Odds are that you’re sitting in your house right now, at the Museum of the Future event in 2100. Look around you – notice the space, stuff and atmosphere your house has. High chance it is comfortable, relatively spacious, private, nice smell and completely personalized. Now, I invite you to imagine the following situation. You’re a mother or father of 6 children, together in the same space. Everything is dirty, there is no heating, no running water, only daylight or oil lamps, and most alien of all: no (digital) screens. Welcome to Amsterdam, the year of 1870.
It is a time of extremely bare living conditions. As work moved from agricultural lands to the city, living in a workers’ district was the only available option to work in Amsterdam. They were set up at such a fast pace and mass scale, that their quality was low, and density was high. One could not possibly imagine that these places would gain popularity in only 100 years from then: the end of the 20th century. The houses witnessed the change happening around them: the evolving, developing and expanding of the city. Living conditions in the city improved immensely. The houses themselves became an icon for the change that rippled across all aspects of society. From a place that people were forced to inhabit, to a spot where people longed to live.
Worker's district in Amsterdam
How are these formerly undesirable homes iconic? Well, they start the discussion about how what we think is undesirable today, might be desirable tomorrow. They represent the beginning of a new era: including both good and bad changes on which we elaborate in this short text. However, it is important to keep in mind that these houses were a necessary short-time solution due to economic and demographic pressure. This absence of a long-term vision on the quality of life resulted in families being cramped in a small space. These characteristics had become almost invisible when the houses became popular, marking the change in living conditions and housing opportunities in general.
Across the North Sea, in Great Britain, the industrial revolution took off. Machines were invented and the way of doing things radically changed. People worked less in agriculture, more in factories. The Netherlands joined later: 1870 marks the year of the Industrial Revolution. Where some aspects of society improved, others
worsened. The wave of urbanization that occurred because people fled to the cities for work, took the government by surprise. The lack of housing resulted in crammed cities, making the workers’ district homes become iconic for the industrial times in the cities.
Diseases like rabies and cholera spread through the dense and unhygienic environment. There was no policy on collecting waste and sanitation was shared. The air was polluted by unfiltered emission of factories. You can imagine that a small thing like going for a walk was torture. Moreover, social conditions were also worsening. Child labor was normal. At the same time, the average number of children per household was six. Factories were filled up with children. The worker's district stood central amidst these negative changes but set the conditions for a revolution.
Map of Amsterdam, 1880
John Snow's map on Cholera in London
Luckily, mankind can make the best out of a bad situation. The workers’
districts became objects of improvement. First, in 1910, public health policy revolutionized sanitation: every home required to have a private lavatory. Second, disease prevention and treatments were invented, for example a rabies vaccine by Louis Pasteur. This disease was previously a death sentence. Also, John Snow discovered how cholera spread, in 1854. The map displayed on the left shows the location of houses, cholera cases and a water pump in London, where Snow found out that the water pump was contaminated with cholera. Third, spatial planning emerged. Cities expanded outside of city boundaries along the railway network. Spatial planning now also included health policy. For example, Samuel Sarphati started garbage policy, improving the health conditions of worker's districts. Lessons were learned.
Four rooms, two toilets
At the start, people wanted to move out of the houses as soon as possible. The houses themselves did not provide enough space or facilities to live a healthy life. The society around them did not provide the social conditions the people desired. But over time, when things started to get better, the central location of the houses became the desirable places. Instead of demolishing the houses, they were renovated. The workers’ districts improved, offered better facilities and became popular: take the Pijp, for example. Many of the houses are, unfortunately, bought up by rich real estate investors, which makes it nowadays almost impossible for an average family to live there. The houses changed from being one extreme to the other, showing that something that was once experienced as undesirable, can change into something wanted.
Carmen de Vreede
Jaimy van Dijk