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Blauw Jan
In Amsterdam’s Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen, forty life-size monitors, agames and iguanas crawl through the grass in between the flowerbeds, or sit motionless among a chaos of bikes and mopeds chained to the perimeter of the small park. The highest concentration of bronze animals is around two spots which are important from an urbanistic perspective; at the crossing to the Max Euweplein and facing the bridge across the Leidsegracht. They seem to suggest that something is happening at these spots, although they could as well just dash off. On a seemingly random place in the grass between the flowers is a well, in which the water of the Lijnbaansgracht can be seen and the urban condition becomes clear.
A complex and chaotic urban situation arose when in 1913 the Lijnbaansgracht was covered. The Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen, which was laid out on top, is less an actual public garden than a cover-up with grass, bushes and flowers of a prosaic rupture of the Amsterdam canal structure. Its goal was to camouflage the maladroit position of the Amsterdam City Theatre, which was built over the Lijnbaansgracht, but it merely aggravated the urbanistic problem. Many an expert has since toiled over it and many attempts were made to improve the situation.
Now it is up to art to ameliorate the space and to manipulate the people. The design has to clarify the urban position of the garden and endow it with an appeasing, green character. The small park should not develop into a gathering place for people, although the promenade to the casino should be accentuated.
The appearance of the adjoining Leidseplein is mainly characterised by the people who make use of it; the square’s hardware is second to that. What counts is what the city has to offer to let people live their lives, but life dictates the ways of the city. The city generates a constant mental movement, which makes it hard to shape a ‘static place’. The Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen is a small park at the margin of this most crowded of Amsterdam’s plazas. Still, it has to be convincing as a public garden, as nature, offer repose and more or less isolate itself from its environment. The public park has to withdraw from the city, but the city won’t allow this. The problem can be solved if the park creates its own movement; takes in the town’s dynamism without loosing its function as a garden. Forty lizards try to achieve this and bring this paradoxical place to life. They are lizards, more than they are sculptures, many of them and spread throughout the garden, constantly on the move and underlining the chaos. A deep well in the garden suggests their provenance, their presence and their disappearance. They don’t speak about the space itself, but electrify it.
The pubs, the discotheques, the restaurants, De Balie, Paradiso, De Melkweg, the City Theatre, the cinemas, the neon signs, the taxis and the street cars, the street artists and the throngs of tourists make the Leidseplein into what it is. Still, it is an attractive plaza, not because of the surrounding buildings, but because it speaks to the imagination. It excels in ugliness and life. Nobody watches the buildings here, but everyone has a good time. Indeed, virtually all buildings around the square serve to stimulate the mind and the imagination. In the Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen, one has to imagine having stepped out of the city. Here, there is space to quietly enjoy life, study nature and recover from the turmoil. “Green and flowers appealed to the citizens of Amsterdam. Countless gardens attracted the people to spend their days-off. Artis [the zoo], or more stately put ‘Artis Natura Magistra’, already had a distinguished 17th century predecessor in Blauw Jan [Blue John], Jan Westerhof’s exquisite collection of animals and birds.”1
Lizards adapt to their situation. They survive winter and take on the temperature and colour of their surroundings. Sometimes they loose their tails, but they don’t die because of it. These attributes have made them symbols of eternal life by tradition. They represent both death and resurrection in a constantly changing world. That is the imagination of the Leidseplein: an ever shifting stage for an ever changing play, acted out by ever varying people.
A paradise during the day, at night the small park is a ghostly dark hollow in which, through mists of alcohol and drugs, one may just catch a glimpse of forty lizards; an urban delirium. Exactly why Jan Westerhof was known as ‘Blue John’ in the 17th century.


Source: Hans van Houwelingen, clarification of design proposal for Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen, Amsterdam 4 September 1991
1. Marjorie H.Bottenheim / A.M. de Waal, Uitgaan in Oud-Amsterdam, 1958