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The Tapestry

Social problems have a great impact on the use of public space. The arrangement of public space will not be able to solve these problems; no misunderstanding about that. However, precisely because public life determines public space, it is important to bias the organisation of public space to a social context. This design is not about solving social problems, rather about a well-considered approach to organising public space. Because its interest not only depends on the critical judge, but on public life, this design is a reflection on its environment, in which it will consequently be able to fit to measure.
The problems in this former workers’ neighbourhood are considerable. In particular the influx of immigrants is a cause of much trouble. There are many tensions between immigrants and original inhabitants. I endeavoured to investigate the consequences of the social and cultural changes in this underprivileged area, and whether they offer opportunities for arranging public space. I want to mention two aspects, because they are at the base of this design for the Amerhof.
Social control has largely disappeared in this neighbourhood. The sense of responsibility is confined to private space, which results in an almost complete lack of accountability standards for public space. Rather than sharing a sense of responsibility, various parties claim their rights.
In underprivileged areas the connection is often made between a decline of standards of living and a changing population mix, resulting in contrariety between the different populations.
The entire Amerhof, from Roerstraat to Lingestraat including the school yards of the ‘Blokkendoos’ kindergarten and the protestant Van der Hulst school, has been paved in the pattern of a Persian rug. On my request, the Moroccan artist Hamid Oujaha made a design for an Islamic tapestry ‘to be laid out on Dutch territory’. Executed in three shades of Dutch brick, the rug lies off-axis lengthways on the Amerhof, perpendicular to the Roerstraat. As a consequence of the rug’s repetitive pattern, a structure for placing trees, benches and lighting emerges.
The visual integration of the available public space with the two private school yards results in one large square. The brick tapestry slides past the fences of both school yards which causes the activities on them to become part of life on the square. There are no sidewalks or raised areas. When stepping outside their homes, people are on the square right away. In fact, also the residential private gardens are not in front of but on the square. Thus, on various levels, the borderlines between private and public space have become blurred or erased.
Strange customs and traditions are often hard to accept for others. In this kind of quarters there is often the feeling that the neighbourhood is in decline. For many people a sense of sub-standard environmental quality proves to be a reason behind many other problems they have. Because they have no perspective in this life, they disqualify themselves and others. The lack of attention the government is granting them, is interpreted as a lack of personal value.1 A high quality design of public space could be apperceived as positive attention, in which case it would contribute to the quality of public life.
In the light of the massive contradictions in this neighbourhood it is important that different groups can experience the space as ‘theirs’. Also, the square has to be open to claims for different uses, which is why there are no attributes for special usage. The accent is on creating space, in stead of filling it. In other words, a piece of Dutch territory has been arranged in such a way that people from different backgrounds can recognise themselves in it.
For ages already, Persian rugs have been appreciated by the Dutch. In thousands of family homes this icon of Islamic culture lies on tables or floors. On the Amerhof, the floor has a Persian covering. On it are placed seven bronze Christian lambs, as play objects for the children of the kindergarten. Perhaps it will become clear that particularly these children live in a neighbourhood where there are emerging new relationships between residents.

Source: Hans van Houwelingen, clarification design commission Amerhof Utrecht, Amsterdam 1992
1. ref. Frank Bovenkerk, Vreemd volk, vreemde gevoelens; reportage on the relations between Dutch and foreigners, after a field study in Utrecht, Boom, Meppel 1985