Amsterdam always has been lucky with its city planning. The famous canals (the “grachtengordel”) were designed as part of a comprehensive plan that provided the city with new defence works and made the city four times as big as before. The canal belt was devised and built in two stages, the first part in 1611, the second in 1660. My father would marvel at the fact that the strict geometric scheme of the canals was continued across the river Amstel. Which is something to stop and think about. There are innumerable cities that owe their existence to a river, yet that river nearly always presents itself as an insuperable barrier. The Rive Gauche looks nothing like the Rive Droite. But for the Amsterdammers of 1660 there was no doubt that the canals should continue on the other side of the Amstel in perfect alignment with the earlier ones. And they built it exactly as planned.
Three hunderd years later the Amsterdam city council agreed on another plan. After a period of decline and half-hearted attempts at planning the next ring around the city, the city had expanded piecemeal, and these expansions quickly became infamous for their shoddy building and congested housing quarters. The plan for a the new extension, on the south side of town, was designed by H. P. Berlage. Berlage was what you could call the “National Architect” of the Netherlands. He is the only architect to have earned his own public statue. When my grandfather learned that I was going to study architecture it was perfectly natural for him to wish that I would become “a Berlage” – the byword for a good architect. Berlage provided Amsterdam with an Ideal City. Grand boulevards – borrowed from the Paris of Hausmann – ended in vistas of great public buildings. In a radical gesture, a new station on the South side would give Amsterdam a new entrance on the other side of town, and the boulevards went stubbornly east to west, ending in a bridge over the Amstel and leaving the old city by the wayside. The tree-lined boulevards defined large irregular areas that were layed out in a more picturesque manner, with ensembles gathered around squares, enlivened with curved streets, gates, shopping streets – a kind of lay-out derived from the writings of Camillo Sitte, whose “Der Städtebau (…)” Berlage read and admired.
Amsterdam Zuid was never built as Berlage had it in mind. The “plan Berlage” (as I new it when I was a kid) turned out to be a city of masks. Berlage didn’t care for masks – his architecture strove for rationality and transparency. The architects that actually built the housing blocks of the new plan had other priorities. They didn’t look for a rational connection of a facade with the living quarters that it protects. Instead, the facades became actors on the stage of the city and the story they told was of streets and squares, not of the humble little apartments they hid: like masks on the Greek stage.
But what masks you’ll find in Amsterdam Zuid! They seem to be taken from a fantastic dream made up of images from colonial Indonesia, bits of Wiener Secession and Macintosh, medieval fantasy, and an astonishing handling of the humble brick. The streets are lined in symmetrical arrangements of rhythmically ordered windows, lanterns that indicate communal staircases, balconies. At the street corners it all erupts – there has to be a tower, or a stack of billowy curves, or an embroidery of enmeshed balconies or bay windows. It is so constently present in Amsterdam Zuid that this kind of architecture became known as the “Amsterdamse School”. Architects like Johan van der Mey, Michiel de Klerk, Piet Kramer (who did the building in the photo above), J. Staal, H. Th. Wijdeveld lined the streets with their fantasmagorical designs. Wandering through Zuid – which I loved to do as a kid – you’ll find in every street its own treasure of fun and ingenious details that shape entrances, porticos, window frames, house numbers, post boxes.
The great public buildings of Berlage never materialised. The academy of arts became the Hilton Hotel, whose only claim to fame came when, exactly 50 years ago, two artists decided to stay in bed for a few days.