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The House Sparrow

The house sparrow in Rietlanden, Amsterdam

Camilla Dreef, birdwatcher and ecologist, visited the project Rietlanden, designed by KAAN Architecten and completed in 2001. The complex consists of 89 apartments and is part of the Borneo Sporenburg urban development plan and is situated on the mainland. 128 birdhouses have been integrated in the brick park-side wall, distributed across the wall according to the pattern of a flock of sparrows.

This is an excerpt from BinnensteBuiten emission on NPO, season 7 episode 68, broadcasted on August 13, 2020.

Video courtesy of Nederlands Instituut voor Beeld en Geluid, KRO-NCRV.


The sparrow


My favourite painting is by Gerard Prent. It’s two by two metres and right in the middle of it is a little, life-sized sparrow. The story goes that things weren’t going so well for the renowned Amsterdam painter, and after a dry spell his gallery advised him to get back to the easel and just paint anything, even if it was simply an empty plain of colour. Prent took the advice to heart, but when the plain of colour felt a bit too empty, he decided to add a sparrow to the canvas. This turned out to be a good decision and it relaunched his career. I’ve always thought this a wonderful story. Het Parool recently announced an exhibition of his work. The article explains how Prent chose his subject when, at the beginning of this century, he was walking through Artis Zoo looking for inspiration and the most ordinary and least pretentious of animals caught his eye…


It must have been some 25 years ago that we were working on a housing project in Amsterdam, next to the Piet Hein tunnel then under construction. The project was called De Rietlanden, with project number 91, and it was designed in the slipstream of the Borneo Sporenburg projects across the water from the Van Eesterenlaan in the Eastern Port Area. The Council kept a tight rein on the developments, the spread of housing typologies, and their market segments. Late in the design phase we heard from the Councillor responsible that every house was to be given a swallow nesting box. I was young and the thought of placing a nesting box on each of my perfectly minimalist houses was unpalatable. Yet the boxes were not badly designed and since needs must, I thought up a scheme. One of the building blocks in the plan was a difficult one: it was positioned right next to the opening of the tunnel, or more precisely, the block was so close to the polystyrene foundations of the tunnel that we needed to chamfer a corner of the block. The closed end-wall of this corner was to face a small park. I suggested we put all the nesting boxes together on this wall so that I was free of them and so were my carefully designed street facades. There was no harm in their being on the edge of the park. To avoid a random placement of the boxes on the wall, one of our interns designed a pattern in the shape of a flock of swallows. The idea was enthusiastically received by the Councillor and we were given permission to build. It was a satisfying result, and not only that, it turned out to be the most visible building façade seen from the city. It made us proud. The only disappointment was that a birdwatcher noted the swallows would never be able to reach the lower boxes because they first dive down to slow their flight and then shoot up again to get into the box openings. That did give me some sleepless nights. Cute little swallows with broken necks is not exactly a picture to look back on fondly. In any case, the project and the nesting boxes moved to the back recesses of my memory – until this week.


One of my guilty pleasures is watching lifestyle programmes. I’m fascinated to see how the quality life is improved by small, everyday things. In one such show, the common sparrow was the subject – though common it no longer is, as it has become somewhat of a rarity. To highlight the specialness of this bird, two locations were shown: the old village of Marken with its jumbled, sparrow-friendly setting and an atypically sparrow-friendly location in the big city of Amsterdam. And there it was: our end-wall at De Rietlanden.  


No swallows with broken necks, but a wall full of happy swallows beautifully captured by the cameraman. The presenter praised the project as a success, one where they did get it: a place in the city that has not been designed to sleek perfection and is therefore ideal for the sparrow. It’s a wonderful story.


Prof. Dikkie Scipio

3rd Quarter 2020

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