Amsterdam: The Dutch Utopia

Meticulously designed with intricate waterways, Amsterdam is a planner’s paradise. Growing rapidly in an “onion-like” shape, the city loses none of its characteristic design with the addition of each respective ring. Despite the rapid expansion, this growth has not been without challenges. Sitting two meters below sea level, the Dutch have historically struggled with reclaiming land from the sea. While the fight to control nature is ongoing, the Dutch have risen to the challenge and have set out to not only control nature but to redesign it. Planned with ambitions of utopian perfection, Amsterdam is as close to a utopian city as any. It comes as no surprise that Amsterdam was ranked twelfth in the world for quality of living (Solanki). This city, known for its clean and safe environment, feels like a utopia— but only for a select group of people. It is evident through its architecture and monuments that the Dutch still have a ways to go in achieving this utopian status.

The city’s idyllic architecture speaks to these utopian ideals. Following the Amsterdam School movement, the Bauhaus movement favored function over expressionism. Inspired by the New Objectivity in Germany, spacious green areas replaced buildings as the point of visual attraction. Architect Siegfried Nassuth, otherwise known as the Dutch Le Corbusier, brought this design movement to life with his creation of the Bijlmermeer neighborhood (Joppe). Nassuth believed that the separation of recreation, living, and working environments would result in the ideal utopian setting (Joppe). The high-rise buildings and raised roads designated for heavy traffic achieved this compartmentalization but rather than eliminating crime, it increased. Architectural historian Joppe Schaaper attributes this increase in crime to the separated nature of the neighborhood. With people tucked away in their apartments, the large amount of uninhabited open space was an invitation for illegal activity. 

This design model was not just ineffective in Amsterdam rather it failed worldwide. American journalist Jane Jacobs criticizes this utopian model in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs explains the importance of having “eyes on the street”: “The safety of the street works best, most casually, and with least frequent taint of hostility or suspicion precisely where people are using and most enjoying the streets voluntarily and are least conscious, normally, that they are policing” (Jacobs). Thus, the removal of stoops inadvertently eliminated convenient gathering space. Without this communal space, individuals retreated into their homes leaving the streets unwatched (Phillip).

Pictured above is Kleiburg apartment in Bijlmermeer. Regarded as “the last man standing in the war on modernism”, this apartment building is a reminder of failed ambitions (“DeFlat Kleiburg”). With futuristic roads stemming from the ground, green space is abundant. This space, however, fails to be functional. Its vastness produces a worrisome feeling similar to that of being lost in the woods. With nature overshadowing the man-made world, sentiments of comfort and security are replaced with anxiety and fear. While loud traffic noises may be irritating, these sounds are comforting in the fact that they represent close human activity. Without such reminders, the societal social code is at risk of being broken. 

In addition to its poor design, Bijlmermeer also suffered from a lack of diversity as predominantly lower-income families lived in this area. Today, many of the Le Corbusier inspired high-rises have been replaced with buildings closer to the ground, allowing residents to immerse themselves in neighborhood happenings. Despite this architectural change, diversity in Bijlmermeer has not improved as mainly people of color live in this area (Kuper 231). In Ajax, The Dutch, The War: Football in Europe During the Second World War, author Simon Kuper notices the segregated make-up of Amsterdam while reflecting on his experience at an Ajax game in Bijlmermeer: “Inside the Arena I am always struck by the people you do not see: the dead Jews, of course, but also the Turks, Moroccans and Surinamese, who hardly figure out in the crowd”( Kuper 232). The crowd’s lack of diversity is reflective of a separated society. The more privileged Amsterdammers seem content with remaining within their utopian bubble. This sheltered attitude runs deep as many Dutch people turned their heads when their Jewish neighbors were persecuted during World War II. 

While Nassuth failed to create a utopian society with architecture, the Dutch have created an illusion of a utopia with its Holocaust monuments. The statue of the Dockworker located in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter is a prime example of a monument that supports the Dutch savior narrative. This monument commemorates the February Strike of 1941 where dockworkers went on strike for two days to protest the Nazi round-up of 425 Jews (Congress). The dockworker featured in the monument holds his chin up giving the impression that he is actively observing his environment. With one foot position in front of the other, he seems ready to act. 

Being Amsterdam’s only act of resistance against the Germans, the Dutch proudly celebrate this act of heroism as an example of Dutch virtue. While it is important to respectfully commemorate acts of bravery with admiration, a single brave act does not cement Amsterdam on the “good side” of history. The sad truth is that, unlike the dockworker, many Dutch individuals lowered their gaze at the sight of adversity. 

Despite the courageous picture that the Dockworker monument paints, Amsterdam more often than not was a city dominated by complicity rather than bravery. Kuper writes about this complicity saying, “Amsterdammers did bow before tyrants yet lost neither body nor goods and now live in a beautiful Disneytown where the light has not gone out” (Kuper 229). It is possible that Amsterdammers do not realize their wrongdoing because they have never experienced retribution. Speaking a language foreign to most, the Netherlands has the unique ability to offer the world a rewritten version of their history (Kuper 217). This selective history is best represented by the Jewish Quarter, which serves to show the “goodness of Amsterdam” (Kuper 228). This area once populated by a thriving Jewish community is a shell of its past. With few Jewish people left in the city, the facades with Hebrew letters and other monuments serve more as tourist attractions than a residential space for the Jewish community. Kuper describes this situation perfectly: “This city has welcomed Jews for hundreds of years and is sorry that it now has almost none left” (Kuper 228). 

Although many monuments were built to bolster public image; there is a select group of monuments that do respectfully pay tribute to victims. Listing over 102,000 names in a walkable maze-like structure, the Dutch Holocaust Memorial of Names “places emphasis on victims instead of victors” (Lebovic). This monument works particularly well due to its size. Because of the inscribed brick walls, passersby are forced to recognize the names that make up this structure. Unlike the Dockworker monument, the Dutch Holocaust Memorial of Names carries no heroic agenda; its only goal is to honor victims. By valuing victims over image, Amsterdam can begin to start properly memorializing Holocaust victims.  

Unfortunately, Amsterdam is not unique in its struggle to memorialize victims without performative intentions. Especially in the United States, social media performance has become a significant issue. The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired many people to publicly condemn racism on their social media platform, yet it is questionable how many of these individuals follow their own advice and take the time to sign petitions or educate themselves. Similar to the Dockworker monument, posting once on social media does not make an individual a champion of human rights. Ultimately, change is made through never-ending work and reflection. The present cannot change if we are unwilling to understand the past. Failing to acknowledge its complicit history, the Dutch will continue to turn a blind eye to current issues such as gentrification and inclusion. 

Amsterdam will benefit when it relinquishes its utopian aspirations in favor of working toward understanding its full history. With the failure of Le Corbusier’s design, Amsterdam has already architecturally failed to achieve its goal of becoming a utopia; thus, there is no reason why the city’s monuments must carry on this illusion. Of course, it is admirable to aspire for perfection; however, this quest is exhausting. The Dutch cannot change their past; however, they can change how they come to terms with it. The first step is acknowledgment. Like the Dutch acknowledged the shortcomings in Nassuth’s utopian developments, Amsterdam must acknowledge its role in Jewish persecution. Coming to terms with such a dark history is certainly no easy feat, but perhaps the first place to begin is by starting with the Holocaust monuments.

Work Cited

Congress, World Jewish. “Amsterdam Marks Anniversary of 1941 Mass Strike in Support of Jews.” World Jewish Congress, 2016, www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/news/amsterdam-marks-anniversary-of-1941-general-strike-in-support-of-jews-2-4-2016.

“DeFlat Kleiburg.” EUMiesAward, 2020, miesarch.com/work/3509.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, 1961.

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

 Kuper, Simon. Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe during the Second World War. Orion, 2011.

Lebovic, Matt, et al. “Dutch Holocaust ‘Names’ Memorial Finally Puts Emphasis on Victims Not Victors.” The Times of Israel, 4 Dec. 2019, http://www.timesofisrael.com/dutch-holocaust-names-memorial-finally-puts-emphasis-on-victims-not-victors/.

Meershoek, Patrick. “Architect Bijlmer: ‘We Dachten Dat Geluk Te Maken Was’.” Het Parool, 25 Nov. 2017, www.parool.nl/nieuws/architect-bijlmer-we-dachten-dat-geluk-te-maken-was~bbc6876b/?referer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F.

Phillip Troutman, “Live Video Chat with Joppe Schaaper, History on Demand”, zoom recording #2, Amsterdam: City as Work of Art, GW, Summer 2020

Solanki, Mina. “Amsterdam Just Misses Top 10 on Mercer 2019 Quality of Living Ranking.” IamExpat, 14 Mar. 2019, www.iamexpat.nl/expat-info/dutch-expat-news/amsterdam-just-misses-top-10-mercer-2019-quality-living-ranking.

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3 thoughts on “Amsterdam: The Dutch Utopia

  1. I too wrote about the onion like shape to Amsterdam, and found it to have an impact on so many aspects on the ways of life from people of Amsterdam. I think you touch on a really good subject, in that the onion like model plays into the division of classes within Amsterdam, and how it has catered to the ease of separation between the lower and upper classes. When the city feels so divided into layers, I think it’s incredibly accurate and possible for there to be class division between the neighborhoods, because the architectures and planning defiantly caters to certain groups. I thought this idea was a great message that was echoed through you piece, because you do a great job speaking on the utopia idea that Amsterdam really isn’t when they have issues like those mentioned. Overall, a really great piece, and like I said, I think you did a great job conveying your message when you have great evidence on ideas such as the onion model fueled division.

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  2. Well done, a different take than many. As many focused on Betskey’s perspective you expanded beyond that wish nourished my view on a now familiar topic. Readers will be given quite a description of what Amsterdam is as a city work of art, a Utopia?

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  3. Hi!
    This paper was a joy to read. Your connection of this utopian dream of Amsterdam to its architecture of buildings and memorials is fantastic. This essay draws out the underlying issues with a seemingly utopian society.
    Your paper has shown me a new way to consider how the architecture of a place can reflect the achievements and shortcomings of these societies. While I’m sure it wasn’t the intention of the Dutch to segregate classes and populations like it wasn’t their intention to erase the horrors of the Holocaust, the lack of awareness as you mentioned, reverberates throughout the city.
    I’m curious about the ways Amsterdam has tried to combat these issues internally as they have attempted externally. The changing of the Architecture of buildings for safety and diversity and the memorialization issues brought up by you seem like a bandaid over a wound that needs to be addressed rather than plastered over.
    Great work!

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