Fog: An Experience in High Rise Living

Much like the majority of European capital cities, Amsterdam has undergone a raft of changes over the past decades, transforming itself from the halcyon days of the centre of the European hippie movement to a thoroughly global city enthralled with the gentrification that economic success brings. However there is one thing about Amsterdam that has not changed; the fog. A winters morning in the Dutch capital can often afford a hazy, ill sighted view of that which surrounds. It is so prevalent a phenomenon that Albert Camus, in his novel The Fall (1957) described it as a “cold, wet place where a thick blanket of fog constantly hangs over the crowded, neon-light-lined streets”. I lived in Amsterdam for just under a year whilst studying at the university, where for the majority of that time I resided in a room on the ninth or a ten story high rise tower block. My home was situated in and amongst the much maligned Bijlmermeer (colloquially shortened to Bijlmer) area of the city, in Amsterdam Zuidoost, the youngest district in Amsterdam with it being created in the 1960’s.

Plan Voisin
The Bijlmer

The Bijlmer (above) was initially comprised of 40,000 dwellings arranged as high rise honeycombes, in order to obtain some sunlight each day. The area was built in accordance with the principles of The Charter of Athens, the modernist architectural manifesto penned by the Congrès Internationaux d’architecture Moderne (CIAM), a congress focussed upon modernist architecture and was attended by amongst others Le Corbusier. The controversial architect devised the Plan Voisin (above) in 1924 where he intended to flatten the medieval Marais district of central Paris and in its place build a brace of identical cross shaped high rises, each isolated from each other and thus eliminating social life on the ground; a total rupture from its spatial reality. This plan, as anyone who knows anything about Paris knows, did not become reality, but from Pruitt Igoe in St Louis, Elephant and Castle London, the Parisian outskirts to Amsterdam and the Bijlmer, the logic of high rise creation did become physically manifest.

The Bijlmer was the largest undertaking of modernist design in Europe and thus represents a marked divergence in urban planning from the rest of Amsterdam. The Dutch capital is famed for the beauty of its narrow cobbled canal lined streets and the slim, elegant houses which populate the centre, yet beyond this centre and out towards the periphery the Bijlmer was created for a need unique to post war Europe. After severe bombing, the Dutch government needed to house a displaced population efficiently and in a means which was affordable. It was the teachings of the CIAM and its manifesto which ticed the right boxes. Thus the project began with the intention to house the middle classes in uniformly identical apartments – no one apartment was better than the other, as is the logic of utopian modernism – in the spirit of build it and they will come.

Yet in scenes echoed today by projects in China, ‘they’ did not come, with the targeted residents instead choosing to move to newly established suburban settlements outside of the city, to places with low rise housing such as Almere. This lack of demand left many of the apartments empty, that is until the independence of Suriname in 1975. When the former Dutch colony gained its independence, 100,000 people emigrated across the Atlantic and took up residence, many in the Bijlmer. Around the same time the buildings were starting to become long in the tooth, maintenance was needed to prevent the buildings from, essentially, breaking down. Yet, in scenes reminiscent of J.G Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’, the lifts stopped working, rubbish was flung from balconies and a heroin crisis made the upper levels of the buildings dangerous to residents.

The Bijlmer slid further and further into decline until a devastating and cataclysmic event occurred on the 4th of October 1992 when a cargo plane suffered a multiple engine failure whilst flying out of Schiphol airport and crashed into one of the high rises. Officially 36 people died, yet this is surely a conservative number as the building was home to a number of undocumented migrants, meaning that it is almost certain that more people perished in the accident. This internationally broadcasted news event thrusted the Bijlmer into the limelight, forcing the government to increase the nascent regeneration project already underway in the area. Today a number of the high rises have been levelled, with cheap low rises in their place, yet some still remain, such as the one I lived in (below).

Groenhoven: My former apartment block.

I have provided this brief historical overview of the Bijlmer to provide a context to living in a high rise building, to offer a surrounding, a background to a description of living in a space which is, by its very being, high and removed from the ground it rose from. Richard Sennett, famed urbanist and sociologist has previously written about the high rise building ala Le Corbusier, stating that ‘he got rid of life on the ground plane; instead, people live and work in isolation, higher up’. This was certainly the reality of what I experienced as a resident of a high rise development, the verdant green surroundings of the ground plane, as seen above, were infrequently used by residents, the play area below my window was often without play and the open greens used as shortcuts for a quicker route home from the adjacent metro station rather than sites for football or picnics. Yet it was in the winter months that the vertical and horizontal planes of existence were severed.

I doubt I will ever forget the first really foggy morning I experienced in Amsterdam. Bleary eyed on my way to the kettle for the medicinal first coffee of the morning before heading into town for lectures or the library, I looked out to my left through the French glass doors which opened themselves up to our living room balcony. To my surprise I could see nothing but grey, a static, as if the television windows of my abode were detuned, picking up the unwanted space between channels, the distant highway and McDonalds sign invisible, the ground smothered in this grey shroud. The fog acts as a literal severing of perception, my home could have been two stories above the ground or 100; I was spatially desensitised.

However the literal foggy mornings serve as a surrogate for a deeper understanding of what high rise living is about. For the fog enters into the building itself, not just literally in the form of condensation, but also metaphorically. As mentioned above the ground plane is banished and physically removed from that of the vertical, and therefore so are the living spaces, meaning that you only socially see other people in the close proximity of the built environment. I would speak to my neighbours – most often cursory greetings but sometimes lengthy conversations – in the confines of the lift or in the small landing outside our apartments. The horizon which bordered our interactions was stiflingly close, unlike if we encountered each other in a public space, the semi-public enclosed space of a landing reduced the social realm to a small number of people. Like talking to someone in thick fog, the surrounding world was a mystery, distorted and influenced by a perceived understanding of what the outside could be.

However the visual element of fog is only a small part of the experience. For, living in a high rise apartment, you are often aware of other people’s presence sonically. Be it the washing up of a housemate, the music of a distant party or the sound of a moped cutting through the air on its way up to your ears from the ground below; sound is a constant phenomena. I had the misfortune of living below loud neighbours, where, in muffled and distorted tones, I could hear much of their life, be it shouting arguments in the afternoon or love making in the morning, the full spectrum of a life could be listened to, like it or not. The thing is I saw these people a handful of times, yet I knew of their existence without seeing them, like a sound emanating from the fog.

The visual impact of fog upon perception is obvious, ask any driver who has headed out on to a foggy motorway, but there is also an impact upon aural experience with fog. According to ‘The Weather Guys’ low-frequency sounds travel better through fog as the water-droplets in the air interact with sound, attenuating and dispersing it. Low-frequency sounds sustain for longer, meaning the sound is coherent for longer; hence why a fog horn is low and deep in sound rather than the screeching of a police siren which is relatively high in pitch. In high rise living, it is the lower frequency sounds which travel through the walls and floors better, sounds like bass notes in music, thuds from dropped items or heavy feet, slamming doors and booming voices also pervade the floors adjacent and below the locus of sound, meaning that the same sounds which travel best in fog, travel best in an apartment complex.

This article which entwines history and autobiographical experience has endeavoured to provide a suitable metaphor to the experience of living in a high rise building. I am convinced that describing a high rise living situation as living in fog is accurate. Sensually one is limited to what they can see and with the separation of the ground plane as a space of mobility and the small spaces of the vertical acting as the social. A resident is most likely to encounter their fellow residents and neighbours in either close encounters in the lift or the landing between the lift and the door home, or through hearing them. A residents vision, like in the fog, is limited by the architectural properties of the building, the concrete prevents the eye to spot the source of sound, thus it is removed from view, which is a somewhat disorientating experience, one is aware of the presence of others but are unsure where they are. In the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty ‘the hidden […] is present in its own way. It is in my vicinity’. The experience of living in a high rise then is living in and amongst the perpetual presence of the hidden. In the same way that fog hides that which is present, the concrete and the vertical shroud the resident from the surrounding realm, from that which they know exists and what they exist with.

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