For a very long time, the floating homes of IJburg remained an urban planning vision – now, the artificial district in Amsterdam’s south-east is finally becoming reality, offering more than extra living space for crowded-together urbanites: Free spirits, outdoor lovers, and architecture mavens flock to the new floating neighborhood.

Cyclists cross the brightly lit Enneüs Heerma Bridge. One last glance flits across the smooth IJmeer, quietly glistening in the sun. No breeze or wave disturbs the flat surface. All floating homes on Steigereiland, the first of five planned IJburg islands, are drifting gently in the water.

Our visiting group is greeted by one of the floating homes’ new owners. “Welcome to vacation land!” Guiding our IJburg excursion is German architecture expert Anneke Bokern, the founder of architecture tour organization Architour, who has been living in Amsterdam for almost two decades.

Anneke Bokern in IJburg
Architecture expert Anneke Bokern on a tour through IJburg.

For several years, she has been visiting the new IJburg district almost every week, getting to know many of its residents. “International interest in IJburg is soaring,” Anneke Bokern reveals. “Everyone wants to see what people have created right on the water, here in the east of Amsterdam – and what’s still to come in the future.” After all, IJburg still has a long way to go.

floating houses on the artificial island of Steigereiland in IJburg, Amsterdam
Close to the water: the swimming houses of IJburg.

IJburg: living near and on the water

Outsiders might not realize that the utopian plan for an artificial floating island, with room to house up to 40,000 people, almost never made it past the drawing board stages. In a 1997 referendum, 60 percent of those who went to the polls in the Dutch metropolis voted against the ambitious IJburg endeavor. Yet due to an exceptionally low voter turnout, the entire referendum was declared invalid.

Soon after, the first loads of sand were pumped out of the IJmeer to be layered like a stack of pancakes. Thanks to centuries of Dutch experience with land reclamation, this first sample island was a success, now doubling as strip of overgrown beach and a natural adventure playground.

Yet this “prototype” is also one of the few green spaces seen by IJburg residents from their Steigereiland homes: Strict regulations prohibit private gardens and there are no trees or shrubs on the nearby quay. On the other hand, each house is surrounded by water and has at least one boat moored right outside its living room.

Redbad doesn’t feel like revealing his surname, but seems happy enough to share stories on his new neighborhood. The local lives in an apartment complex built on the pier facing the floating homes. “I actually preferred the amazing view and firm ground,” he explains. “Most floating homes need constant maintenance.” Like many IJburg residents, Redbad commutes to the city center for work – the district’s regular and frequent tram connection takes him and his neighbors to Amsterdam’s central station in just fifteen minutes.

“Many of my colleagues don’t get why I moved out here to IJburg,” he laughs. But the avowed family man loves his new home. “Here, we have everything we could only dream of in Amsterdam: lots of space, a parking spot right outside, and a modern school for our kids. And there’s the unique feeling of freedom you get when you live right by the water.”

modern interior design in a house in IJburg
The swimming house soften have stylish interior.

Architecture destination for individualists

Freedom – in its various guises – is something that comes up a lot when you talk to local IJburgers. Like the freedom to shape a home completely to your own specs and needs, which drew many of the residents to Amsterdam’s eastern shores. The result is a vibrant mix of different architectural styles: Think traditional canal house sidling up to a bright yellow cube with a hard-to-find entrance.

Another example, a family home covered in rusty-red wooden slats offset by lime green doors and shutters, could have come straight from an Astrid Lindgren story, while the façade of a free-standing brick building has a distinct pixel-style aesthetic: Individual bricks extrude from the wall and double as a trellis for climbing plants.

boats parked in front of the houses in IJburg
A boat parks in front of every house.

Around the corner, we need to raise our gaze: Here, at IJburg’s so-called “design strip,” multi-story office blocks have attracted a sizeable number of design companies. The buildings’ facades seem to be covered in anything contemporary construction has to offer: weatherproof, rust-brown Corten steel, concrete, wood, and plenty of glass.

“When I take groups of Swiss architects to IJburg, they are often shocked by the sheer variety of different materials on display, all mixed up and used together,” architecture expert Anneke Bokern adds. “Yet they all agree that it provides a welcome addition and counterpoint to the relatively uniform apartment blocks found in the Eastern part of Haveneiland.” When guiding visitors around IJburg, Bokern tends to stick to the western part, including the “Witte Kaap”: a white stone structure resembling a passenger liner and thus Holland’s prestigious seafaring tradition.

yellow house in IJburg
Colors and lines make IJburg an attraction.
wooden house facade in IJburg
swimming houses on Steigereiland

Dream home with plenty of space and vacation appeal

Down the road, where the IJburglaan shopping street segues into the municipal park and the Grote Rieteiland villa district, Merik and Cynthia te Grotenhuis are currently finalizing their own dream home: three levels, marble counter tops, and a garden large enough for their sons to play football in. “Nowhere else in Amsterdam do you get as much space as here,” Merik explains their choice to build on IJburg. “Usually, you would have to move a lot further out.”

Since Merik and his wife often have business in Amsterdam’s inner-city canal belt area, their new IJburg home lets them stay close enough to it all: From their rooftop balcony, they can see the high-rises of the Amsterdam-Zuidas business district as well as the elegantly curved bike bridge at Diemerpark that takes residents to Amsterdam Oost in mere minutes. And then there’s the family’s sailboat, anchored at the end of the road and the perfect spot for a leisurely after-work drink.

woman sitting in an outdoor café at the beach of IJburg
The beach is not far.

“This year, we deliberately decided against booking a far-away summer vacation,” Merik says. Whenever he’s asked about the family’s summer plans, he simply replies: “t’eiland!” (Dutch for “the island”) and grins when the other person invariably thinks he means Thailand.

On IJburg, life for the family doesn’t get boring. They have already signed up for the nearby tennis club with its imposing wave-style roof that doubles as a public viewing gallery. The old temporary container structure that used to occupy this space has given way to contemporary architecture and now provides welcome shelter to surfers on IJburg beach.

Here at “Blijburg,” or “proud castle,” you might run into Elmar, a part-time surf instructor who loves his work routine. “IJburg has everything that makes Amsterdam great: Working with a view of the sea and passing ships, plenty of nature lovers – and still just a short commute home on the tram.”

surf teacher on a surf board in IJburg
Surf teacher Elmar is proud to be from IJburg.
a yacht in IJburg
football field in IJburg
bridge leading to a house in IJburg
a plant bed
café in the harbour of IJburg
BlIJburg logo at a beach

At the same time, the future of this popular container-based surfing shelter is unclear with the diggers, earthmovers, and bulldozers slowly closing in. You can already see – and hear – them working on the future at the other end of the headland.

More apartments and homes are scheduled to go up here on Centrumeiland – and the original IJburg concept encompassed three further islands with space for another 20,000 people. Until then, athletes, children, dogs, and everyone else gets to rule this sandy piece of no man’s land.

blue house on the water in IJburg, Amsterdam
IJburg – blue print for a modern town?

Yet locals aren’t afraid of losing their freedom. Ever since the first windmills started to turn, the Dutch have known that yesterday’s water can be tomorrow’s land – and next week’s new district or city.