Amsterdam's Architecture

This article was published originally at Let’s Go;
and is published with their kind permission.

A ll of Amsterdam is an architectural wonder. The complexities of building a city on top of marshland have resulted in a testament to innovative architectural planning and execution. For example, canal houses were built with many large windows to help reduce the weight of the building on top of instable topsoil. Tall, narrow houses were constructed on an angle to allow large pieces of furniture to be hoisted through the windows. The hooks that served as pulleys still stick out from just about every canal house.; some are still used. By the middle of the 16th century, a law was passed to limit the angle at that a house could be built to prevent buildings from falling into the streets.

At first glance, all the streets in Amsterdam look alike, just rows upon rows of narrow houses. A closer look reveals architectural elements dating from different epochs. Medieval houses were constructed with timber and clay, but as locals wised up to the dangers of fire, they began to build with brick. The only remaining elements of medieval construction are the timber facades of Begijnhof 34 and Zeedijk 1. The Herengracht has wider houses in the area called the Golden Curve---city officials bent the rules and let wealthy merchants build wider houses to support the construction of the canal.

Like other European artists of the period, Dutch architects drew their inspiration from the Italians during the Renaissance. Henrick de Keyser (1565-1621) left the greatest Renaissance mark on the city, designing the Zuiderkerk, the Westerkerk, the Noorderkerk, and the Bartolotti House, now the Theater Instituut Nederland. His work was characterized by rich ornamentation.

In reaction to the decadence of the Renaissance came the Classicism of the 17th-century Golden Age. Classical Dutch houses resemble Greek and Roman temples, with columns and decorative scrolls. The clean, crisp Classical austerity was exemplified by the designs of Adriaan Dortsman (1625-82), who constructed, among other buildings, the Museum van Loon on Keizersgracht. The 18th century heralded an interest in French design and architecture; complicated Rococo decorations adorned houses. Every visitor to Amsterdam has seen at least one work by 19th-century architect Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921). His Centraal Station and Rijksmuseum demonstrate a fusion of Gothic and Renaissance styles. Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934) was known as the father of modern Dutch architecture. His vision of spartan and utilitarian design frowned upon frivolous ornamentation. For Berlage and his Amsterdam School, decoration had to function to support a building and not merely cover up its supports, like in Rococo ornamentation.

Luckily for the city of Amsterdam, members of Berlage's school still preferred some creativity in their individual works. One of the most spectacular works created by Amsterdam School members Piet Kramer (1881-1961), Johan van der May (1878-1949), and Michel de Klerk (1884-1923) is the Scheepvaarthuis (Shipping House), in which shipping companies could conduct their business. The building's design incorporates the street to resemble a ship's bow.