The Polder Model: Dutch Identity in an Artificial Landscape

By: Jackie Gase

In the seventeenth century, the Netherlands was considered the “Golden Age” due to the explosion of economic activity, trade, science, art, and urban expansion (Meyer 71). However, this environment did not grow overnight. It took centuries for the Dutch to develop their landscapes to become favorable for economic and urban growth. The Dutch have a long history of transforming the landscape to accommodate their cultural and urban desires. From an early period, the Netherlands worked to make their cities more accessible and protected from nature. The success of their land transformations evolved into the “Golden Age” of the seventeenth century. In present day Netherlands, the people continue to adapt and transform this landscape. Central to the transformation of the Dutch environment from its origins to today is the “polder model.” Through the polder model, the Netherlands created, and today create a completely artificially constructed place based on instances of collective Dutch desire to transform the landscape as a way of self-representation, to show a sense of who they are. Examples in Han Meyer’s chapter Composition and Construction of Dutch Delta Cities, False Flat: Why Dutch Design Is So Good, the Architectural Record, and the blog Bicycle Dutch prove that the artificial transformation of Dutch landscapes reflect a collective Dutch identity.

Polders are pieces of low-lying land protected by dikes that are reclaimed from the sea or a river by humans. The word evolved from this scientific definition to define a model of economic and social development based on cooperation despite differences. From an early developmental phase in the Dutch landscape, Dutch culture was centered around collaboration and cooperation to construct an artificial environment. This collaboration is evident in the canals, dams, polders, and dikes produced by the Netherlands to remain safe from the water but also to exploit the water for trade (Meyer 71).

Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and other cities with the inclusion of dam at the end of the name, are examples of dam cities, one of the many urban development’s undertaken from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries. The dam cities transformed the landscape to design an artificial harbor that with the use of a dam could manipulate water level and clean the harbor from sediments. Due to this, the dam towns were the most favorable places for urban growth with a direct connection to open water, protection against flooding, and a water system that cleaned the water for the use of citizens and industries (Meyer 68-69). In this example, the transformation of the landscape was to offer good conditions for port development and trade, the number one Dutch industry at the time. Therefore, the environment was changed to reflect the identity and development of Dutch cities to port towns and trade centers. However, Dutch did not only change the environment for economic concerns but also social.

The Amsterdam canal ring was built in the seventeenth century by the Amsterdam elite. The canal ring was constructed behind existing dikes and interspersed streets with water canals in a semicircular construction spanning a little more than half a mile (Meyer 74). However, the canal ring had no pragmatic purpose even though it was expensive. The environment was transformed because the upper-class Amsterdam society desired to display the power and wealth of their city. But why transform the landscape instead of building a monument?

The Dutch ability to create and adapt their environment defines who they are. Unlike many other cities, the Dutch has a strong relationship with water and their landscape. They interact with their environment differently choosing to redefine nature in their construction and cooperate with the complex and dynamic character of the Dutch delta. In changing the landscape in a way that introduces canals of water to the center of the city, the Amsterdam elite are emphasizing the dominance of Dutch identity and culture in the power of creation and artificial domination over the landscape. A monument would not illustrate Dutch identity the way an artificial landscape does.

In present day Netherlands, the Dutch continue to transform their landscape to illustrate a collective identity and present culture. Aaron Betsky and Adam Eeuwens in False Flat discuss a popular skateboard park in the middle of a street called Blaak in Rotterdam. The skateboard park was created when youth communities and recreation officials worked with business groups and neighborhood officials to provide a safe space for kids. Resident owners were unhappy with the loitering of the city’s youth on street corners. So, the skateboard park provides a fun, active space to be utilized by these kids. Betsky also notes that the park looks an installation of abstract sculpture, that the park is not an unsightly view but is designed so that it will be seamlessly incorporated into the city as both a park and art (Betsky & Eeuwens 330).

Here, the landscape was transformed to provide a useful space for city youths, as well as provide an artistic installation to a lackluster urban area. In all cases, the park was built with attention to a Dutch identity and environment. They took the space to provide for a community area that links to some popular cultural activity for kids, skateboarding. Second, they designed the space to not stand out in the environment but be incorporated into the hybrid styles of traditional (office buildings) and modern (art installation/skateboard park) space. Finally, the collaboration and consultation with a variety of groups in negotiating the space and design is evidence of a successful polder model. The city worked to figure out what the needs are for the children and for the other residents, yielding a successful compromise. The result is a space that showcases the cultural values of Dutch children, and Dutch identity in how they determine space and design in an environment that emphasizes a proper area for work and enjoyment (Betsky & Eeuwens 350).

Another change in the current landscape is seen with the reconstruction and addition of bicycle routes in Amsterdam. Due to the lack of space, bicycling has become the most popular mode of transportation in the Netherlands. Appealing to the current cultural changes and popularity with bicycles, Amsterdam is transforming some of its streets to give cycling more space. The transformation comes with similar connotations to the development of canals, polders, dams, and dikes to provide access to open water and production of a port town for trade. Now that the city of Amsterdam has changed to provide for industrial employment, and with the introduction of office buildings, the Dutch are adapting to their new environment by using bikes. At this point, Amsterdam decided that it was time to adapt to its landscape following past tradition of creating what is needed in their environment.

Mark Wagenbuur describes the changes to his own neighborhood from 2010 to 2015 as a part of a citywide makeover cycle plan. The town of Hertogenbosch transformed their infrastructure to produce a main cycle route through the main street of Maastrichtseweg, the main entrance road into the city center. First, the city blocked off the second access street for cars and established it as a bike line. Now, the traffic is forced to follow one designated path. Also, many service streets and through streets off the main road were removed or changed to reduce parking spaces and are now designated as main cycle roads that motorists are guests to; this is controlled by way of speedbumps, friendly to cycling but not to heavy motor traffic. Wagenbuur emphasizes that the design makes it so that the motorists have no other choice than to take the new route selected for them.

Biking has transformed the landscape of the Netherlands to construct an environment that aligns with current Dutch identity. Applying the polder model, the city negotiates and collaborates with local towns, motorists, and bicyclists to provide an environment that benefits all of them. Dutch identity is based on the notion that through compromise, collaboration, and cooperation, everyone can be satisfied. Moreover, finding a way to understand the true needs of everyone and establishing it within the landscape, much like the city did with the new bicycle routes (Betsky & Eeuwens 330).

Beyond transforming space and infrastructure, the addition and redefinition of architecture also constructs a self-reflective landscape. The original entrance to the Stedelijk museum has a neo-renaissance design. The recent extension features a modern glossy white covering that is likened to a bathtub. John Lewis Marshall states in his article that the addition is linked to the original building only just, and the juxtaposition of the old and new buildings collide starkly. While some do not like the combination of the two contrast structures, the design allows for the preservation of the past while showcasing the present.

The Netherlands are flourishing with modernist artist, architects, and designers producing work that showcases a new Dutch culture of design and style. However, this modernism progressed with traditional roots. Many design collectives speak of the influence traditional Dutch architecture and art have had on their own designs. They utilize and transform their reality, reorganizing and perfecting what is already there (Betsky & Eeuwens 156). So, instead of extending the Stedelijk Museum and mimicking the original building, the architects wanted to show a timeline of Dutch identity.

The original building was built with a neo-renaissance design, a style which drew inspiration from mannerist techniques or the baroque, an art style prevalent in sixteenth and seventeenth century Netherlands. The baroque was so prominent because of its clear and easily interpreted detail. The Dutch affiliated themselves with these aesthetics because of the physicality of the painting. The Dutch landscape was physical, there was no hidden meaning or hidden structures in the environment; “seeing is knowing is making” (Betsky & Eeuwens 206). However, the Dutch landscape also likened to Baroque art because of its integration of multiple classical forms to create one picture. Similarly, the Dutch landscape is an amalgamation of style, buildings, and nature all in one world. So, historically, the Stedelijk Museum aligned with Dutch identity and culture. However, today as a museum for contemporary art and design, and with Dutch identity and culture evolving, the design should reflect the current attitudes of the public. Therefore, the architect chose to produce a modern design with the original building.

The modern design reveals the presence of contemporary and modern art in the Dutch sphere. The white “bathtub” façade celebrates modernism and the effects of modernism in Dutch culture. The combination of the two designs reflects the changing cultural attitudes of Dutch art and design while also noting significance of the past and how former Dutch culture and identity is still noticeable today in a modernist world through redefinition and redevelopment of forms and ideals. Furthermore, the combination of the two designs replicates the entire Dutch landscape, an artificial place that is built using both traditional and modern modes of design and theory. So, while people think that the Stedelijk Museum does not look nice, it represents something larger. It celebrates and honors the history of Dutch identity and culture.

This essay shows that the Netherlands architecture and designation of space has a self-reflective quality. The Dutch landscape is marked with spaces and buildings that reference current or past culture. The main thing about the Dutch I admire is their determination to represent a Dutch identity in their landscape. Whatever the majority of people identify with, the Netherlands records it in their environment, transforming space and buildings to align with current attitudes and desires.


Betsky, Aaron with Adam Eeuwens. False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good. New York: Phaidon, 2004.

Davidson, Justin. “Critique: There Goes the Neighborhood.” Review of Bentham Crouwel’s Stedelijk Museum extension. Architectural Record (September 2012).

Meyer, Hans. Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands. APA Planners Press, 1990.

Wagenbuur, Mark. “Maastrichtseweg 5 years later.” Bicycle Dutch (November 2015).


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