Observations on Urban Form: A Series on Architecture, Planning, and Urban Design
I have always loved Amsterdam. A recent visit reawakened this affection each time I stepped out of our apartment beside the Herengracht canal. We were lucky to be staying in one of the oldest and most elegant neighborhoods of the central section of the canal city. This gave me the opportunity to consider exactly why I was so pleased to walk these narrow, crowded streets.
Three factors stand out: scale, detail, and transparency. Together these factors combine to they create architecture that celebrates the individuality at the core of Amsterdam’s character.
Throughout the central city, distinctive narrow-fronted, gabled houses line up together to form continuous, richly articulated street facades. The rhythm of the facades, ranging from 12-foot-narrow houses to stately 45-foot-wide mansions, matches the pace of travel on foot or by bike, providing a new sight every few paces and speaking of individual households who presumably live or once lived behind the walls. Unlike the elegant apartment blocks of Stockholm or Paris, here the articulation of each separate house is paramount. As they accumulate in an irregular fashion, they build a harmonious whole.
The architectural detailing underscores the differentiation of each home. Most of the city was built in the hundred years of Amsterdam’s golden age, from the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s, so the architecture is all of a piece. Built from the same dark brick, the flat facades with rectangular openings all align. Yet each house shows off special details at the scale of the doorways and window trim, the articulation of the stepped, neck, and bell gables, the projecting beam pulleys. The endless variety and innovation speak to the creativity of each designer and builder. Often the details reflect the dimensions of the body or even the hand, reinforcing the scale of the person in the city.
Astonishing and enormous vertical windows give the Amsterdam houses their distinctive character. These have been explained as a way to bring the scant light deep into the narrow houses, but other more northern countries have not adopted these fantastic, tall windows. Considering the era of their construction, when small leaded panes were the norm, they impress even more. As result of all this glass, together with the tall floor-to-floor height, light penetrates deep into the narrow buildings.
But the effect cuts two ways—at night the impact reverses and the light spills into the streets and onto the reflective canals, illuminating the public realm from the private spaces. The Dutch habit of leaving windows uncurtained opens the view of the interior to the passing public.
This opportunity for silent and unobtrusive observation amplifies one’s understanding of the city as made up of a community of individual households. At every step walking through the city in the evening, one gets to consider a different life on display; the architect working late at his desk, the family sitting down to supper, a small party laughing and cooking in their lower-level flat. My daughter commented that she would never feel alone in this city where the views make you feel almost invited into each house.
In Russell Short’s marvelous book Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, he persuasively makes the case for the city as the birthplace of liberalism—formed from the ideologies of capitalism and individualism, but in a context of a deep commitment to the community. The physical form of the city speaks eloquently of this balance: the houses of the burgher class, with their open celebration of individual lifestyles, gives the city its variety, elegance, and openness while together they literally align and work together to form one of the most harmonious and memorable urban experiences in the world.
Anne Tate is a Professor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a particular focus on large-scale sustainable urban design challenges. She has been a policy advisor to governments at the state, region, and city scales. At RISD, she teaches studios and an interdisciplinary course “Beyond Green Urbanism” with sociologist Damian White.
Header photo of Amsterdam residences by Anne Tate.