Every city presents itself – roughly speaking – as an unique labyrinth of streets, buildings and green areas. In some (lucky) cases, the city is crossed by a river and, as a consequence, some bridges are added to the picture. In some other (luckier) cases, the city is even connected to the sea and so you are dealing with a harbour city; this means docklands, big ships and warehouses.
As if this was not enough to make Amsterdam a wonderful city and its inhabitants a bunch of lucky people, the moment the city started its expansion, at the beginning of the 17th century, it did it in a very special way: concentric belts of water were dug around the city to form the unique pattern of canals we know today as the Grachtengordel. The reason behind this specific geometry of the city is Singel, the first and innermost of the four major canals to be dug. Singel was completed in 1425 and it was bent. And it`s this bend that initiated the concentric growth-ring pattern developed by the expansions that followed.
“Other capitals in Europe have palaces and churches. Amsterdam has private houses, thousands of them lining 65 miles of canals, each with its particular door, gable and facade. Most were built in the city’s golden age (roughly the 17th century) when wealthy merchants needed something to spend their money on. Since then, the houses have been restored, some of them many times, but they remain Amsterdam’s architectural trademark.” (International Herald Tribune, March 1979)
Indeed, houses are the most beautiful thing Amsterdam has to offer and I am delighted to see and photograph them every day. And I am even happier when I get the chance to step inside and see them from that perspective as well. Their beautiful architecture and long history leave me speechless. I think only Paris (and London, to a certain extent) has the same effect on me from all the cities I have visited so far. It just makes me stop and stare and take hundreds of photos.
(17th century houses on one of the canals in the centre)
But in Amsterdam, there is so much more to contemplate than the typical narrow brick houses built for the rich merchants in the 17th century, in the Dutch Renaissance style, along the four canals in the centre: Singel, Herengracht, Keisersgracht Prinsengracht. They are indeed a wonder, but it would be unfair to think that Amsterdam is represented only by them.
Right after the canal belt, as you go towards the Amstel area, you will see some beautiful houses built in the 19th century, when an expansion on the South side of the city’s center was planned. The appointed architect was Sarphati and this part of Amsterdam was designed to have the grandeur of Paris and London at that time. It was very different from the older areas of Amsterdam, which were overcrowded and consisted of small streets (such as Jordaan, for example, built in the 17th century). His expansion consisted of a central wide street with large public buildings on it and smaller side streets. This main street would later become known as the Sarphatistraat in his honour. Needless to say, Sarphatistraat is one of my favourite streets in Amsterdam.
(Beautiful 19th century houses en route to Sarphatistraat)
Towards the end of 19th century, new neighbourhoods were built for the increasing population of Amsterdam, in the South (De Pijp), in the West (Da Costabuurt, Helmersbuurt, Frederik Hendrikbuurt, Spaarndammerbuurt – to name just a few), but also in the East (Oosterparkbuurt). All of these neighborhoods consist of long, straight and narrow streets, which were densely built, most of them in a typical 19th century Eclectic style. They are a wonder to the eye and have a symmetry that it`s impossible to ignore. Westerpark neighbourhood, one that I like so much, was also built in this period.
(Common street in De Pijp, with houses built at the end of 19th century)
In response to the continuous expansion of Amsterdam at the beginning of the 20th century, two plans were designed: Plan Zuid (Stadionbuurt, Apollobuurt, Nieuwe Pijp and Rivierenbuurt), designed by the architect Berlage, and West (Hoofddorppleinbuurt, Surinamebuurt, Admiralenbuurt and Mercatorbuurt). They aimed the development of new neighbourhoods consisting of housing blocks for all social classes, but esthetic purposes were not forgotten in the process. The buildings constructed were very different from anything Amsterdam had seen before, as the style used was a rather experimental one. This new architectural style was called Amsterdamse School (Amsterdam School) and it represents the Dutch version of Art Deco and Jugendstil, in other words, it`s a simpler and more austere version of them. I am planning to take my camera out for a walk and make an inventory or the Amsterdamse School buildings in the West part of the city, so I will write more about it (and also post some photos) with a future occasion.
I am happy to have lived, in my first two years in Amsterdam, in an area full of such examples of Amsterdam School architectural style! This type of buildings, together with the 17th century warehouses by the canals (to be found on Prinseneiland, Entrepotdok, Prinsengracht or on small canals in the centre) transformed in residencies at the beginning of the 20th century (I am currently living in one), are my top preferences in terms of housing in Amsterdam and the latter have been mentioned many times on this blog.
(17th century warehouses in Prinseneiland, transformed in apartment buildings at the beginning of the 20th century)
However, for those who would rather go for a very modern and spacious flat in a glass, iron and concrete building, Amsterdam offers the IJ waterfront, with the Eastern and Western docklands, former shipyards, silos or even cranes, nowadays apartment buildings and offices. Then, there is Java Eiland and Borneo Eiland – both good examples of modern architecture, with minimalistic houses facing the canals (Java) or same style houses facing the street on one side and directly the water (no pavement in between) on the other side (Borneo).
(Modern houses on Java Eiland)
And this is not all! Let`s not forget the houses in Amsterdam Noord and Osdorp or the apartment buildings in Zuid-Oost and Nieuw West. And what about the boathouses?
There is really a significant architectural variety in Amsterdam and a lot to choose from in terms of living spaces. I try to present these multiple sides of the city to the people who are interested in discovering Amsterdam and I get a lot of satisfaction from their surprised expressions when they realize that the city is so much more than what they initially thought.