Amsterdam is a wonderful city for architecture and urban planning. I was struck on a recent visit by the Burgess & Parsons nature of the place: like Chicago it is a series of concentric rings that neatly describe the city’s development over time. You can actually tell how far you are from the center by the style of buildings.
You begin in the center along the oldest grachten or canals, with 17th century buildings and even a few churches that are older. These reflect the Golden Age when Holland invented the global corporation and led the world in commerce. Stepped gables and narrow fronted deep buildings along canals define this period.
This is then followed by an ring of mostly 19th century buildings in what we would call Victorian Gothic in America.
At the periphery, where we stayed, there is postwar development, towers in the park and neat square boxes of homes in typical International Style suburban developments, albeit with the usual Dutch obsession with the bicycle.
But in between is my favorite part. A full thick ring around the center of 1910s and 20s housing projects – the first modernists, all realized in an expressionistic vein in the 1910s and 1920s by idealistic, socialistic housing organizations. We saw these as soon as we took our first tram ride and they are mesmerizing.
The planning of this ring was done by Berlage but the buildings were realized by the brilliant architects of the next generation, like Michel de Klerk, who did the internationally famous Het Schip for the Eigen Haard housing group. These architects combined their social ideals with expressive brickwork, sculpture and a warm, earthy modernism that contrasts strongly with the Neue Sachlichkeit that dominated the later 1920s on the continent.
De Klerk was judged the best of the bunch by Barry Byrne, the Frank Lloyd Wright-trained architect who visited the city in 1924 and it was fun to be there looking at the buildings he saw. They look a lot like Byrne’s own buildings.
This is the De Dageraad project which De Klerk did with Piet Kramer, who showed Byrne around in 1924. Compare it to one of Byrne’s schools:
The Dutch modernists worked with sculpture and molded the brick into various shapes and colors, eschewing aesceticism and creating housing that is still vital and viable today.
They actually have a museum of the stuff, up at Het Schip, the greatest of the projects, and possibly the most difficult to locate, but well worth the trip.
They even have more than a few “Prairie” style buildings. H.P. Berlage, Holland’s Louis Sullivan, was considered too conservative by Kramer, De Klerk, Wijdeveld and the others, having come out of an earlier generation, but he PLANNED that ring of housing projects that stretches right around the center of the city just beyond the museums. And here is the Berlage School, much reminiscent of Wright:
or this little gem next to the Van Gogh Museum
There was hardly time to see and appreciate it all. It is worth another visit and it is worth wider respect – it has started to creep into the guidebooks, but for most tourists, it is hard to see the city beyond the careening, tie-rodded ornamental gables along the grachten. But a visit to the ring that began a century ago is worth it. And they are preserving it.