Amsterdam in the eyes of the youth and the adult

The focus on the surrounding environments tends to shift when a person turns from an adolescent to an adult. When I was younger, I used to be fascinated by nature around me just like Nescio’s main character in “Young Titans”. The attention on nature gradually fades away as I grew up. My eyes start to focus on the modern architectures that have filled up the horizon. Koekebakker, who is the main character of “Young Titans”, goes through a similar phase. He will guide us through the landscape of Amsterdam overtime at different stages of his life. From Koekebakker’s youth to his adulthood, we travel from the rural landscape of Amsterdam to the center of the city. When entering the later stage, we also rode along with Aaron Betsky, the architect and designer, to explore how humans struggled with the environment and the way city planning evolved. The journeys of Koekebakker and Betsky converged and diverted but all reveal the transformation of Amsterdam’s landscape as time progresses.

Amsterdam is a city below sea-levels. It is a flat land that is originally swamps. Thus, the city is constructed by dikes, dams, canals and the ocean. When Koekebakker was still a kid, these are the features that formed the landscape in his eyes. He and his friend used to spend times around the dikes, the canals and the seaside. However, this playground is not enough as they expanded their playing field to the meadows and the hills. From there, they saw stars and the sky. The scenery is precious to them as the view still has not been occupied by high buildings and streetlights. They were away from the forests of architecture and embraced by wild nature. Thus far, there was not much altitude in the eyes of the children as they enjoyed the rural landscape of Amsterdam. The sense of “get out” of the urban city described by Nescio diminished when the boys were at these places.

Nevertheless, the adult world inevitably infiltrates the world of the youth. In “Young Titans”, Koekebakker and his friend often had to work in the office for the businessmen, in which they were kept “out of the sunshine and away from the meadows and the seaside.” (Pg. 40, Nescio) The presence of the adult world and their exploitation of nature seems to be overwhelming. The idea of human incorporating nature into their surrounding and controlling nature arises from this small incident. A type of strain between human and nature addressed by Betsky is implied through the interaction between the children and the businessmen. There is also this strain on the perspective of nature in Amsterdam between the youth and the adult. Little did the youth know at the time, the meadows and the seaside would be physically altered and erased from their views in the future. As depicted in Betsky’s article, the meadows are cleared for the construction of “the high-speed train line from Paris to Amsterdam”.  (Pg.24, Betsky) The destruction of the greens resulted from the decision made by the governors and perhaps businessmen who had the power to impact the city planning. The children are not just being blocked from nature from the inside of the architecture but also when they are outside. Their longings for the natural landscape in Amsterdam are destructed by the adults. However, as Betsky mentioned, nature fights back. Flooding is one of those revenge of nature. Humans who want to control nature have to confront it through building architectures that are resilient to nature, including the channels, dikes and dams.

As Koekebakker entered adulthood, we are able to explore more environments and cities surround Amsterdam. Compared to the neighboring cities and towns of greens and hills depicted in Nescio’s text, Amsterdam presents a more modern and artificial landscape. As the memory of the youth fades away, the sense of nature in Amsterdam also diminishes. The artificial aspect of the landscape of Amsterdam suddenly become outstanding. Even though, this sense of feeling is always present it is not as prominent in Koekebakker’s youth. We suddenly see the world of Amsterdam in Betsky’s eye—a more architectural and less hazy perspective. Architectures with elegantly designed interior became the focus after Koekebakker’s return to Amsterdam. As adults, they went in and out of these buildings to carry out business. The Central Station of Amsterdam turns into a crucial link between Nescio’s characters, and between Amsterdam and other cities. The station should be one of the vital inland transportation systems for Amsterdam as the rails are connected with multiple cities around Amsterdam. It provided us another aspect of Amsterdam’s transportation apart from the systems established by the channels and water routes. Both Nescio and Betsky recognize that these routes are constructed for commercial purposes. They bring in wealth and trade that made up the city of Amsterdam.

Moreover, the wealth from commerce constructs the beautifully and carefully designed city in Betsky’s lens. Putting aside the struggle between nature and human, residents of Amsterdam appreciate the way their city is planned. The architectural beauty of the modern landscape is undeniable. According to Betsky, the Dutch are master at utilizing space. They applied geometric planning to the city of Amsterdam by integrating its architectures with manmade nature and transportation systems. The planning itself is an “atheistic model” as Amsterdam is organized into different blocks by channels, dams, and roads. (Betsky, Pg. 44) However, the design of the Dutch landscape was once in chaos, but the Dutch were able to find their way back and restore their city through atheistic planning. Prestigious architects and designers were brought in while new policies were enacted in support of redesigning the city into a more delightful place.

Regardless of all the changes Amsterdam had been through, there are several features of the landscape that accompanied Amsterdam from the beginning to the end. Agreed by both Nescio and Betsky, a certain natural landscape of Amsterdam is indomitable, immortal and monotonous. The sun and the ocean are never changing. Even if human inhabitants of the city are able to alter the shape of the land and parts of the water, the innate character of nature remains the same. Artificial cityscape and architecture are different. They are not the “endless domain” and are vulnerable to change. (Pg. 50, Nescio) As stated by Betsky, architectures are always prone to change in time, technology and idea. The same concept applies to Amsterdam—buildings are taken down when new policies are enacted or new concerns on housing emerge. New designs are coming into Amsterdam like ocean waves to fulfill the desires. Joppe Schaaper, the architectural historian, stated that the new design idea of creating a spacious neighborhood with green and light emerged because Amsterdam is concerned about the quality of the living spaces for the lower class. Thus, the planning, style, and material used to build Amsterdam changed once again to achieve the collective goal of making Amsterdam lovable again.

Although the transformation of Amsterdam toward modernity is aesthetic in the perspective of Betsky, the “tamed” land created by adults is not appreciated by Koekebakker. (Pg. 22, Betsky) He found the artificially planned city to be distasteful. It is the longings and the innocent days from his youth that he missed. The uncomplicated world of the youth allows him to view Amsterdam simply as playing fields filled by nature. However, as he steps into the adult world, his world contains not only innocent nature but the complexity expressed by the urban landscape of Amsterdam. Every action of his has to be carefully planned like the city itself. Every decisions adult make is intended for specific purposes. Life as an adult is also as intricate as the transportation system of Amsterdam. The residents of Amsterdam live like the city. The transformation in one’s life is the same as Amsterdam develops from a plain land into a complex yet beautiful landscape.

The journey of Amsterdam has started with the vision of the youth and ended with the perspective of the adult. We traveled through Amsterdam as if we progressed through the life stages of a person. The landscape of the city evolves as if it experienced the up and down in people’s life. At the end of the time, the land is to be returned to nature in some form. As for now, humans will continue to struggle with the domains and construct an ever-changing city on them in the eyes of the adults.

Reference:

Aaron Betsky, False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good (New York: Phaidon, 2004), ch. 1.

Joppe Schaaper, “Amsterdam Architectural History Crash Course”, video lecture #3&4, Amsterdam: City as Work of Art, GW, Summer 2020.

Nescio, “Young Titans,” 1914 in Dutch; transl. in Amsterdam Stories (New York Review of Books, 2012), 35-62.

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2 thoughts on “Amsterdam in the eyes of the youth and the adult

  1. Hi!
    I loved this journey from childhood to adulthood through our surroundings in your essay. Your connection between the boys in Nescio’s “Young Titans” with the more objective, yet beautiful narrative of Betsky is poignant.

    The relationship with the changing scenery reflected by their changing attitudes and ages is interesting. For you is there one that causes the other, or is the natural parts of life that play hand and hand? Like Zach, I appreciated your idea of nature being incorporated into modern cities and how that relates to our inner childhood. f
    Great work!

    Like

  2. Zhao,

    I really enjoyed your essay. Thank you for sharing it with us. Your message about how we inevitably move away from nature and towards urbanism as we age is very profound.

    Recently, due to COVID, I have spent a lot more time in nature itself. I have grown to reappreciate my love for nature. Your message about how nature can be respectfully incorporated into modern cities is important and one that urban planners throughout the world should adopt.

    I look forward to reading your next post!
    -Zach

    Like

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