Rather than large palaces and churches, Amsterdam is known for its private houses that comprise so much of the inner city’s 700 hectares (1729 acres). The total of approximately 7000 private homes, now classified and protected as monuments, is a testimony to the city’s importance as a merchant centre in the 17th and 18th century. The trademark of Amsterdam remains the private house; each with its own specific roof, door and facade.
Amsterdam: The Ground Underneath
The soil under Amsterdam and much of Holland contains three major ingredients; clay, sand and peat. Layers of clay are left by the sea that periodically invaded the land. The sand is from the delta’s formed by the Rhine, Maas and other small rivers. The peat layers are remnants of the swamps and marshes that had developed behind the costal dunes. Various combinations of the above mentioned processes are responsible for the diversity of layers underneath Amsterdam today. When “Amsterdammers” talk of the “first and second layer” they refer to the sand layers at 14 and 20 meters below the surface. Depending on when they were built and how heavy buildings would be, practically all of the buildings in Amsterdam rest on one of these layers. Another layer, the so called “Boerenlaag” (farmers-layer) begins 7 meters below the surface and is probably named after the layers that were found closest to the surface out in the farmlands. Although better suited for the lighter weight wooden buildings it was sometimes used as support layers for masonry buildings. There are still buildings in the Jordaan that have foundations on this “Boerenlaag”. The Jordaan area can be found opposite the Hotel Pulitzer at the Prinsengracht. The layer of peat, presently found at 4 to 5 meters below the surface, used to be top soil a couple of centuries ago. The layer of sand and rubble above it is fill from canal dredging. Furthermore the big 17th century expansion required sand to be brought to Amsterdam, all the way from the coast.
Amsterdam: The History in a Nutshell
Round about the year 1000 AD the surroundings of today’s Amsterdam were a hostile and swampy area with an open connection to the North Sea. Only the sandy areas in het Gooi (east of today’s Amsterdam) and the dunes near Haarlem offered possibilities for human occupation. This situation changed when pioneers started clearing small pieces of land in the swamps by digging ditches around the chosen spot; thus carrying off the water. Here and there small farms appeared. Everybody was self-supporting. Work was tightly divided into men’s and women’s work. The women worked in and around the house. Men worked on the land and built ships that were indispensable in this watery land. Between 1000 and 1300 AD the first villages appeared (Sloten and Oud Diemen). Because of all the ditches that had been dug the land had slowly started to “sink”. Every flood of the North Sea left water behind which eventually resulted in a number of lakes (Purmer-, Schermer-, Bijlmer- and Haarlemmerlake). Soon the decision to build dikes was made. The sea-holes that gave entry to the lakes were closed and along the whole south-coast of the IJ a dike was built that would reach until Haarlem. The building of this dike was a gigantic project for those days. At the same time various locks were built to encourage shipping. At these spots new villages appeared; Zaandam and Amsterdam.
The motto for the Dutch in those days was “work or drown”. The financial means and the authority of the Count who reigned over Holland were insufficient: everybody who owned anything participated in the development of Holland. The system showed few feudal characteristics. Participation was expected and practically everybody had a right of say. This rough form of democracy was the basis for a political culture that would last for centuries.
Around 1300 AD Amsterdam got its first city-rights. There were bigger cities in those days (Delft/Alkmaar) but Amsterdam was the fastest growing. Because of its democratic government the city showed an amazing flexibility. Wooden houses were replaced by buildings of brick. And it was the trade that would shape Amsterdam more and more.
The most important expansion, which would quadruple the size of the city, began in 1613. The Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht were dug; the beginning of the Brouwersgracht was dug and running in concentric form to the Leidsegracht. Aesthetic considerations played a major role in this last expansion.
The Keizersgracht was planned as the widest canal; 28 meters. The other two were planned at 25 meters wide each. The digging of these canals marked the beginning of an area just outside the canal-area, called Jordaan. In 1658, the second phase of the expansion began. The canals were extended from the Leidsegracht to the river Amstel. Marking the boundary of the city was the (outer) Singelgracht with its 26 bastions and windmills. The city held this shape for almost two centuries.
The total remaining number of 17th century houses is limited. Most of Amsterdams houses date from the 18th century and were often rebuilt in the 19th century. Only a third of the buildings of the inner city are old (built before 1850). In spite of some “breakthrough” streets and a few large-scale (office) buildings the city managed to keep its unique character through its unique combination of private houses and tree-lined canals. The trees are to be found within the open space behind the houses where a 17th century ordinance required that the ground be used as gardens.
Sony DSC-P200 |
Original size: 3072x2304 |
Current: 800x600 |
filename: DSC00197 |