Amsterdam's Architecture Over The Ages

Amsterdam's Architecture Over The Ages

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Amsterdam's Architecture Over The Ages

Amsterdam has witnessed many architectural changes during its existence as a capital. From its earliest canal houses to its recent "modernisation", it is a widespread array of fascinating design and architecture. Throughout this short guide, I wish to take you through these ages, demonstrating the designs, the reasons for them, the way of living and the way the architecture developed around the community. This guide focuses mainly on the last one hundred years, looking in depth at the gradual changes made to this great city, and its surrounding areas. I will also look at the great architectural achievements made over time in this area, looking at their design purposes and influences.

Older architecture

Central Amsterdam ages back to over 700 years, but most of the buildings seen today were built in Amsterdam's "Golden age", about 250-500 years ago.

The "Golden age" was the period when most of what is now known as central Amsterdam was built. Some people think it is Amsterdam's best architectural achievement. Probably the most prominent building built within this time period is the canal house. These line all the canals in the centre of Amsterdam. Every canal house was built to be unique from any other, though built with the same shape, each one was personalised with an ornamental piece, such as the gables and plaques. Another method was to put very decorative carvings on the "neck" of a house. This is called "necking".

The picture on the right is an excellent example of necking.

Due to the swamp like quality of the reclaimed land under Amsterdam, it was very hard to build buildings. Because of this wooden stilts were used to support the houses. They were driven into the wet ground before construction for support. Now due to the wet ground some of these supports are rotting, causing houses to tilt and sink into the earth. The picture on the left is of a house on the Keizergracht, it has gradually sunk into the ground over the years causing it to lean sideways.

During the time period in which these houses were built, your house taxes depended on the frontage. Meaning your taxes were determined by the width of your house. Therefore the sneaky Dutch built their houses deep and narrow to avoid severe taxing. For this same reason the staircases are very narrow and low, making it impossible to take furniture up and down them.

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To solve this problem hooks were put at the top of every house to winch goods up and pass them through the windows on the needed floor.

This picture shows two such hooks at the top of the buildings.

Because of the heights of the buildings and the width of the streets barely any sunlight reaches the roads, this luckily is saved by the canals which give an illusion of space by reflecting the sky.

Oude Kerk

The Oude Kerk is a very unique building situated in the centre of Amsterdam. Built in 1260 it is Amsterdam's oldest church and is now one of Europe's monuments.
Hugging the sides of the old church are little alms houses, looking like small cottages.
The church was stripped of all artefacts during the reformation and now only has a few faded vault paintings and a beautiful stained glass window of the sixteenth century. Rembrandts wife Saskia is also buried here and this is commemorated by a plaque. The original tomb was apparently sold off by Rembrandt to pay for the burial of his second wife.

Other famous old buildings
* Rijksmuseum 1885 P.J.H. Cuypers
* Niewe Kerk 1350 unknown
* Montelbaanstoren 1512 Hendrick de Keyser
* Sint Nicholaaskerk 1887 A.C Bleys
* Magna plaza 1899 C.P. Peters
* Central station 1889 P.J.H. Cuypers
* The royal palace of Amsterdam 1648 Jacob van Campen


Within Amsterdam there are hundreds of bridges. A majority of these are drawbridges needed to allow big boats through the cities canals. Bridges have been around in Amsterdam ever since its start, needed primarily to get from island to island of the reclaimed land. Slowly as the city expanded more and more bridges were needed and the number is still growing now. You'll find that the further you go out of Amsterdam the more modern the bridges get. The oldest being in the centre and the most modern on the out skirts. The picture to the right is one of the more modern designs of drawbridge, though towards the middle of the city the most remain the old design from centuries ago.

The interiors of these old canal houses are very deep and narrow. This means they are pretty small but the amount of floors makes up for the space. Since the rooms are pretty narrow the space is not that great, which makes it hard to put in furniture and move around. The rooms are very light due to the huge front windows, this makes the space seem bigger and more open. The interior of most of the rooms is pretty grand, with ornate ceilings and fireplaces. This however is usually only in the first and second floors, as this is where the guests and home owners would usually stay. The other floors would not be as grand as they were usually reserved for the maids, workers, nannies and children. The workers would also have there own separate door below the main one for their own access.

This ground plan of a common Amsterdam canal house really gives an impression of the sizes and dimensions. You can see the minimal frontage and real depth, and how the rooms are very small.

Amsterdam School

After world war one, architects were given huge housing projects intended to replace the slums and expand the city.

There was much discussion over what designs should be included and different architects had different ideas. Mainly they were designed to have larger floor plans to escape from the very small ones found in the centre of Amsterdam. They also were designed with balconies that overlooked central gardens to create a community effect and to have a selling feature of a garden.

Most of the buildings were built in very ornate original styles and interested the public greatly on their appearance. The apartments were light and airy and had a lot more space than their predecessors had. The designers also insisted on making every building unique in its own way. With oddly angled windows or busts to make the residents feel themselves to be unique.

The government had intended these houses to be for the middle and lower classes, so when they were built with countless unnecessary additions such as busts, towers (see picture above), and excess windows. The architects fell under serious criticism from the government because of the money it cost to add what they saw as pointless add-ons.
Michel de Klerk was one of the leading architects of Amsterdam school. His work was particularly elaborate; he designed many of the buildings that stand out in the area such as the barrel shaped corner on the building to the right.

"The ship", or "Het scheep", is a nickname for the third of three housing blocks designed in 1917 by Michel de Klerk for the Spaarndammerbuurt region in north-western Amsterdam. The spire at one end of the block is devoid of function and there is no way to go into it (picture at beginning of section). It's purely emblematic of the position that the working class inhabitants have attained through their housing. As with everything De Klerk did, individualized form gives shape to collective identity.
This picture was taken soon after the time of its construction.

On the walls of the building De Klerk put in horizontal lines and colour changes, he also "pinched" the bricks together in some places to create a kind of "rippling" effect.
De Klerk also cleverly incorporated a school building that was there before into his designs, by "wrapping" his building around it.

In the same block, he also designed a post office. He made it to resemble one huge piece of art and even went so far as to design the interior phone booth, benches and counters.

Among the 102 apartments in the entire complex, there were 18 different types of residential houses. The most common was a simple five-roomed apartment containing, a living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. Even on these De Klerk didn't miss out on detail as you can see in this picture of a window with ornate ironwork.
More buildings from this period
An exhibition was held outside the post office with designs for the future. It was displayed in big coloured cubes.

Modern Architecture

Contemporary Dutch Architecture tends to suffer from a blandness that can be seen right the way through Europe since the early 1960's. Luckily, laws were passed preserving the old buildings from additional "modernization". The old van Gogh museum is a prime example of the square cubistic blandness and other buildings of this style can be seen throughout Amsterdam.

Over the past decade however, new architects have been at work within Amsterdam and a completely new line of brilliant buildings have been produced, rescuing our city from a dull landscape.

Many cities have a pair of towers that stand together, usually called "The twin towers". Amsterdam is no exception with "De Tweeling" or the twins. Being only 64 metres tall it is not their height that is exceptional, but the sense of unbalance they cause to viewers. These buildings have been designed using crevasses and gaps to make it appear as though they have a displaced centre of gravity. It appears that all the weight relies on two pillars that to us seem insubstantial to carry such weight. However, a clever architect has of course designed its physics so it is perfectly stable.

Other great designs litter the city for example the "Nemo" science museum was built to look like a sinking ship. It is very modern by Amsterdam standards and lays in the Oosterdock. It was designed very strangely with features such as its main entrance being on top of the building, and being plated in a green metal. Its bridge access is also very modern, with little visible support and flowing design.

Though the old van Gogh museum was old, boring and typical to its time, the new extension is much more modern. It also has managed to escape the dull angular shapes and is a half rounded building. Its use of lighting and metal is excellent and creates a stunning monument. The roof is made of metal and is curved nice and smoothly over the building.


Throughout the writing of this guide, I really got into my topic and had a real desire to research the topic more and more. By the end, I had a very clear and in depth understanding of the subject and really learnt a lot.

I have established that Amsterdam really is a museum of architecture. With the first buildings dating back over 700 years until the modern day, all the styles remain in all their glory, creating a huge diversity of buildings. I found the layout of the city very interesting and it is possible to see the patterns of its growth changing to the ever-growing population and its needs.

Overall, I found out a lot more about my city that I did not know before, and I hope others can discover new things as well within guide.
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