Blending in and standing out 

by J. Streker 

We had twice as much time to read about Amsterdam as we did to experience it. Did our readings and blog posts ready us for our trip? For me, they absolutely did. The most influential part of our readings for me, was leading me to look at Dutch design and lifestyle universally. While the readings and frameworks often talked about one facet or another there was a lot of bleed over and flexibility in applying those frameworks to different things then they were intended for. Widening the frameworks allowed me to see one major similarity between all the bits of Dutch culture we discussed. This similarity is the constant balance between integration and separation. The modern architecture of Amsterdam, the bicycle infrastructure, the “acceptance” of colonialism, and the women of the Red Light district constantly fight the same internal struggle.Perhaps this struggle comes from the creation of the land they live on. Integrated into the country side but separated from the sea it was once a part of. How do they resolve this tension? And how does this tension permeate through other aspects of Dutch life?

When one thinks of the architecture of Amsterdam, one probably does not think of the modern architecture. It’s more common to think of the traditional canal row houses than the new buildings of the North or the additions to the Museumplein. But two of these modern buildings are perfect examples of the Dutch balance of integration and separation: the dog’s ear of the Museumplein and the EYE Film Institute Museum. We read about the first bit of architecture, or perhaps decoration is better, in relation to the Stedelijk bathtub. It was used as a counterpoint to the more obtrusive bathtub. It swoops up from the level plein literally standing out from the larger flat surface, but the continuation of grass from the park connect it to the traditional plaza. Oppositely, it is the sight line of the EYE Film Institute that connects it with the river it is named after. Reduced to a mere silhouette it appears to rise out of the Ij River in a smooth transition from water to land (also reflecting the history of the city). However, the media of the building makes it stand out from the concrete and brick of its surroundings.

The architectural writings on individual buildings like the bathtub and Kranspoor looked at the buildings and how they best integrated their surroundings into the design. The bathtub was unsuccessful because of its lack of connection to the original Stedelijk building. It is maybe more relevant to the collection of the museum but not the building the collection is housed in. On the other hand, Kranspoor used the traditional foundation as a jump off point to inform the rest of the building and even incorporated space as a kind of buffer zone between the two pieces that eased the transition. Both the dog’s ear and the EYE museum took into consideration their surroundings but integrated their own elements to make them unique and eye catching without become eye sores.

What is a better and more popular symbol of Amsterdam than the bicycle? The integration aspect of bikes into Amsterdam is obvious. They are the first class citizens of the city, having priority in almost all transport situations. Despite their consistent life in the city and integration into its culture, individual riders are trying to stand out too. We need only look at VanMoof bikes to see how designers and patrons are trying to stand out in a sea of riders. While they have recently turned towards more traditional silhouette of bicycle, the traditional Dutch Granny bike, they are more famous for their sleek, modern, industrial aesthetic. This allows the business to stand out because of their unique looks and approaches to manufacturing, but it also allows the rider to stand out. Riders of VanMoof cycles are as integrated into the fabric of the city as any other rider, but they also stand out because of the style and the ideals they speak through their bike choice.

So far I have talked a lot about how certain aspects of Amsterdam are more integrated into the city with aspects of individualism. However, there are also may examples of isolated cultures, peoples, and ideas that are being dehumanized by their integration and their separation. For example, acknowledging their colonial past. The Troppen museum has tried to do a lot to talk about the colonialization of the Dutch Indies, Suriname, and other locales but the way they integrated it into their exhibitions have only served to separate the histories and the people even more. Jennifer Tosh brought up many interesting ideas and questions about how we, as colonizers, can frame colonization and colonized/enslaved peoples with respect and without entitlement. I don’t know if I can think of a way that this is possible though, at least in my life.

The struggle of the workers in the sex industry was highlighted by Arnold Karsken’s photographic essay One Way to Live. There are several problems with Karsken’s essay, which I will discuss later, but one of the positive aspects of it is how it presents the women in relation to the city around them, and the city at the center of this class. The women are presented in personal and public spaces, some are in their own apartments and some are on the streets of Amsterdam, but all of them (except one) are alone. No matter where they are they are separated from everyone else, living in the literal grey spaces and shades of their portraits. These women are not Red Light workers, they work in a different area of Amsterdam, but like the Red Light workers they are separated from their audience. In this case not by a pane of glass, but by a camera. They stand out in space as the only living thing, but blend into the tone of their surrounding (a distinct choice made by Karsken). The women are individualized, each has their own story to tell, but by doing so they also become a group just based on how they are presented as a photographic essay and not as individual portraits.

The workers have to fight in the essay itself, trying to portray their own sensibilities and personalities through Karsken’s framing. Karsken overwhelms his subjects, pretending to give them an objective platform but really framing them in his own light, giving them a voice on his terms. Now the women not only have to fight to stand out in real life, but in Karsken’s quasi-critical light as well.

Integration and separation, a balance all people have been striving for in all cultures throughout time. However, the Dutch have made this balance into an art. The tension of these two opposing forces creates a dynamic city that is both modern and historic. The buildings and the infrastructure seem to do better than the people under this pressure though.


Arnold Karskens. “One Way to Live.” Critique of Anthropology, vol. 7, no. 3: pp. 69-79. Nd. Web.

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

Tracy Metz, “Kranspoor,” review of Trude Hooykaas’s Kranspoor reuse/office structure, Architectural Record (Feb. 2011)



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