Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam: From Industrial site to Cultural Centre
When changes take place in the industrial or economic climate of a city, there are often architectural sites that fall by the wayside and become redundant. An abandoned building that has outlived its original purpose either ends up as a derelict eyesore slated for demolition, or as Cinderella - transformed, upgraded and refurbished, ready to fulfill a new function. Architects call this "adaptive re-use" and it's an effective way to preserve heritage buildings while enriching the culture of inner city neighbourhoods. The redevelopment of the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam is an example of a dramatic overhaul that turned an uninviting industrial complex into an attractive, bustling cultural park.
Industrial complex in the city's west end
The Amsterdam neighbourhood of Westerpark was a strategic location for building a gas plant in the late 1800s, close to the railway and shipping port. During that era of industrial expansion, the Westergasfabriek (Western Gas Factory) provided coal-generated gas, primarily for the street lamps of the city. By the early twentieth century electric street lights had replaced the gas ones, but the factory continued to produce gas for heating and cooking. In 1959, when natural gas was discovered in the village of Slochten the Amsterdam factory was no longer necessary or viable. For many years the Westergasfabriek was used as a storage place for materials and equipment owned by the Gas and Electricity Authority and for vehicles impounded by the police force. Following designation of the complex as a historic monument in 1989, spaces were temporarily rented as artists' studios, but environmental concerns coupled with physical deterioration of the site finally forced tenants to move out. Proposals for revitalization and reuse were suggested by members of city council, developers and community groups. It was generally agreed that the site should be restored as a cultural park, but first a major clean-up was required.
Creating green space from brownfield
Initial testing of the grounds at Westergasfabriek showed high levels of toxic waste, including cyanide, asbestos and tar. Chemicals had been dumped in the cellars of buildings and on the surrounding land for many years. The Westerpark district council realized that the clean-up operation would be a long-term, costly process.
Sanitizing the site required removal and disposal of 1900 tons of polluted sludge. When the central gas tank was opened, local residents complained of the noxious smell that wafted throughout the neighbourhood. A tent with air ventilation and filtering equipment was installed over the gas tank to minimize the offensive odour during this phase of the project.
To contain and isolate the polluted soil in the park grounds, a geotextile material was spread over the landscape and topped with a layer of clean earth. This living barrier, one metre deep, was enough to prevent further leaching of contaminants.
American architect Kathryn Gustafson was hired to redesign the landscaping for the 13 hectare grounds surrounding the Westergasfabriek. Her plan was based on the theme of man's relationship with nature, connecting elements that charted the evolution of the park from formal gardens to the undeveloped Overbraken polder and natural wetlands. Features included trails and gardens, an events field for 10,000 people, a playground, waterfall, bridge and artificial lake. The stone-lined lake could be drained to accommodate a crowd during special outdoor events. The park was re-opened to the public in 2003 and the following year, won the Golden Pyramid Netherlands National Architectural Award.
Restoring the buildings, reworking spaces
The 13 heritage buildings at Westergasfabriek were originally designed by Amsterdam architect Isaac Gosschalk (1838-1907) in the Dutch Neo-Renaissance style. They featured yellow and red brickwork accented with light stone, ornamental eaves and stepped gables, presenting a striking combination of symmetry and elegance. The roof construction of the Zuiveringshuis (Purification house) was notable for its Polonceau rafters specifically designed to collapse in the event of an explosion, leaving the essential load-bearing structure intact.
Faced with major costs to bring the existing buildings up to code for community use, the district council sold the Westergasfabriek property to MAB (Meijer Aannemers Bedrijf) with the stipulation that it must be redeveloped with an arts and culture emphasis. Ton and Marya Meijer, MAB owners, partnered with the Westerpark district council to meet this objective. Their vision included spaces for commercial enterprises alongside community facilities, cultural resources and temporary events venues. A blend of permanent tenants and occasional ones would keep the atmosphere of the Westergasfabriek fresh and dynamic, with a constantly updated, flexible program of performances and activities.
The buildings were cleaned, renovated, and fitted with new vapour-proof concrete floors to seal contamination. By 2007, with the face-lift completed, the former industrial facility opened with restaurants, galleries, a bakery, daycare centre, art cinema and a nightclub. Large buildings such as the circular Gasometer are now used for hosting trade fairs, conferences and special events such as Fashion Week, Affordable Art Fair, Cinekids, and a concert by Bjork.
The Westergasfabriek was rescued from the brink of obsolescence and successfully retrofitted to become a tourist destination, a centre for artistic expression, a meeting place, an educational facility and a venue for presenting new media, avant-garde design and innovative technology. The adaptive reuse of an old gas works in Amsterdam's west end has become a model for communities and architects intent on saving and recycling built heritage.
"Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration."
- UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Westergasfabriek todayClick thumbnail to view full-size
For more information follow these links
- Cultuurpark Westergasfabriek
Uiteenlopende creatieve industrieën en horecagelegenheden vinden vast onderdak op de Westergasfabriek.
- Project Westergasfabriek
- New Life for Old Buildings: Adaptive Reuse | GreenBiz.com