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NDSM is a former ship building factory in North Amsterdam. Abandoned in the 80s during the wave of European de-industrialization, it lay empty for many years until it was squatted by artists and activists. Being quite a distance from central Amsterdam, NDSM became a free haven — a terrain of artist studios and creative living set-ups that existed outside the immediate influence of the Law. Here is a short history of the place.

NDSM has been slowly ‘legitimized’ and incorporated into the mainstream culture of Amsterdam. With regular free ferry service from Centraal Station, and fantastic views of the city from its waterfront, NDSM has become home to many beloved and often-frequented party venues and restaurants. NDSM also hosts the monthly IJ-hallen market, one of “Europe’s largest flea markets”, attracting many visitors from around the city and beyond. With the opening of MTV studios, NDSM had made the full leap from illegitimate and ‘free’ artist haven into a fully incorporated, and prosperous, district of the city.

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Of course NDSM retains the flavour of its artistic, squatted past: that’s why people love it’s vibe so much. Many cultural links from the past inhabitants of the space have been retained, along with a majority of its aesthetics. NDSM is home to abandoned Trams that people live in, venues built out of shipping containers, and enormous industrial cranes that are clear homages to its history of ship building. (Though it’s funny now, to see the smaller construction crane that has popped up beside the ‘heritage’ one — a sign of capital now being invested in NDSM. While the past is frozen as a monument, the crane re-emerges as a phenomenon that repeats itself symbolically, though with an entirely different purpose. After looking into it more, it turns out the heritage crane is being converted into a luxury hotel! 😮 ).

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It’s somewhat of a shame that NDSM has lost its political, ultra creative routes. But in general, the project is quite successful in integrating an immensely creative space into the wider city, while letting the creativity breath. (Also, ADM, further west in the city’s port, remains an illegal squat in a former shipbuilding yard, where the essence of the artist/free haven NDSM continues to live).

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Quite impressively, the incredibly large  ship-building warehouse of NDSM has been slowly converted into an indoor village of artist studios. The Kunststad (Art City) is an impressive and novel project that looks and feels like a small European town has somehow sprouted under the shelter of the warehouse. The streets are curving and narrow, and the front facades of the studios — each its own structure — address each other pleasantly. There is even a second floor of city streets the criss cross above the ground-floor laneways. It was amazing to explore this space with my father, and how good and functional it felt — how interesting the site lines of the warehouse were, and the enjoyment of climbing stairs to get a closer look at the machines that hang from the ceiling.

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It at first surprised me to think that the concept of an indoor city has never quite taken off architecturally. But I think that if this were ever planned or designed intentionally by an architect, it would never be a success. The indoor village that has emerged in NDSM is a product of a rich, organic phenomenon. Amsterdam was forced to reinterpret the behemoth structures of its past, and like a city built in a valley or the base of a mountain range, NDSM has treated the warehouse geologically, constructing something that works accordingly.

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