Between-space: re-activating Amsterdam’s historic canal area

Between-space colors

Together with Office Jarrik Ouburg, TAAK and Castrum Peregrini Foundation we are working on an 0ngoing research and series of artistic and architectural interventions dealing with the many invisible, and largely unknown, alleys and inner courtyards that are hidden in-between and behind Amsterdam’s famous canal houses. This project, called ‘Tussen-ruimte’ (or ‘Between-space’), is an attempt to show the transformative potential of this UNESCO World Heritage and to open up some of these spaces for temporary use in order to enhance the area’s livability. 

Check the Tussen-ruimte


This year, 2013, marks the 400th anniversary since construction began on Amsterdam’s 17th-century canal ring. Back in 2010 this world renowned urban ensemble was already added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Non-fiction’s co-founder Michiel van Iersel has been appointed as the first guest curator of a new Dutch World Heritage Center, which will be established in Amsterdam in 2013. Between-space transformationPart of the canal area in 1776 (red) and 2011 (blue). (Image: Office Jarrik Ouburg)

Fears that regulations will be progressively tightened to the point where public authorities interfere on every level have no real foundation. UNESCO is not a Trojan horse designed to surreptitiously introduce new laws. This part of the city is constantly transforming, as the image above clearly shows. And if anything, the hallmark of UNESCO’s rules on the management of heritage sites is an ambiguity that leaves plenty of space for interpretation and for experiment.


Based on (field) research we have indicated 30 – 40 underutilized, and mostly closed-off and (therefore) invisible, spaces in the area that includes the three major canals between Singel and Singelgracht from Haarlemmerstraat to Weesperstraat, covering 198 ha in total.

Between-space maps

These spaces consist of dead-end alleys and small courtyards of only a (few) dozen square meters that can only be reached via the surrounding property. In most cases these spaces used to be accessible from the canals or would even connect two canals, but in the course of history they all got closed off for safety reasons or as a result of new additions to houses and newly constructed buildings that blocked the passageway. Seen from the canals, narrow doors and gates hide these urban left-overs from passers-by.

Between-space alleys


In the (recent) past there have been other artists and architects who focused on small pieces of vacant land and the possible (re-)use of them.

In the early 1970s artist Gordon Matta-Clark discovered that the city of New York was publicly auctioning off slices and slivers of ownerless land. Matta-Clark bought 15 of these ‘odd lots’:  tiny, useless spaces belonging to no one. Matta-Clark amassed an archive of deeds, maps, photographs of every inch of his lands, tax receipts, videotapes and other documents.

In 2005 Queens Museum of Art (located near several of the lots in question) invited 19 artists, including Helen Mirra and Dennis Oppenheim, to make speculative proposals and projects for the Fake Estates lots. These were shown at White Columns, the now venerable alternative space originally co-founded by Matta-Clark in SoHo in the 1970s.

Fake Estates & Pet ArchitectureReality Properties: Fake Estates, Little Alley Block 2497, Lot 42, 1974 (posthumous assembly, 1992). Photographic collage, property deed, site map, and photograph, framed photographic collage by Gordon Matta-Clark (left) and Pet Architecture #15 by Atelier Bow-Wow (right).

Around the turn of the century Tokyo-based architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow coined the term ‘Pet architecture’: buildings that have been squeezed into left over urban spaces, resulting in curious shapes and inventive solutions for drainage, windows and air conditioning. Most of all, it is the extraordinary miniature size of the shacks, store rooms, sushi bars and bike shops they found in Tokyo which made this project so inspiring.


So, tiny lots beget ingenuity. Inspired by Gordon Matta-Clark, Atelier Bow-Wow and others, we want create ‘micro public spaces’ in the cracks of Amsterdam’s canal area by adding temporary functions and activities. The smallest public space might be a public space for just one person and the type of activity can range from a space for silent contemplation to a tiny stage for small arts performances, sports activities and other little gatherings.

Between-space functionsOverview of possible activities in an imaginary alley (image by Office Jarrik Ouburg)

We are currently developing the project, e.g. contacting real estate owners and (other) local residents. Talking to the authorities, raising additional funding and inviting artists and others to think of a possible contribution.


We are planning to open an exhibition, showing the collected research material, at Castrum Peregrini (conveniently located on the Herengracht, in the heart of the canal area) in the summer of 2013. Parallel to this we want to start a series of actual interventions, in collaboration with the owners of suitable spaces, opening up one ‘Between-space’ per month throughout the summer and fall 2013.

Eventually we hope to be able to add a mix of subtle and more substantial functions to this part of the city, resulting in scenes like the ones sketched out below, and providing a wide audience the opportunity to (re-)discover and (re-)activate some overlooked parts of the canal area.

Between-space examplesSketches of use of Between-spaces (images left and right by Office Jarrik Ouburg)


Tussen-ruimte is a self-initiated project by Office Jarrik Ouburg, Non-fiction and TAAK in collaboration with Castrum Peregrini. It’s generously supported by the City of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Fonds voor de Kunst. For more info, please contact Michiel van Iersel: or +31 6 41364171.


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