Amsterdam, City of Canals

Modern metropolises radiate out of old city boundaries. Stockholm today developed ar0und Gamla Stan, Singapore‘s boundaries spread from the southern shore of the island, modern Jerusalem radiated out from the old town. Most of the radiation came over generations in a haphazard fashion. Even the well planned ones like Singapore happened in the modern era.

The Urban planning of Singapore is one that came in a more modern era

But the city of Amsterdam and its canals are different; different in this place was already a showpiece in city and aesthetic planning from back to the Age of Revolution (in the 1700s and 1800s).

It was a triumph of human ingenuity, because the city had risen from marshy, swampy land. The canals were built not for aesthetic reasons but practical ones. Land was required to built residential and commercial buildings in this artificial port city, as the city grew and grew more and more rings were required to respond to the demand.

After dredging the water from the soil, parts were dug up to raise the level and add a more solid base (especially by deep piling) to the adjacent plot of land so that goods could be directly unloaded – and it expands the size of the port.

The resulting humps were then made into canals, creating artificial man-made concentric structures from the city centre.

The red tones show the part of Amsterdam that radiated from the old town whose canals are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Note also the visually pleasing concentric canals. (Source)

This model was important, it was this structure together with the Dutch Golden Age that inspired the development of Gothenburg in Sweden, Batavia (Jakarta old town) in Indonesia and Copenhagen in Denmark among others.

It wasn’t just the overall architecture that had a massive impact, the houses had their own resulting impact too. The houses were built in a Dutch baroque style, characterised by subtle grandeur and understated colours. Compared to the colourful towns of the town centre in Gamla Stan in Stockholm, Amsterdam’s houses were dull.

This was an effect of the religion in which the houses were built. The main branch of Christianity in Sweden is Lutheranism, which during the era of establishment of Gamla Stan differed from Catholicism in beliefs but not as much in design (this came much later). In contrast the main branch of Christianity (at that time) in the Netherlands is Dutch Calvinism which is more reserved and in a way less expressive and showy.

Now, there was another very important architectural outcome of Dutch rule – narrow houses. Because land was artificial and a scarce quantity, taxes in Amsterdam were levied based on the width of the house but not the length or height of the house. The idea being that more front space one house took, the less space there was for more people to live in – never mind that houses were built upwards (3 sometimes 4 stories).

This led to a taxation style that spread across the Dutch colonial enterprise to places like Malacca and later Singapore where the Straits Chinese had to obey the same rules and influenced the developed of their own Peranakan residential architecture.

Water and canals have an amazing power to make things look absolutely beautiful. Almost every city that has canals The canals of Amsterdam give the city a certain beautiful, small-town, laid back feel. This, despite the fact that the city has a population of 850,000.

So to me, the belated inscription by UNESCO of the canals as a world heritage site in 2010 was well-deserved award. My pictures don’t do the canals justics, but these videos do a better job. Enjoy 🙂



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