries in his hand, while she wore a big floppy canvas hat and was carrying a gourd.  I'm not a biologist.  I know nothing of vegetables that you can't get from Sainsbury's Fruit & Veg aisle.  All I know is that this lady was carrying a foot long yellow fruit that could've been used as a weapon.

Reigersbos precinct was almost exactly the same as Gein.  Pink paving, a few shops, nothing you'd travel too far to visit.  1970s modernism with concrete and glass.  It did, however, have an architectural feature I found utterly thrilling.  There are some things that just appeal.  I like tilework.  I like steps.  I like symmetry.  I like pointless grandeur.  But one of my favourite things is transport going through the middle of a building.

It is, in many ways, dystopian, and I'm sure the people who live either side of the metro tunnels are furious several times an hour, but from down at street level it was unbelievably thrilling.  It was Gotham or Coruscant or Mega City One, and yes, I know none of those are exactly the ideal place to live, but it was still the future, and I loved it.  

Reigersbos station got a similar makeover to Ganzenhoef, except by that point the money was starting to run out.  The original 1970s building was demolished and replaced with a steel and glass version but there was none of the flourishes of Ganzenhoef, none of the charismatic moments.  It was a rebuild that felt more practical than artistic.

An interesting ("interesting") feature of Amsterdam's transport network is how late they were in building suburban railway stations.  I guess the idea was that Centraal was such an effective hub, with trams and buses radiating out from it, you didn't need silly little stops outside the city centre as well slowing things down.  It lead to strange situations like Holendrecht, where the metro station opened alongside the Amsterdam-Utrecht line in 1977, but they didn't build mainline platforms until 2008.  That's so weird to me.  Surely the more interchanges the better?

This might be a good time to broach the topic of the refurbishment.  You might have noticed, in the many, many sign selfies that I've taken, that the Oostlijn ones usually involve a red tiled frieze.  One like this:

These signs aren't original to the metro's construction.  In fact, they're newer than the Nord-Zuidlijn, having been installed between 2016 and 2019.  The Oostlijn's problems had continued beyond the riots that greeted its construction.  Drugs gripped the city throughout the 1980s, and the metro stations - dark spaces under viaducts with seats and lighting - became a prime spot for dealers and users alike to hang out.  A system of methadone buses introduced by the city's authorities to try and alleviate the problem made things worse, as they used the stations as convenient stopping points to treat addicts.  

Amsterdam was also being attacked by another problem: graffiti.  The original stations had been designed with ridged concrete walls which the architects proudly proclaimed would make it difficult to scribble on.  This was when the worst you could do was use chalk.  Unfortunately, spray paint suddenly became commonplace, and those ridged concrete walls became incredibly difficult to scrub clean.  The city eventually covered the walls up with drab panelling or a plasticised formulation to cut down on maintenance costs.  The lifts were enclosed metal boxes that people used as toilets, to the extent that some stations had cat litter scattered at the bottom of the shaft to absorb all the urine.  Add in a general increase in station clutter - ticket gates and cables and lights - and the Oostlijn was tired and run down.  One politician, Alderman Eric Wiebes, called it a "bitch that needs to be tamed", which is so brilliantly Dutch they should've immediately made him Prime Minister.

The architectural firm Group A was given the job of restoring the network and making it suitable for 21st century.  They stripped back the walls to reveal the concrete again; new treatments developed since the stations were built could be applied and meant they could resist graffiti without compromising their look.  Lifts were rebuilt in glass, open for everyone to see, so they no longer acted as urinals.  Windows were introduced as much as possible to create open spaces, while at the same time, leaving you with nowhere to hide, while lighting was introduced throughout to illuminate the dark spaces.  Each station was given an expanded ticket hall where the machines and services were integrated into the wall to stop vandalism.  And then there were those tiled signs, designed by René Knip, finally giving each station the identity it deserves.

I had no idea about all this at the time.  All I saw was an attractive metro network, clean, tidy, with Brutalist touches that thrilled me and those lovely tiled names.  I found it all out afterwards via a wonderful book called Metro Oostlijn Amsterdam which I highly recommend buying if you've got any interest in station architecture or urban design or if you just like looking at pretty pictures.

Outside Holendrecht, they built a bus exchange, where I had my one and only negative encounter with a member of the Netherlandish public.  An agitated man, who I am pretty sure was recently at the hospital next to the station, approached and barked a lot of Dutch at me.  I could only stammer a reply of, "I'm sorry, I'm English", which is, let's be honest, something we should probably say whenever we talk to foreigners.  The man was unimpressed and marched off to find someone more able to help.

Across from the hospital was an office park and I vanished into it, following bland avenues between tall buildings.  It seemed that this was undergoing some regeneration of its own, with older blocks being demolished and replaced by shiny new ones.  What looked exciting and futuristic in 1981 was dated and tired.  If they hung on long enough it might become retro and fashionable again.

One thing that made me laugh was that, for some reason I couldn't quite understand, these new gleaming office blocks had all been named after friends of your mum.  I spotted Dorothy, Rosalyn and Barbara; presumably Phase 2 will include Elaine, Val and Lynne.  I followed the road round, with the noise of the motorway getting louder and louder, and on the horizon was the entrance to the Gasperdammertunnel.  If you cast your mind back you'll remember that I'd actually walked over the top of that tunnel earlier in the day; I was ridiculously pleased to see it again from a different angle.  

Under the motorway was less fun.  The Dutch are the tallest people on the planet, with the average for men being six feet, and yet they build their underpasses with seemingly the bare minimum of clearance.  I'm only five foot nine but I could reach up and touch the underside of the motorway bridge.  The men of the country must be permanently cracking their head on things.  Incidentally, what's this obsession among gay men with six foot?  Everyone thinks they're scraping that height, and they go all gooey the more over the bar you go.  I don't get it.  Personally I love a Short King; I like to be able to look over the top of your head.  When I first met the BF I thought he was shorter than me, and I remember the disappointment when I stood up and realised he was an inch taller.  

On the other side of the road I found myself at the back of a blue and yellow Ikea, because some things are constant no matter where you are in the world.  Again, the signage was in both Dutch and English, and once again I must ask of the Netherlands: who hurt you?  Why do you hate your native tongue so much?

Tucked in amongst the boring office blocks and hotels was a small garden, De Proefzaak, which accompanied a tin shed that housed a brewery.  It looked scrappy and defiant amongst the ordinary cubes, and I thought back to the community restaurant near Verrin Stuartweg station that was closing for redevelopment.  I wondered how long it would survive here before another business hotel bought the land and turfed them out.

Bullewijk station was simple to get to, a straight path leading to the escalator hall (which Metro Oostlijn Amsterdam has informed me are called "sphinxes", because of the way they poke up over the tracks).  Unfortunately, that day the building site next door had spilled over onto the path in a way that I don't think was 100% local authority approved.  Heras fencing had been erected to completely seal off the route.  The result was a lot of confused passengers trying to work out how to reach the station; in the end we picked through the weeds and grass around the canal, dropping down below the road level, while the workers watched us.  They didn't seem to be actually doing anything, of course.

That sign on the bridge apparently translates as I Stand For You.  No, me either.  An encouragement for polite behaviour when you spot a pregnant lady on a busy train?

I can't look at those lift shafts the same way since I learned about the cat litter.


Tim Binsted said...

You are travelling around the many placces in A'dam that I have worked at. I worked right in the centre and then in many places oustide (Zuid-Oost). Also Diemen-Zuid etc. I don't live in A'dam but in a small town about 75 minutes away by train. When working in A'dam many people simply do not use the metro. A bike is more than enough. Thus the metro is far less essential than in other towns. Further A'dam is a very small town. Walking to Holendrecht from A'dam Centraal is not far, about 12 km and on the bike about 30 minutes. If you go the next stop from Holendrecht there are farms.
Enjoying your stories.

Scott Willison said...

Thanks for your comment Tim! I'm glad to hear I haven't embarrassed myself in front of a local. I do appreciate that the bikes are top of people's transport list in the city, but I'm just not a bikey person. It can't compete with a nice metro station :-)