Westerpark: Where nature meets culture
Amsterdam’s parks stick to a tried and true formula: a mildly tamed natural look, ponds inhabited by hungry ducks, lonely herons and angry water hens, and vast expanses of manicured lawn where people can spread picnic blankets on sunny days. Of a kindred spirit but more human-sized than big brothers Vondelpark and Rembrandtpark, Westerpark is a welcome break at the end of Haarlemmerdijk, where the effervescence of the city centre meets the more residential Western District.
A peaceful abode, its romantic centerpiece is a pond with a fountain, surrounded by benches and framed by centenarian trees and willows that rake at the ground. Elderly locals stop their bikes for a quiet chat while throwing bread to the seagulls, and families walk their dogs or watch their kids scoot along the winding dirt paths.
History of the park
Westerpark was actually the first municipal park of Amsterdam, originally named Westerplantsoen (Western Garden). It was constructed in 1845 in this emerging working-class neighbourhood as a breath of fresh air from the industrial pollution of the growing city. In 1891 the garden was torn down to make room for the relocated Western Canal, and today’s Westerpark was born. Behind it still stand the old gasworks, the largest gas extraction plant of the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century, which closed down in 1967 after natural gas was discovered in the North Sea.
Designed by renowned architect Isaac Gosschalk in popular Dutch neo-renaissance style, the thirteen remaining buildings of the gas plant were used as storage until they gained the status of national monuments in 1989. As new life was infused into the area by artists flocking to exhibit their work in the beautiful red bricked, uncannily symmetrical buildings, the municipality turned its attention to cleaning up the grounds which were heavily polluted with by-products of gas production: tar, cyanide and other mineral oils. It took years to rid the soil of the toxic substances, but envisioning a larger park made sense as the area was gaining in popularity, and the adjacent neighbourhoods of Spaarndammerbuurt and Staatsliedenbuurt, officially part of the ‘Westerpark’ neighbourhood, were gentrifying and developing a cultural life of their own. Museum Het Schip, a magnificent example of Amsterdamse School architecture, opened in 2001.
Westergasfabriek: A cultural powerhouse
In 2003, the vision of Kathryn Gustafson, the American landscape architect who was hired to remodel the area, was finally completed: traditional Westerpark was extended into the Westergasfabriek, with a modern pond where children can play on hot summer days while their parents rest on the concrete beach or nearby sprawling lawn. Trees were planted and alleys drawn along the historical buildings, which artistic, avant-garde momentum of the 90s was respected: the Westergasfabriek has become a powerhouse of culture and entertainment, with an easy-going and independent flair.
Since 2010, under the helm of director Mark de Kruijk, it has become home to as many small, local pop-up events as huge international festivals. That’s what is most fabulous about the place: it will welcome crafts markets such as the Sunday Markets (every first Sunday of the month) and locals’ favourite NeighbourFood Market, but it has also become the venue of choice for monumental events where international crowds will flock, such as Amsterdam Fashion Week and the Unseen Photo Festival, hosted in stunning and unique, shiny metal cylinder Gashouder. ‘How wonderful that the Meijer family saved these buildings from demolition,’ says De Kruijk. ‘There are so many great spots here: amazing coffee at the Espressofabriek and De Bakkerswinkel, delicious lunch at Algerian cuisine Rainarai or fresh seafood at Mossel & Gin.’
Permanent fixtures of the culture park also include trendy bars (Troost Brewery for the beer lovers, Wester Wijnfabriek for the wine aficionados) and a slew of entertainment venues: dance club Westerunie, art-house cinema Het Ketelhuis, the North Sea Jazz Club - which boasts a fabulous line up of musicians year-round -, and TV Studios DutchView where ultra-popular live show De Wereld Draait Door (‘The World Goes On’) is produced.