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Re-developing history; turning a shipyard into a creative haven

In the western part of Amsterdam-North, there is the former NDSM shipbuilding yard. The NDSM (Nederlandse Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij) shipbuilding company operated from here up until 1985. When in 1990 a storm tore down the already abandoned portal crane, the largest crane on the shipyard, it marked the symbolic end of the shipbuilding industry in Amsterdam. To this day, there are just a couple of companies left in the business. The large industrial buildings and shipbuilding cranes remained, however, and are mostly still here to this day.

The area decayed over time with the buildings being in an increasingly bad shape until redevelopment started in the early 2000s. The redevelopment ramped up in the early 2010s when businesses started to settle in the area (which has a great free of charge ferry connection to the Amsterdam Central station), among which MTV and Hilton. Another notable and very visible development is the last remaining crane on the eastern part of the NDSM shipyard; between 2011 and 2016, this crane was turned into a hotel. The large buildings also have mostly been conserved and stamped monuments by the government. While some of the buildings still have minimum maintenance done to them and are only being used occasionally, others have had a whole renovation in order to turn them into space for commercial activities. In other places, completely new building activities have taken place, but within the style of the old buildings. Currently, the municipality of Amsterdam has an extensive plan to turn the whole area into a shared working-living environment which largely isn’t yet begun; most of the shipyard is still empty space and original. It’s a great spot to visit if you happen to be in the area.

Our story starts in the 1920s when there were two competing shipbuilding companies in the area that is now the NDSM shipyard. The NDM (Nederlandse Dok Maatschappij) and the NSM (Nederlandse Scheepsbouw Maatschappij) yards at that time were only separated by a municipality-owned potato field. Beginning in the 30s, the board of NSM began making plans for a merger between the companies. The NDM had its own machine-building factory and was seen as a fierce competitor by the NSM. A hypothetical fusion would render it harmless. However, a fusion would not happen until after the War, during which both companies would build ships for the German occupiers and see damage from confiscated goods in the later years. Despite all this, however, the post-war years are described by Galesloot (2007) as worry-free years for the competing dockyard. Orders for building ships to replace those that were lost in the war were pouring in, and the ships that did survive were in many cases badly damaged and needed repairs in order to sail again. Customers needed to reserve slots on the yard years in advance in order to get their ships repaired or built.

In 1946, the merger finally happened. The potato field was bought from the municipality and the companies would from then on operate under the same flag. Due to the competitive past of the now-unified NDSM, the employees would remain rather hostile to their new colleagues. Over the years, this would fade away.

While the building of passenger ships was a common sight at the shipyard before the war, it became increasingly rare afterwards. The focus shifted towards building cargo ships and oil tankers. The increasing oil consumption in the world made the oil trade thrive more than ever, and so did the shipbuilding industry. At some point, the yard began facing difficulties fitting the ships into the shipbuilding ramps and drydocks; the ships were just getting too large. Instead of enlarging the docks or relocating the shipyard, however, NDSM decided on using a new method for building the ships. Aside from the spatial difficulties, building ships this large would increase the difficulty of building the ship as well, as the construction needed to comply with stiffness regulations. The solution? Building half the ship in a dock, the other half in another one and welding them together while afloat. Smashing a bottle of champagne on the bow of the ship as is tradition was not deemed appropriate on such a half-ship as it rolled down the ramp into the water. Another specialization the NDSM developed was taking existing ships and welding additional sections in the middle to make them longer.

Throughout the years, as the Netherlands became increasingly prosperous, the heavy workload of shipbuilding became less and less appealing and worker shortages started to occur. The purchase of a holiday home on the island of Texel and the building of houses for the employees in Amsterdam-North did not change this. Guest workers from Italy and Yugoslavia filled this gap for a while, but it was to no avail. Inexpensive competition from Asian shipbuilders and personnel shortages doomed the company in the end, forcing it into bankruptcy in 1985.

Aside from many buildings still being here to this day, some floating heritage of the NDSM is also still here. A notable example is the Bonte Zwaan floating office building (which was a shipbuilding niche NDSM invented) which can still be found in the Houthaven area in Amsterdam-West. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any ships listed for sale that were built by NDSM, and due to their age, I doubt there are any left. The site that remains today, however, is in redevelopment.

The NDSM yard is often regarded as a cultural hotspot in Amsterdam. Terms like “broedplaats” (breeding ground) and cultural free space are often used when talking about the area. The institutionalization of this reputation began in 1999 when a plan was proposed to the municipality to turn the NDSM yard into the largest cultural free space in Europe. While this did not happen (the NDSM area is still the largest cultural free space in Amsterdam), there has been a progression in terms of cultural sector developments. The largest building, the Scheepsbouwloods, has partly been turned into a space for artists called “Kunststad” (city of art). MTV Benelux also has its headquarters located in a former ship construction building (the Timmerwerkplaats).

The shipbuilding industry has been of great influence on the development and the people of Amsterdam-North. Since the calling for the preservation of the area’s buildings and landmarks has been legitimized when buildings and the shipbuilding ramps on the yard were marked as national heritage, its cultural significance as a mark of the past is undeniable. Several buildings have also been declared architectural heritage. Furthermore, as a remembrance to the shipbuilding industry, there is a monument placed on a roundabout further to the west of Amsterdam-North, which was also part of the industrial area.

In my opinion, one of the most important developments on the NDSM yard in recent years is the construction of the Theo Fransman bridge that connects the Papaverweg and the eastern NDSM shipyard bridging Zijkanaal I. According to 2003 plans, the bridge was first intended to carry light, slow driving traffic and public transport buses, but in its current form, however, the bridge is only accessible for cyclists and pedestrians. Construction of the bridge started in 2012 and finished in 2013 (Straathof, 2012). It has been in use ever since. Newspapers praised the improved dynamics in the Buiksloterham after the connection was made. The area is developing from an industrial environment into a space for living and working. The construction of the new neighbourhood Hoekpoort is one of the more visible signs of this.

"Overzicht bedrijf NDSM met schepen" by Joop van Bilsen / Anefo 15-6-1954 (via Wikimedia Commons)
“Overzicht bedrijf NDSM met schepen” by Joop van Bilsen / Anefo 15-6-1954 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Another reason for the construction of the bridge is the plans for the development of the NDSM area into a dense working and living environment (as seen in both the municipality’s 2003 and 2011 plans for the area). The bridge ensures a better connection with the Buiksloterham and the 24/7 ferry to the central station. Before the construction of the bridge, cyclists and pedestrians relied on using the – what was called – NSM bridge after a renovation from 2016 to 2018. The name of the pre-renovation NSM bridge, the Langebrug, is controversial due to its similarity to another place in Amsterdam.

Plans for the redevelopment of the area date back to the nineties when just a small portion of the shipyard was in use for small scale commerce. In the Masterplan ‘Noordelijke IJ-oever’ from 2003, the bridge is first seen as a connection between the Buiksloterham and the NDSM yard, meant for slow traffic, cyclists and public transport. Another proposed idea is a branch from the Noord-Zuidlijn (which was at that point expected to be finished in 2012) that would turn all the way to Zaandam to have a station at the NDSM. A coalition deal in the provincial council from 2019 indicated that there will be research into this plan before 2023.

Businesses in the proximity of the Buiksloterham side of the bridge and overall eastern NDSM yard profit from the new connection that made the NDSM square a cycling route. On the NDSM side, food and service-oriented businesses like the Noorderlicht, Pllek and IJkantine restaurants profit from easier access from the rest of Amsterdam-North and in extension, the central station ferry to the other side of the IJ. On the Buiksloterham side, examples include the Undercurrent event location, whose guests profit from quicker access to the NDSM ferry and bike storage on the other side of the canal among other things. Twice a month, there is a large flea market on the NDSM yard, which not only attracts Amsterdammers but also tourists visiting Amsterdam. Since the beginning of this “biggest flea market in Europe”, the event has gained popularity. Electronic music festival DGTL also uses the NDSM yard as its partying ground every Easter. The Theo Fransman bridge is also part of the planned cycling route “Langs ‘t IJ” which will almost certainly increase traffic over the bridge and into the NDSM area.

Overall, I think the future of the NDSM area looks bright. Businesses that have settled profit from new connections, new neighbourhoods and increased traffic. Events such as the flea market and DGTL have opened up the yard for the larger audience, and even the (usually city centre-oriented) tourists. Residential developments will fill up the area in the future, but the spirit of the gone by years of the heavy industry will remain, as will the buildings and the crane.

Hansje Galesloot’s 2007 book “Van oceaanstomers tot mammoettankers – een eeuw scheepsbouw in Amsterdam-Noord” is a very complete work about the history of the shipbuilding industry. I would very much recommend this book to anyone interested.
The 2011 plans for the area can be found on the website of the municipality of Amsterdam.
The 2003 Masterplan for the area is from an internal publication of the municipality with a limited printing run.

This article was first published in the Girugten Lustrum Edition (Year 50 of Girugten – issue 02 –  May 2021).



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