Modern vs Traditional Dutch Design

By Jen Chiappone


As I read False Flat: Why Dutch Design is so Good and the art reviews from modern Amsterdam buildings, I am still left wondering about the mix of old and new cultural style and architecture. In the past century, Dutch design has innovative and modern yet not obstructive or dull. It has become something truly Dutch and helps to give the Dutch a further, more modern and international identity. While design and architecture is very important to the Dutch, it varies. In Amsterdam, the architecture is mostly traditional which results in a cultural atmosphere enjoyed by both residences and tourists alike. However, in Rotterdam, the architecture is a mix of traditional with more contemporary style. This gives a more industrial and modern feel to the city’s identity. By closely examining the opposing architecture in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, we can see the differences in cities and how innovation in The Netherlands takes different forms.

According to False Flat: Why Dutch Design is so Good by Aaron Betsky with Adam Eeuwens, Dutch design is so good because it seems to fit in with the “everyday landscape” (Betsky 350). Dutch design is about balance and planning. This balance includes the wants and the needs of the Dutch people with the cautious and consensus control of the environment. Everything is planned because even the ground that many of the buildings are built on had to be planned, excavated, and carried out, as I will mention later. This sense of engineering and design gives the Dutch a sense of further identity and nationalism along with necessity in the form of waterways and buildings. While architecture and building design are very important to the Dutch, False Flat does not go into urban planning. Urban planning includes irrigation and water control, bicycle lanes, and traffic patterns. To me, this showcases Dutch design and safety planning.

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. It allowed the reader to be fully immersed and get a real visual image of The Netherlands, even if the reader has never been. The buildings discussed in False Flat, while beautiful and intriguing to the eye, would drastically contrast from the Dutch traditional buildings. Why, in some cities in The Netherlands, is there no balance between the old and the new? Why do some cities/villages embrace the modernity while others chose to stay with traditional architecture?

Han Meyer’s article, “Composition and Construction of Dutch Delta Cities,” gives the history of the Dutch people to manipulate and work with the land. This article is a great example of why the Dutch rely so heavily on design and planning. Because the land had to be meticulously planned and created, so does Dutch Design both traditional and modern.

While Betsky talks about Dutch design, both graphic and in architecture, he mostly uses city examples from Rotterdam, not much in Amsterdam. Why is this? Is this because there is not much modern and new architecture in Amsterdam? In Amsterdam, architecture seems to be more about the traditional Dutch style with modern innovations blending in. From Betsky’s examples, this seems to be the opposite in Rotterdam. In areas of Rotterdam, architecture focuses on glass, light, steel, innovation, and creativity which is quite different from the quaint, wood and stone tall buildings of Amsterdam.

In Betsky’s conclusion of False Flat, he mentions that Dutch design is so good because it is not obstructive. I disagree with this. The modern buildings draw a lot of attention to themselves, mostly because of their sleek lines, the use of glass and light, and imagination that goes into these building. However, not all of The Netherlands is a large, industrial city. These types of buildings do work together and blend well into a singular modern, Dutch skyline, as in Rotterdam and The Hague. But does this architectural style work in every Dutch city? They may be too harsh and off-putting in a more traditional city, such as Delft and Amsterdam. On page 37, Betsky recognizes that not all architecture can be balanced and can work together. Betsky used the example of Rotterdam having different areas of culture, use, and therefore different styles of architecture.

Mark Wagenbuur’s bicycle blog shows Dutch innovation and planning when it comes to roadways and bicycle routes. This includes pathways through buildings such as the Rijksmuseum. Wagenbuur expresses the positives of modern design to be efficiency and safety. I particularly enjoyed the creation of the bicycle and walking paths through the Rijksmuseum. This combines the historic, traditional design of the museum with the innovative planning of modern day. After 1972, Amsterdam recreates itself, making more pathways for bicycles and pedestrians. While this may seem less urban and modern, it is actually more efficient and safe for the Dutch of Amsterdam.

After reading the building reviews and Wagenbuur’s bicycle blog, my questions about old and new architecture and their balance still remain. Having been to Amsterdam before, I know there are 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. In cities, such as Amsterdam, I cannot help but wonder if the modern Dutch design was in any way created with the traditional in mind. In Amsterdam, with less modern buildings than traditional, were the two styles meant to compliment each other or contradict? Either way, experiencing both architectural styles next to one another shows the difference and innovation of both cultural styles and times, creating a celebration of Dutch style and design.

While mostly modern and sleek architecture is present in Rotterdam and parts of The Hague, this celebration of style changes in Amsterdam. Amsterdam focuses on traditional architecture and their cultural ideas of design. While many of these traditional buildings are old and have been preserved to keep their historic charm, many buildings have also been built in the traditional style to blend in and add to the culture of Amsterdam. These traditional buildings have also been updated and renovated with modern windows, heating, cooling, plumbing, and electric. While the architecture is traditional, Dutch innovations and modern interiors are still present.

An example of modern and traditional in Amsterdam is the bathtub extension of the Stedelijk Museum. The Stedelijk Museum is made out of stone in a traditional Dutch Renaissance architecture while its newest extension is glossy and white, overshadowing the rest of the building. Justin Davidson says that there is a “seamless integration of old and new”( Davidson 2). To me, it is not seamless and overpowers the rest of the museum building. However, upon knowing that this is a modern art museum, does the idea of this modern conceptual art extension change? Davidson mentions that the bathtub shows “the continuity of the artistic experience” (Davidson 2). I believe that this is true. While it seems out of place, the bathtub represents new Dutch modern architecture, art, and engineering. This modern art piece that is also a building acts as a precursor to the art being viewed inside. There is no balance and that is ok because that is what was supposed to happen.


Stedelijk Museum and 2012 extention

A good example of modern and traditional architecture in Amsterdam from False Flat is the commercial and residential buildings in Haarlemmerbuurt, Amsterdam (Betsky 187). Here we see traditional and modern Dutch architecture side by side. The modern building to the right plays off the style of the traditional. Both buildings are tall and have large square windows. While this motif is carried out as simple and symmetrical windows on the traditional façade, the motif is reimagined and expanded in the modern building. The windows of the modern house are the complete front of the building, which, allows the viewer to see into the building. It acts as an imaginary internal model for the traditional building next to it. Both buildings are simple and do not over power each other or their surroundings.


Haarlemmbuurt, Amsterdam. Claus en Kaan, 1997.

A question to be raised is: does a city like Amsterdam, that gets more tourists than anything else, change (or in this case, keep) their architecture and their culture to fit in with the stereotype of the location? With visitors expecting a traditional Dutch setting, this may affect why Amsterdam is less urban than another less touristy city such as Rotterdam. Amsterdam may have made the conscious choice to not modernize architecture and stay close to their heritage for the sake of keeping the tourist destination idyllic. While this stands for most of the city, there is still modern architecture present in Amsterdam. This is mostly around the main canal and dock areas. How does a city mix the old with the new in a way that it pleasing for tourists, residents, and future industry? This is a delicate balance between what the residents of Amsterdam want and the wants of one of their biggest incomes, tourism. To me, the traditional architecture of Amsterdam shows me, a tourist, that the Dutch take pride in their cultural heritage and past styles. Most of these older buildings are very well kept and there is a sense of history and pride in these homes and places of business.

During World War II, Nazi Germany invaded and bombed Rotterdam in 1940. After the war, the city was rubble and had to be rebuilt. This may have been a reason why the Dutch of Rotterdam wanted to move drastically from the traditional. With this rebuilding of Rotterdam, the Dutch were able to start fresh without the harsh reminders of war or Nazi occupation. This creates a change of scenery and a new and modern identity for the Dutch. If this is the case, the deciding factor of traditional vs. modern is that Rotterdam was heavily bombed and Amsterdam was not. Amsterdam would not have been ravaged of their cultural architecture as Rotterdam was.

After looking at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, we can see the dramatic differences in Dutch design and history. However, they are both equally as important to the Dutch identity; while one represents cultural heritage, the other reflects the modern future of Dutch innovation. Through Dutch design comes identity, imagination, and innovation that allows the Dutch to express both their historical past as well as their modernity. I am excited to get back to Amsterdam and notice how the traditional and the modern architecture play off each other. I am interested to see the locations of these two types of architecture styles, whether they are integrated or in completely separate areas; or if there is a modernization of the traditional style.




Betsky, Aaron and Adam Eeuwens. False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good. New York: Phaidon Press Inc. 2008. Print.

Davidson, Justin. “Critique: There Goes the Neighborhood.” Architectural Record. 2017. Web.

Meyer, Han. “Composition and Construction of Dutch Delta Cities.” Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands. American Planning Association Planners Press. 2010. Web.

Wagenbuur, Mark. NL Cycling: Bicycle Dutch. WordPress, 2017, Accessed 30 May 2017. Web.


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