Netherlands: Rebuilding the forbidden city

6 January 2010
De Volkskrant Amsterdam

Philips industrial complex in Eindhoven. Photo : Caruso St John Architects
Philips industrial complex in Eindhoven. Photo : Caruso St John Architects

On the immense site of what was once the "Philips forbidden city," work is underway to build a new neighbourhood. The development plan, the largest of its kind in the Netherlands, will bring new life to a town that has always identified itself with the electronics group.

For the citizens, of Eindhoven, the Philips estate had always been a familiar — if somewhat ominous — presence on the horizon. Most of them had never come close let alone set foot in any of its buildings. The Strijp-S neighbourhood, which housed the electronics group's research and development campus, was a tightly guarded fortress, closed to anyone without an access badge.

So it is not an exaggeration to say that the next few years will transform the heart of Eindhoven. After 90 years, the "Philips forbidden city" will slowly but surely open up to accommodate the Netherlands largest urban development project. When it is completed in 15 years time, Eindhoven will have a second town centre, where its citizens can live, work, teach, shop, and enjoy entertainment facilities, that is worthy of a major city.

28 hectares right in the town centre

The 28-hectare Strijp-S was once the pride of Eindhoven. It was here that Philips grew to become the worldwide household name we know today. Strijp-S was where several generations of radios and televisions were assembled, and where the first ever audio cassettes, CDs and Video 2000 systems saw the light of day. And it was here in 1927 that Queen Juliana made her first ever broadcast speech — high points in a splendid past, that was finally laid to rest when Philips decided to withdraw from the site in the 1990s. Production lines were transferred to other facilities — mainly located abroad — and research and development activities were moved to a new High Tech Campus in the suburbs. As a result, the citizens of Eindhoven were left with a huge disused site, backing onto the railway line, and only a short walk from the town centre. The question was: what should be done with the Philips Stadion sports stadium, the colossal buildings that used to house the Philips technical school, and the surrounding residential areas, which had also been built by Philips?

The campaign to prevent Eindhoven from demolishing the historic buildings as soon as they became vacant — a solution which was all too prevalent in previous decades — was largely mounted by one man, architect and project supervisor, Adriaan Geuze, who presented a plan to preserve the monumental factory buildings, and redevelop them as dwellings and offices. In areas where warehouses and offices had already been demolished, he proposed to construct high-rise buildings and residential complexes that would accommodate more than 2,500 apartments. The overall goal was not just to develop a new neighbourhood, but to transform Strijp-S into a "Creative City," which would make Eindhoven a leading centre for innovation in technology and design.

The new Creative City

The bulldozers continue to come and go, while certain buildings have already been filled with young entrepreneurs, taking advantage of the cheap rents and doing their best to ignore the inconvenience of the surrounding construction site — among them, furniture designers Kiki & Joost, who were among the first to move into the vast workshop spaces provided in a series of three white industrial buildings dating from the 1920s. But the "Creative City" is not all work and no play. The site also offers huge skate park and the PopEi music institute — two initially temporary installations, which have proved so popular that they now have been definitively included in the project — and work is already underway to redevelop the Plaza Futura theatre and cultural centre, and set up a new subsidiary of the Van Abbemuseum municipal museum.

At the same time, Philips will continue to maintain a presence in Strijp-S. The electronics group is to take charge of a number of large scale experimental urban lighting projects, which will include such innovations as illuminated road surfaces, a "light gate" at the entrance to the neighbourhood, pavement systems that light up when buses approach, and a main street without streetlights where all the lighting fixtures are installed in trees and facades. In so doing, the company which started out as a bulb maker will continue to contribute to the reputation of Eindhoven as a "city of lights."

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