Netherlands: The Influence of Space and Design

From the Album: Keepers by Hans Van Der Meer (

I thoroughly enjoyed reading David Winner’s “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer”. Winner makes a compelling argument that Dutch have a unique value of space, which defines their approach to football and how they see the world in general. Winner begins by declaring that, “space is the unique defining element of Dutch football” (Winner, 44). He goes on to explain that Ajax, the Dutch national team, utilizes the entire space of the football field – playing “Total Football”- to optimize the use of pitch-space and player energy. Rather than sticking to a set position, Dutch footballers play the field, their positions are determined by filling in the empty spaces and keeping the other team on the defense. Winner explains that, “Dutch think innovatively, creatively and abstractly about space in their football because for centuries they have had to think innovatively about space in every other area of their lives” (Winner, 47). Additionally, Winner elaborates on how Dutch have relied on planning around space since the Twelfth century. Since the lands are flat, many of the houses are built vertically with tall staircases to maximize area. Additionally, since most of the population reside in the cities, which are built along the waterways, the Dutch have figured out how to collectively build dikes, canals, polders to prevent flooding and natural disasters. Relying on mathematical calculations, precise measurements of space, and distance became imbedded in Dutch culture. Winner explains how this instinctual need to analyze space infiltrated Dutch culture (art, architecture, sports) and reveals how the Dutch see the world.   

As previously mentioned, Dutch cities, landscapes, fields, and polders have all been meticulously mapped out and manually constructed to optimize space against the encroaching waters. Han Meyer goes into great detail about how the Dutch have utilized their land/space, crafted water management techniques, and built their cities by adapting to natural conditions of the territory. Chapter three and four of the Meyer readings go into great detail about the history of Dutch territory and how the Dutch cultivated their land, built canals, stored and transported water, and generally adapted to their surroundings. Chapter four in particular reveals how the natural conditions shaped the urbanization of the Netherlands. Meyer’s writing style reads more like a textbook, informing readers about the historical details and changes throughout the urbanization of the Netherlands. He goes into great detail about how dikes were built around Holland, and how residents needed to dig networks of canals for transport between lands. Furthermore, Meyer explains how the ideals of the times (i.e Italian Renaissance in the 17th century) and how the people in power influenced engineering and city planning. Meyer explains that, “new polders demonstrated that spatial planning was a discipline that integrated agricultural and economic policy, town planning and urban design, hydraulic engineering, demography, and social studies” (Meyer, 80). Looking at polders today after learning about the history of the land development from Meyer, one can better understand the thought process for the urban planning and how the designs are reflective of the communities they serve.

“False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good,” by Aaron Betsky, offers a modern perspective and analysis of the importance of space in Dutch cities. I find Betsky’s reading particularly interesting after reading about the historical development of Dutch cities because I feel like I can relate to the reading and better visualize the subject matter. In other words, I feel as though the Meyer reading taught me about a history that I am far removed from. While I find learning about the methods of land development important and interesting, I found Betsky’s reading a pleasant supplement that shows how the methods Meyer discusses apply to modern life — a reality that I am personally familiar with. For instance, Betsky explains his daily bike ride to work towards Rotterdam’s downtown. The description of his daily routine helps me to visualize, the “linear development along dikes, roads, and now highways, connecting points where first water and now traffic is controlled”. These descriptions help me see how the Dutch designed their land and utilize their space to reinforce their environmental values and needs. Additionally, I really enjoyed the large vibrant pictures Betsky includes in his book. Betsky elaborates on the history of the city, discusses how the Dutch culture and space development are intertwined, but focuses on how these things are reflected in modern day.

Winner argues that the importance of mapping and space utilization manifests itself throughout Dutch culture and society. Meyer goes into great detail about how and why the Dutch pay specific attention to specific details in space. Lastly, Betsky reveals how urban planning and the history of his surroundings influence life today. Winner’s writing demonstrates how the importance of space in the Netherlands influences all aspects of life- even sports. He touches a little bit on how the landscape created and perpetuated this cultural obsession with mapping and planning, but Meyer’s reading really delves into the history of the land and why members of Dutch society rely on engineering techniques to survive. Betksy’s reading brings this experience of learning about the use of space in Dutch culture full circle. His bike ride to work touches on this history of the land but more importantly, he highlights how history coincides with the present and shows how things in the past are still relevant today.


4 thoughts on “Netherlands: The Influence of Space and Design

  1. I’m so glad you liked the combination of readings here (and you also Aidan) and I’m glad you picked up on the contrasts between Betsky vs. Meyer, et al. The latter are indeed writing not so much a text book but a primer on how and why the Dutch manage water (and therefore land) in the way they do. Its audience, I think, is mainly urban planners, engineers, and policy makers interested in various solutions that will bear on choices coastal cities will be forced to make in light of global warming and sea rise. I was on a bike ride Sunday with a climatologist (who is currently prohibited by administration from using the phrase “climate change”) who just casually mentioned that the National Mall was once a swamp and part of the Potomac, and will be once again. The lower parts of Hains point regularly flood already. Betsky is an architect who could definitely go toe to toe w/ Meyer et al. in terms of his technical understanding of the issues, but yes, I chose this piece for all the reasons you name–that he gives a human-scaled perspective on what this means in practice, as part of the urban experience.


  2. Hi Cheney! I think you’re totally right that Betsky is who brings us “full circle” with these concepts; that narrative idea of him riding his bike around the city definitely helped me get a clearer picture of the tangible consequences of the different stages of development, architecture, and design in Dutch history, especially when it comes to urban planning and hydraulic engineering. I especially got thinking about climate change and rising sea levels with all this— I wonder what kinds of new structures a city like Rotterdam will have to build to adapt, and what kinds of new design doors that’ll open!


  3. Hi Cheney,

    I like how you connect all three perspectives in your final paragraph. I also liked this combination of readings because it connected history, the modern day, and how space plays an unexpected role in many facets of Dutch culture. Just as Betsky explains how modern architecture is often a merger of traditional and modern approaches, his reading as well as Meyer’s offers the same seemingly contrasting connection. I thought David Winner offered a powerful and insightful perspective that really made me think. I wonder how our soccer team reflects American culture (if it does at all)? What do baseball and football say about us as a people? There was a Harvard statistician who published a paper some years ago which conclusively demonstrated that punting in football is virtually always a mistake that results in a less desirable outcome than going for it on 4th down. I’ve always wondered why coaches continue to punt despite this research, and am now curious if this is somehow a reflection of an American ideal? Would Russians always punt? What about the British or the Italians? Unfortunately we’ll never know because they don’t play the sport, but I think this radical idea Winner proposes is worth much more investigation. Groupthink clearly plays a role, but the fact remains that groupthink originates somewhere from something.


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