Architecture & Waterways: Past vs. Present

by Jen Chiappone

According to False Flat by Aaron Betsky with Adam Eeuwens, Dutch design is so good because it does not draw attention to the process of the building being made. It seems to fit in with the “everyday landscape” (Betsky 350). With Dutch design, everything, especially the waterways, is planned to balance the use, the Dutch people, and the environment it is going. This is all done in an organized and calm manner to create a non obstructive building and building process. It gives the Dutch a sense of further identity and nationalism along with necessity in the form of waterways and buildings. I really enjoyed how Betsky introduced the reader to the idea of Dutch design and industry by taking the reader on a bike ride with him. This allowed the reader to get familiar with the topic before the topic was thoroughly explained. This allows the viewer to create their own idea of the Dutch city/village.

While I agree with Betsky/Eeuwens that Dutch design is good because of the care, organization, and imagination that goes into building, I disagree that the buildings do not draw a lot of attention. The buildings discussed in False Flat, while beautiful and intriguing to the eye, would stick out among the Dutch traditional buildings. There must be a balance between the old and the new. However, I am picturing most of The Netherlands to look similar to Amsterdam (which is false and wrong to do). When these buildings are in their location (most examples are in Rotterdam), the buildings do work together and blend well into a singular modern, Dutch skyline (see picture of Rotterdam below). On page 37, Betsky recognizes that not all architecture can be balanced and can work together; giving the example of Rotterdam having different areas of culture, use, and architecture.

rotterdam skyline

Han Meyer’s article, “Composition and Construction of Dutch Delta Cities,” gave a back story and a foundation (literally) to what was said in False Flat. By explaining the history and struggle of the Dutch people to manipulate and work with the land in Holland/Zeeland/Flanders (eventually The Netherlands), the viewer can see why the Dutch rely so heavily on design and planning. Everything in Dutch design, especially in The Hague and Amsterdam, revolves around water and waterways.

After reading both Betsky/Eeuwen’s False Flat and Meyer’s “Composition and Construction on Dutch Delta Cities,” I am still left wondering about the mix of old and new cultural style and architecture. Having been to Amsterdam before, there is a lot of quiet historic areas. Most of the modern buildings, from what I can remember, are by the docks and around the main waterway through Amsterdam. I would like to research how the modern style of Dutch design was created in association with the traditional, historic buildings. Was this (recently) new design created with the traditional in mind? Were they meant to compliment each other or contradict, showing a riff in cultural styles and times? How does a city mix the old with the new in a way that it pleasing for tourists, residents, and future industry? This is what I will be focusing my paper on this week.


Amsterdam Canal, November 2014.

During our trip to Amsterdam, I am interesting in seeing the Schröder House, The Anne Frank House, and Amsterdam’s houseboat community. I am also interested in seeing how the old, traditional Dutch architecture style blends with the new modern and contemporary style we read about in False Flat. When I was there last I did not notice the new, and was drawn to the old, historic buildings along the canals. It will be interesting to see how they play off one another.


7 thoughts on “Architecture & Waterways: Past vs. Present

  1. You raise some really interesting questions! For me, the extension of the Stedelijk Museum does have some important links to the museum and the culture of the Netherlands. Let’s not forget that the Stedelijk Museum is a museum for modern and contemporary art and design. However, the building does not reflect the interior space. Perhaps in the addition they wanted to emphasize the impact that modern and contemporary art has on the Netherlands. As we’ve seen in False Flat, there are a lot of artists, architects, and designers branching out from the Netherlands producing work that they believe holds a Dutch identity.

    Also in regard to your comment about how it takes away from the beauty of a historic building, I think that producing a building that has a shocking appearance and so starkly different from the original building adds to the beauty of Amsterdam. The beauty that is evident in other buildings where temporality flows in excess to represent a historic and modern Dutch identity in one design.

    For your paper I would delve into the many questions you bring up in your first and this last post. You have a lot of complex and wonderful ideas to work with, now you just need to flesh them out!


  2. I think many of the questions raised in your original post are a great starting point for your essay. In particular, where you argue that the modern buildings must draw a lot of attention, I think this argument can be furthered by comparing Rotterdam and Amsterdam. As Professor Troutman says in his comment, comparing the modern sections of Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and how and why they developed the way that they have, would be very interesting. By including information from Han Meyer’s article you will be able to provide a solid foundation for your comparison and how it affects the people who live in the Netherlands. It is intriguing that you remember Amsterdam to be very historical from your last visit and I am excited to see how what you remember compares to what you see when we arrive in a couple of weeks!


  3. Thank you for the comments!
    After reading the building reviews and Mark Wagenbuur’s bicycle blog, my questions about old and new architecture and their balance still remain. While Kraanspoor seems to fit in its location architecturally, the bath tub extension of the Stedelijk Museum sticks out like a sore thumb. It has nothing to do with the rest of the museum or the culture of The Netherlands. Yet, is this the point? With modern and conceptual art, is no meaning behind a piece the purpose? While the bath tub represents the modern architecture and engineering, was it really the right choice of content for this location? WHY a bath tub? Justin Davidson says that there is a “seamless integration of old and new”(2). But is it really seamless? Davidson also mentions that the bath tub shows “the continuity of the artistic experience”(2). But how does the bathtub do this better than a less obnoxious building would? Personally, it takes away from the beauty of the historic museum.

    In Wagenbuur’s blog, there are many examples of bicycle culture and how architecture and planning have adapted and grown to accommodate the bicycle. This includes cycling paths/tunnels through buildings such as the Rijksmuseum and creating more safe, bicycle friendly traffic patterns. Good thing The Netherlands is so flat! I really enjoyed watching the construction of the Rijksmuseum cycling passage and the Commute Through Amsterdam video. It really showed how easy and organized bicycle travel is in Amsterdam. The bicycle junctions video showed how safe and efficient it is to ride a bicycle with cars. “Amsterdam Children Fighting Cars in 1972” shows how far urban planning has come. Amsterdam recreated itself, becoming less urban but that does not mean less efficient. It created a safe, clean city rich with preserving culture. Architecture and urban development are both very planned and efficient in The Netherlands but still leave room for creativity and originality.

    False Flat shows the mostly architecture and design of buildings and graphic design and not as much urban planning. Urban planning of bicycle lanes and traffic patterns seem just as important, if not more so, than building architecture because it deals with the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.


    1. I wonder if the “bathtub”‘s designers were thinking like Koolhaas–as Betsky says, he wanted you to *fight* with the architecture (those sloping floors that are too steep), to struggle with it, to make it justify itself. And that was *successful* architecture! Clearly they didn’t want it to “blend in.” So, yes that was their point–but the question will be, I think, what kind of relationship does the new structure build with its surroundings? and is this a productive or interesting relationship?


  4. Rotterdam! Yes, very different from Amsterdam! On Betsky’s narrative–and on the presence of the skyscrapers themselves–it is important to remember that Rotterdam’s old center was bombed out by the Germans (after which The Netherlands quickly caved and invited them in–something we’ll talk about w/ museum culture–how much is this part of their national narrative?). But Amsterdam has had plenty of opportunity to build skyscrapers, right? (unless geology prevents it). What differences to you see between Rotterdam vs., Amsterdam’s modern sections in the Eastern Docklands, in what images you can find online?

    Also: I like what you’re picking up on in B/E’s argument about the quotidian nature of much of Dutch architecture–that it’s meant to respond to the way people live and not to call attention to itself. Yet at the same time, much of it does precisely call attention to itself–e.g., every single thing designed by Koolhaas (whether in the Netherlands or elsewhere)–but again, maybe that’s Rotterdam v. Amsterdam?

    And finally about the mixing within neighborhoods–there has been much demolition and rebuilding over time in Amsterdam, esp. in the 1960s-70s. And also lots of expansion, so lots of in-between architecture: row houses built in a somewhat modern style, plus apartment blocks built with new “social housing” ideology. We’ll also be looking at 1920s Amsterdam School architecture as well–again in large developments of apartment blocks.

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  5. I agree with what you’ve said about the architecture and Dutch infrastructure contributing to a broader sense of identity. It almost seems like a spirit inhabits these nooks and crannies of the Dutch sense of self, expressed through these unique dams, bridges, and canals. I agree with AJ’s comment about Betsky’s confirmation bias narrative. He seeks only evidence that proves his point, and doesn’t shed light on exceptions.

    If I were you, I would continue talking about architectural balance as it is a very potent discussion piece. A compare and contrast with other examples of balanced and unbalanced architecture could could be an interesting essay topic for you to pursue.


  6. I think your point that the modern and historic buildings in Amsterdam are (mostly) separate is a really good observation. The narrative story in the introduction of False Flat follows almost a history of Dutch Architecture as Betsky rides through it. Yet he does not mention times when his timeline is disrupted by buildings that don’t fit the style, this is probably due to wanting to make his argument stronger but also perhaps architectural styles lend themselves more to their like rather than buildings of other styles. (not my personal opinion I love when you can see the evolution of architecture in a single plaza)
    However, in my mind and experience in Germany the city centers tend to be the old parts of the city and modernism creeps out from there, but Betsky describes the old houses on the edges of the cities. This shows a distinct choice of his and a shift in view of the Dutch towards modernism, and celebrating the new over the old. With modern design being so different from “traditional” I wonder what contemporary Dutch architects think of the styles that came before them.


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