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Converging Patterns in Amsterdam

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA

Tracy Metz suggested we take off on bikes. Our correspondent and her husband inhabit a house right on one of Amsterdam’s fabled canals, a straight-up Dutch house that includes a winding, narrow stair, working spaces overlooking the canal, and an attic. I borrowed her husband, Willem’s, sturdy two wheels on a damp Saturday and we took off to see the amazing city seemingly jammed with 17th Century buildings. She wove in and out of the streets, dodging ambling citizens in from the countryside, up over bridges, down along the docks while I pedaled to keep up. I acted like a twelve-year-old, freed on a bike again, rolling with the terrain and barely missing a few pedestrians.

We passed brick warehouses renovated as apartments out by the docks that recall similar structures in London or New York. These high-ceilinged simple workhorses can take heavy loads, include seemingly endless open space, and the yuppies love them.

At the foot of the docks, we came on a strange new version of a loft/warehouse by Rotterdam’s MVRDV architects called Container City: long and narrow, stretched alongside the docks, it consisted of several levels of apartments with outdoor walkways painted in differing colors, louvered, patterned, or plain. Like an assemblage of stacked oceangoing container vessels, the colorful megastructure looked over the water. Because it was move-in day, we witnessed a number of the diverse residents unpacking their boxes, older and younger mixed together.

A space-age note: to park your car out by the docks, you drive into a single glass shed. A silent Japanese system consisting of a single car-sized pad then drops one grade, shifts your car to the side, and sorts it, ready for your subsequent pick-up. Automatically shuffled cars.

A Surprise

The first housing block of De Klerk's was built in 1913 (1). The second, built in 1917, directly faces the first across the open public park space (2). The third, nicknamed "the Ship," was designed in 1917, but wasn't built until 1921 (3).

Photos: Roger Shepherd

As a surprise, we biked out to visit de Klerk’s social housing in the Spaarndammerbuurt District in northwest Amsterdam (the Dutch names exceeded my capacity for picking up new languages). Often overlooked though still inhabited, the 3-block complex sits away from the crowds amid blocks of other housing. Built in 1917-1921, these small, multistory units for workers, part of what became recognized as the “Amsterdam School”, formed a unique chapter in the history of housing. “Het Scheep” (the ship), the best known of the blocks, was organized as an interior-facing assemblage of narrow townhouses, all of which face a shared garden court, they are distinguished by the individuality of their components and details, all of which meld into an extraordinary whole.

You have seen them in the history books, usually represented by the brick spire at one end that resembles an Asian stupa—-a structure with no apparent functional use. The brick on the entire complex takes flight as it careens exuberantly into ripples, adding basketweave or vertical patterns to the building facade where stone might usually provide ornamentation. Remarkably intact, the complex includes the original post office, adapted to contemporary uses.

The Dutch have continued their experiments in housing since then. After walking our bikes down, Tracy and I hopped a ferry across the harbor for the island of Borneo-Sporenberg, where new housing continues to be built. There, a multiplicity of attached townhouses, multiple dwelling units, affordable and luxury housing coexist side-by-side. We saw colorful cantilevered rooms, houses with front facades like sine waves, canal-side houses where boaters waved at friends on balconies, and big apartment blocks that faced the sun. The whole island sits apart, a relatively calm oasis from the Amsterdam hubbub, though shops and cafes are creeping into the mix.

A Complete Surprise

While Amsterdam’s housing seems so new, I wondered what effect long-established patterns have on a people’s collective consciousness. On Sunday, while nursing my rubbery legs, I strolled out from my hotel to a thriving urban plaza where I spied the Begijnhof. This unique living arrangement provided housing for Catholic laywomen who made religious profession short of becoming nuns, yet chose to live and worship together.

The housing for them is antique. The city’s oldest remaining house, a wooden structure dating from the mid-fifteenth century (1453), remains there. After curving around a crooked street, I found the entry to the quarter and turned to find a collection of individual houses surrounding a central planted court—amazingly like the de Klerk social housing of 400 years later. There, at its head, stood a church spire, that recollected the forms de Klerk used much later. Surprisingly, this tower marked a 14th century church (1392) structure given to the Puritans in 1609 as they waited for transportation to America. It remains an active English Reformed church for Amsterdam.


De Klerk’s pattern, which had seemed unique, actually stretched back in time to the heart of the city in a continuous conversation. While motives differed, and religion had been replaced by social motives, the two housing compounds spoke the same language, providing individual shelter, a patch of ground for a flower or two, a green heart, identity for the person and the group, a meeting place, and even a signifying spire.

Sitting in the shadow of the church, where our own American ancestors had gathered before heading toward the unknown, I nursed my thoughts, which careened around the older courtyard like cosmic rays, and headed for a coffee. As Flannery O’Conner titled her book, “Everything that Rises Must Converge.”