In the downtown area of Amsterdam you will see a mix of many architectural styles. This is one of the things that makes Amsterdam special. The dominant styles in downtown range from the Renaissance styles to 19th century neo-classicism. But Amsterdam has much more to offer, this article gives you a basic impression of the styles, such as medieval, Berlage, industrial and modern architecture.
In Amsterdam there isn’t that much left from the Middle Ages, so you will have to explore the city to spot these buildings. A good starting point should be the two oldest churches, the Oude and Nieuwe Kerk. The Oude Kerk was built in the 13th century, which makes it the oldest building of Amsterdam. You can find the Oude Kerk in the middle of the Red Light District. The Nieuwe Kerk was built in the 14th century, but it was never completed: it doesn’t have a tower. It is located on the Dam, the central square of Amsterdam.
Besides these churches there are a few chapels left and a single medieval house, which is made of wood and located at the Begijnhof.
Some parts of the old city walls have been preserved through the ages, well, not the walls, but some of the towers and gates. On the picture below you see one of these city gates, the Waag.
Renaissance architecture, 16th – 18th century
Amsterdam was flourishing between the 16th and early 18th century. This period is called the Dutch Golden Age. We can still enjoy this period of wealth, because it has left us with many monuments and houses.
Most of the canals downtown were completed in this period. Many people living back then built their houses around them. It’s not just the canals themselves that are special, it’s the complete picture of them, including the buildings and houses.
The styles during the Golden Age evolved slowly from quite medieval looking fronts, with their typical stepped gables, to fully decorated, neo-classicist fronts. Looking at the fronts you can sometimes also find information about the original inhabitants, you can read whether people were rich or poor by the amount of decoration and the materials used, but also by the height of the first floor and the amount of stairsteps to the frontdoor. Many houses also had colorfully painted stones in their front, symbolically depicting the owner’s trade.
Usually the fronts of these canal-houses are quite narrow, but the houses usually have three or four floors and go quite deep, which make them still quite big. The narrow fronts were preferred because back then they had to pay per meter on the front. So besides used materials, heigts and decorations, also the width of the front gives a lot of information about the wealth of the original owners.
19th century neo-classicism
Neo-classicism would remain a very popular style after the Renaissance. Amsterdam inherited a few very large buildings from the 19th century. Good examples are the Centraal Station and Rijksmuseum (which are built in the same style, by the same architect, P.J. Cuypers), but also the Stadsschouwburg on the Leidseplein, the Concertgebouw (classical music concert building) on the Museumplein and the Postal headquaters, today a big shopping mall called “Magna Plaza”.
Early industrial architecture
As Amsterdam was (and partly still is) a very important seaport, with a lot of industries, we can still enjoy the remnants of this era. Old shipyards are today mostly out of use. Rotterdam has taken over a lot of industrial activities from Amsterdam, as it was being developed as main port of the Netherlands.
These old industrial buildings, also including warehouses, became important places for artists and squatters, who could use their large spaces to live and work. It is unfortunate that these places have now become ‘trendy’. Commercial institutes and city developers see new possibilities for the old dock-areas, driving away the artists and squatters, so companies can move in.
The good side of this development is that these buildings are preserved and kept in a good shape. You can find industrial architecture all around the main river, called “Het IJ”. The names of these locations are often unchanged, so the companies that originally ran their operations there, like KNSM or NDSM, gave these places their current names.
Amsterdamse School, Berlage 1920’s – 1930’s
In this period, as Amsterdam was expanding quickly, many new houses were needed. This resulted in a few large housing projects.
In the meantime, the architect Berlage developed his own style, in which he got rid of neo-classicism. Firstly he was appointed the job of designing a new center of stock exchanges near the Centraal Station, the “Beurs van Berlage“. This building is still seen as his masterpiece. City developers contacted Berlage to help them with their plans for the expansion of Amsterdam in the south.
Nowadays, the style that architect Berlage came up with is also known as the “Amsterdamse School” (which is actually an art deco style), with a few architects, like M. de Klerk or Van der Mey as followers. The Amsterdamse School can be found in many parts of Amsterdam, outside downtown, in both lower to medium class neighbourhoods (such as Bos en Lommer) and in upper-class neighbourhoods (such as Oud-Zuid), in both Western and Southern part of the city.
Another famous location is near the Westerpark (Spaarndammerbuurt), where M. de Klerk built a magnificent example of Amsterdamse School. In the picture below, the resemblance of the residential building`s shape with that of a ship is quite visible!
Modern architecture – from 1920`s brick expressionism to contemporary harbor conversions
While Rotterdam is seen as the city in the Netherlands for modern architecture, Amsterdam also has a lot to offer. In general there are two important locations where modern architecture is being developed: the Southern axis (“Zuid-as”) and the old docks, each with its own particularities.
Around the Zuid-as the area is mainly developed as a business center of Amsterdam. This area starts around Zuid/WTC and ends around the Amstel Station, or maybe even near the large stadium, the Ajax Arena. In this area the land value is very high, so the architecture is forced into the sky.
The old docks are merely for residential use. These areas are closer to downtown and easily accessible by bike from the Centraal Station. The areas towards the East are quite large and contain internationally praised architecture. Key locations are the KNSM and Java islands (no, not in Indonesia). If you are into modern architecture these places are a must to visit.
While you are going there, you will pass by the Nemo museum. This is a museum about modern and future technology for kids. The building itself was designed by Renzo Piano and contains a large terasse on its roof, from which you have a great view over the city. An additional detail is that this building was built on top of the entrance of a tunnel, that goes underneath the river to the Northern parts of Amsterdam.
(Information found on All Amsterdam site, slightly edited by me. Photos: the Internet)