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Back to the Future of the Creative City: Amsterdam’s Creative Redevelopment and the Art of Deception

Merijn Oudenampsen
February 2007


Sometimes it is necessary to dig into the past in order to illuminate the present. In this case, contrasting Amsterdam’s ongoing Creative City hype with a utopian precursor will hopefully shed some light on the contradictions inherent in the fusion between creativity and industry. For being a hype, the Creative City policy has shown remarkable vigour and life span. Not unlike well known ageing rock bands, even at old age it has been able to maintain its spell on groupies and adherents at local city governments around the western world.(1) However, I do not intend to argue that when it was still young and fresh, Richard Florida’s Creative Class Rock rang any truer; only that all along the line, a different tune is being played than the lyrics imply. I will argue that Amsterdam’s Creative City policy - far from intending to make the city’s entire population more creative - is predominantly a branding exercise, an expression of a much more general shift towards entrepreneurial modes of city government; a shift that is presently being played out in an impressive urban redevelopment of Amsterdam.

The comparison between sociologist Richard Florida - author of two books on the rise and flight of the Creative Class - and a rock star is not unusual. Google ‘rock star’ and ‘Richard Florida’ and you will find dozens of descriptions of performances by the ‘rock star academic’ responsible for introducing pop sociology into regional economics. Amongst the urban policy do’s and don’ts he prescribes, ‘lacking rock bands’ even figures prominently amongst the reasons why a city could lose out on the economic development race(2). But this article is not about the interesting fusion between pop culture and social science, rather about the utopian claims that are being made for the creative economy. Florida has pronounced creativity to be a ‘great equaliser’, pleading for a ‘New Deal’ of the creative economy. Likewise, Cohen - the mayor of Amsterdam - has pronounced Amsterdam to be a Creative City that will ‘foster the creativity of all its inhabitants’(3).

In retrospect, these claims can be seen as somewhat distorted echoes of an earlier utopian project that alluded to the revolutionary rise of creativity. Let’s take a short leap back in history, back to the future as imagined by the Dutch avant-garde, and more specifically the Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys. Constant was one of the founders of the Dutch experimental art group Reflex, which later became part of the international COBRA current. Discontented with the limitations of the world of art and ‘the individualistic nature’ of painting, he abandoned painting in 1953 to focus on the more promising use and of metal and architectural techniques. In 1957 he became a co-founder of the Situationist International (SI), writing with Guy Debord the now well known tract on Unitary Urbanism. Till his resignation in 1961, he would play a essential role in the formulation of a Situationist perspective on the city and a critique on modernist urbanism.

In 1956 Constant started what would become a visionary architectural project that would stretch out over 20 years. An utopian city that went by the name of New Babylon; it consisted of an almost endless series of scale models, sketches, etchings, collages, further elaborated by manifestoes, lectures, essays and films. The project was a provocation, an explicit metaphor for the Creative City:

The modern city is dead; it has been sacrificed to the cult of utility. New Babylon is the project for a city in which people will be able to live. For to live means to be creative. New Babylon is the product of the creativity of the masses, based on the activation of the enormous creative potential which at the moment lies dormant and unexploited in the people. New Babylon assumes that as a result of automation non-creative work will disappear, that there will be a metamorphosis in morals and thinking, that a new form of society will emerge.(4)

Constant envisaged a society where automation had realised the liberation of man from the toils of industrial work, and its replacement by a nomadic life of creative play, outside of the economic domain and in disregard of any considerations of functionality: ‘Contrary to what the functionalists think, culture is situated at the point where usefulness ends’, was one of Constant’s more provocative statements(5). Homo Faber, the working man of industrial society was to be succeeded by Homo Ludens, the playful man or as Constant stated, creative man. This was the inhabitant of New Babylon that thanks to modern architectural techniques would be able to spontaneously control en reconfigure every aspect of the urban environment. Constant took the surrealist slogan ‘poetry should be made by all’ and translated it to the urban environment, ‘tomorrow, life will reside in poetry’(6). The work of Constant Nieuwenhuys thus combined a distaste for modernist functionalism with an intense appreciation of the libratory potentials of new technology. Mechanisation would result in the arrival of a ‘mass culture of creativity’ that would revolt against the superstructure of bourgeois society, in order to destroy it completely and take the privileged position of the artist down with it. A society would be created where, in accord with Marx’ vision on art in a communist society, ‘there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities’(7). The work of Constant would have a direct and major influence on the rise of youth movement Provo. The Dutch Yippies proved to be an almost perfect incarnation of the Homo Ludens; through relentless provocation, happenings and playful actions, Provo would bring the authoritarianism of the Dutch 50’s down to its knees.

Life is put to Work

However, developments took an unexpected turn. Automation and consequent deindustrialisation, the outsourcing of manufacturing to Newly Industrialising Countries, did not lead to the liberation of the Homo Ludens (or maybe we should grant Homo Ludens a short and partial victory - a short interlude located somewhere in the youth culture of the 60’s - before being sent back to work). As is well known, since the sixties the total amount of working hours has grown steeply. Together with the consolidation of consumption as a leisure activity, it has led to an unprecedented amount of human activity being directly or indirectly incorporated into the sphere of economic transactions. A development Marx would have called ‘real subsumption’, the extension  of capitalism onto the field of the ontological, of lived social practice.

Whereas Constant envisioned the liberation of the creative domain from the economic, right now we are witnessing - en sync with the Creative City discourse - the extension of the economic into the creative domain. This is exemplified by the transformation of the artist into a cultural entrepreneur, the marketing of (sub)cultural expressions, the subservience of culture to tourist flows and the triumph of functionalism over bildungsideal at the university. An interesting spatial illustration is that what was before a fringe economy of the arts occupied also a fringe position in the Amsterdam housing market, most notably in the squatted dockland warehouses. Now that the art economy has been incorporated and elevated towards a seemingly pivotal position in the urban economy, it has been accommodated into the city through mechanisms such as the broedplaatsenbeleid(8) or temporary housing contracts. The majority of non-functional space in the city, derelict or squatted territories, have now been redeveloped or are in process towards development. There is no longer an outside position.

What distinguishes the earlier utopian Creative City from the one referred to by Florida and the Amsterdam City Council? To start with, what’s important to note is that in the post-Fordist economy, where the Fordist factory has been decentralised and socialised, the rise to prominence of the creative sector in advanced economies is predicated upon displacement of industrial functions to low wage localities and the exploitation of cheap manual labour. This new functional divide in the global economy - and its polarised wage structure - is referred to as the New International Division of Labour(9). As part of this development, we have seen the rise of global cities whose economic success depends on the presence of high tech innovation and global control functions. These economic nodes coordinate the international flows of goods, finance outsourced production, market and design its products and maintain a monopolist control over client relations(10). The claims of the new creative city as being a ‘great equalizer’ turns, in a global perspective, into the opposite; it is based on functional inequality. Now let’s take a closer look at the city.


To properly understand the arrival of the Creative City policy and what sets it aside from its utopian predecessor, we have to place it in a larger context. The Creative City is part and parcel of a bigger shift hitting the city, causing the Keynesian management of bygone era’s to be replaced by an entrepreneurial approach. The rise in importance of footloose productive sectors for cities’ economic well being has led to increased interurban competition. Amsterdam is pitted against urban centres such as Barcelona, London, Paris and Frankfurt, in a struggle to attract economic success in the form of investments, a talented workforce and tourists flocking to the city. The ever present threat of interurban competition is continuously being rhetorically invoked and inflated. To illustrate my point, recently even the discussion on whether to discontinue a prohibition of gas heaters on the terraces of Amsterdam cafés were framed in these terms: “It’s a serious disadvantage in comparison with cities like Berlin and Paris”, according to the leader of the local social democrat party. The opinion of the city’s population itself wasn’t even mentioned in the newspaper article.(11)

The dominance of entrepreneurial approaches to city politics is the feature of a new urban regime, labelled by scholars as the ‘Entrepreneurial City’(12). With its origins in the US reality of neo-liberal state withdrawal from urban plight, it has taken some time to arrive in the corporatist Netherlands and filter through the minds of its policy makers.

In this new urban regime, independent from the colour of the party in power, the public sector displays behaviour that was once characteristic for the private sector: risk taking, innovation, marketing and profit motivated thinking. Public money is invested into private economic development through Public Private Partnerships, to outflank the urban competition. Hence the rise of urban mega developments and marketing projects such as the Docklands in London, the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Zuid As in Amsterdam. A concern voiced by critics is that although costs are public, profit will be allocated to the urban elite, hypothetically to ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the population. To face up to this new market reality, where cities are seen as products, and the city council as a business unit, Amsterdam inc. has launched the branding projects I Amsterdam and Amsterdam Creative City. One of the first steps of the new progressive city council, once installed in the spring of 2006, was to launch a ‘Top City Programme’, aimed at consolidating the city’s ‘flagging’ position in the top ten of preferred urban business climates:

Viewed from an outsider’s vantage point, Amsterdam is clearly ready to reposition itself. This is why we’ve launched the Amsterdam Top City programme. In order to keep ahead of the global competition, Amsterdam needs to renew itself. In other words, in order to enjoy a great future worthy of its great past, what Amsterdam needs now is great thinking.(13)

Of course, ‘creativity will be the central focus point’ of this programme, since ‘creativity is  the motor that gives the city its magnetism and dynamism’. However when one looks beyond the rhetoric, at the practicalities of the programme, it is surprisingly modest: sponsored expat welcome centres in Schiphol Airport, coaching for creative entrepreneurs by mayor Dutch banks and MTV, ‘hospitality training’ for caterers, ‘Amsterdam Top City’ publications in KLM flights, and the annual Picnic Cross Media week, a conference aspiring to be the Dutch Davos of creative entrepreneurs.

In arguably one of the best analysis of the Creative City theory yet, geographer Jamie Peck(14) asked himself why it is that Florida’s work proved to have such an impressive influence on policy makers around the world. He came to the sobering conclusion that it wasn’t because Florida’s creative city thesis was so groundbreaking – various authors had published on the knowledge economy before - but mostly because it provided a cheap, non-controversial and do-able marketing script that fitted well with the existing entrepreneurial schemes of urban economic development. Something city authorities could afford to do on the side, a low budget PR scheme complemented by a reorientation of already existing cultural funding. In Amsterdam, however creative branding is maybe modest in its budget but extensive in its effects, it is the immaterial glazing on the cake of an impressive physical redevelopment of the city.

For Amsterdam abounds with building works; it is facing what I have called an ‘Extreme Makeover’(15). The city’s old harbours are being redeveloped into luxurious living and working environments; in its southern belly a new skyline is being realised, the Zuid As, a high rise business district that is supposed to function as a portal to the world economy. In the post war popular neighbourhoods more houses are being demolished than ever before in the history of the city, and a significant part of the social housing will make way for more expensive owner occupant apartments. The trajectory of the new metro line – a straight line of sand, cement and continuous construction works – crosses the city from North to South and thus connects the new city with the old.

Not only is one of Europe’s largest urban renewal operations underway and has demolishment reached a historical high, the image of the city itself is also being reworked. In both the re-branding and redevelopment of Amsterdam, the creative sector plays an important role. Creative industry is supposed to function as catalyst for urban redevelopment, changing the image of a neighbourhood from backward to hip. Schemes have been put into place to temporarily or permanently house artist in neighbourhoods to be upgraded. Although modest in its budget the I Amsterdam and Creative City marketing campaigns are conceptually highly advanced (and extensively present in the public’s consciousness), for city marketing is the apex of consumer generated content, the dominant trend in marketing techniques. Creative hipsters serve as a communicative vessel for branding projects; in between concept stores, galleries, fashion- and street art magazines, the cultural economy expands itself over the urban domain and in the public realm.

The new marketing function of the creative sector is maybe best illustrated by the recent project of Sandberg, called ‘Artvertising’. It involves the facade of the Sandberg fine arts and design faculty being turned into a huge billboard filled with logo’s of predominantly major companies and also some smaller cultural projects. The sixteen thousand tiles of the facade (35x29cm each) were sold for 20 euros a piece, with the mentioning of all the business savvy people of the office park Zuid As passing on the adjacent ring road. A small blurb from the website of Artvertising:

Every self considered art or design intellectual ends up twisting his or her nose to the so-called 'commercial world'. Art, culture, criticism is what it matters. But we don't think so. We believe that now, more than always, the world is ruled by commercial and economical relationships. Culture defines, and most important, is defined these days by market dynamics.(16)

The  Sandberg project is a beautiful illustration of the state of art in the Entrepreneurial City. Perfectly vacuous, it’s like a bubble that’s bound to burst. The genius of the project - note also its grammatical bluntness - is that it becomes at once the tool of critique and its object; the embodiment of post critical art, stretched beyond the cynical dystopias of Rem Koolhaas. It did not fail in sparking some resistance, during its one month’s existence, it was modestly vandalised by a group calling itself the ‘Pollock commando’, wanting to reclaim the facade as a ‘public canvas’ by throwing paint bombs on it(17). Besides its uncritical embrace of the new commercial role of the artist as entrepreneur, the ‘Artvertising’ project is also reflective of another tendency in Amsterdam’s creative economy. With the borders between culture and economy fading away, the assessment of the value of art and cultural practice has risen in significance. article continues…

Continued on page 2: The Artificial Organic of Real Estate »

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