Built on reclaimed land, the Dutch village was meant to fulfil a modernist vision of rural, communal life. But like any settlement in the countryside, it has had to adapt to survive, writes Peter Smisek.
‘God made the country and man made the town,’ wrote English poet and evangelical preacher William Cowper in 1785. This was, of course, nonsense. The countryside has to be maintained, otherwise it becomes wilderness. But it can always be recovered again and refashioned to suit new inhabitants. Nowhere is this process more evident than in Nagele, ‘a new village on new land’ as it was referred to at the time, designed by a number of notable figures from the Dutch architectural avant-garde between 1947 and 1954 as one of the villages in the newly reclaimed Noordoostpolder (North East Polder).
The design of this village may be new, but the land it occupied had a long history. It once formed the banks of Flevo, a large inland body of water in the north of the Low Countries. By the Middle Ages, rising sea levels, continuous coastal erosion and occasional catastrophic floods had turned the lake into a full-fledged inland sea called the Zuiderzee, submerging the settlements around today’s Nagele.
A number of plans were tabled to reverse this encroachment, the most viable of which came from the engineer Cornelis Lely in 1891. His plan called for the government to build a vast dam across the Zuiderzee and reclaim four areas of low-lying land, known as polders. A deadly storm flood in 1916 and food shortages throughout 1917 provided fresh impetus for the government to enshrine the plan into law a year later. That Lely had become the minister of water management by this time probably helped too.
Preparatory work started in 1920 and the Zuiderzee was closed off between 1927 and 1932. Work on reclaiming the 48,000ha Noordoostpolder, on which Nagele would be built, began in 1936. The reclaimed land would have a central town of about 10,000 inhabitants, surrounded by a ring of five villages, each with a population of about 2,000, about 8km from the centre; these in turn would be ringed by smaller hamlets. This wasn’t a radical new reimagining, akin to Ebenezer Howard’s town-country hybrid, but the recreation of an idealised agrarian province. By 1946, however, the plans for smaller hamlets were scrapped and the number of villages had grown to ten. Only one, Nagele, would be designed along modernist principles by De 8, CIAM’s Amsterdam-based chapter.
Like all of the others, the village was initially meant to contain 300 homes, three schools and three churches, with the middle classes living at its centre and farm labourers on the perimeter. This last part of the brief did not sit well with the architects. Gerrit Rietveld tried to produce a series of less hierarchical plans, but it was the young Aldo van Eyck who came up with the most convincing solution for a more egalitarian layout, which he elaborated together with Mart Kamerling in 1948. In their plan, Nagele would get a thick ‘cloak’ of trees to act as a windbreak and a visual boundary in the expanse of the new polder. Inside, an open central green with schools and churches would be surrounded by clusters of terraced houses aligned in parallel to each other.
It wasn’t until 1953 that van Eyck finally resolved the layout of the living quarters, in which rows of houses were clustered around communal courtyards in a centrifugal manner inspired by De Stijl. Once this plan was accepted by all the collaborating architects, which by now included the Rotterdam-based CIAM chapter De Opbouw, van Eyck tasked the landscape architect Mien Ruys to develop the planting scheme. Meanwhile, van Eyck designed the schools,
Van den Broek & Bakema designed the shops and one of the churches, while the housing was given over to the country’s foremost architects such as Gerrit and Jan Rietveld, Mart Stam and Lotte Stam- Beese. Nagele was their laboratory. Some developed new ideas here – van Eyck’s work on the school buildings, for instance, is reflected in his later and more famous Amsterdam Orphanage. Van den Broek & Bakema’s shops, meanwhile, were inspired by the office’s Lijnbaan project, Europe’s first outdoor pedestrian shopping mall in Rotterdam.
At the most recent count, Nagele had 1,920 inhabitants, almost exactly the number originally envisioned. But the notion of communal rural life never materialised. Mechanisation of agriculture meant farm labourers became commuters, or found employment in the adjacent light-industrial quarter. Two new clusters of houses, added beyond the southern side of the settlement in the 1990s, have upset the elegance and purity of van Eyck’s original plan. Car- ownership rendered half of Nagele’s shops obsolete, and secularisation did the same to its four churches. Two remain in use, one is a museum and the last one abandoned.
Nowadays, ‘the only village with flat roofs in the Netherlands’ – as the local museum proudly boasts – is once again becoming attractive to newcomers. It was designated an area of national interest in 2011 and new housing is intended to be built in lieu of the demolished shops, once an architect can be found to produce a plan that’s in keeping with the local character. This recognition has led to more sensitive renovations, but also a series of plans to make the village energy neutral. Despite the planners’ initial, purely agrarian intentions, Nagele has adapted to the socio-economic convergence of the city and the country, while staying true to its much mythologised, yet carefully constructed character.
This article appears in Icon 199, which explores the contemporary countryside.