Circles on Canvas: Amsterdam’s Spatial Evolution

While some cities are recognizable due to certain landmarks or architectural styles, others require only a quick glance at a map of their layout to identify, and there is perhaps no better example of this than Amsterdam. Gazing down at the city from a bird’s eye view, one immediately recognizes its two most striking features: its rings and its topography. Emanating out from the city’s epicenter at the IJ, the body of water where the River Amstel and the North Sea Canal intersect, Amsterdam’s rings chart its history like the rings in a cross-section of a tree. And like a horizontal cross-section, the rings are not marred by hills or valleys or any of nature’s other unanticipated interventions. Rather, Amsterdam is incredibly flat, much of its land reclaimed from the waters around it and sitting at or even below sea level. The metaphor of a blank canvas comes to mind, featureless and flat and ready to be drawn upon. In this metaphor, the cities are separate and independent drawings, each inscribed onto the shared canvas of the Dutch landscape. The city of Amsterdam, like most other large Dutch cities, is planned and designed through and through, starting with the very land which forms its foundation and continuing into the carefully ordered canals and streets which run through it. These features are not just incidental quirks or easy features to spot from a plane; they are fundamental to the city’s very identity. These two elements—the flat, human engineered landscape upon which the city was built and the concentric system by which it was designed—are two hugely important themes which inform Amsterdam’s history and explain how the city arrived at its modern shape.

The flat space which Amsterdam now occupies—its stretch of blank canvas—originated as a swamp which, through centuries of intensive water management and land reclamation, was transformed into a large tract of dry land suitable for human habitation. Crucial to this process of reclamation is the unique landform known as the polder, which, according to the third chapter of Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands, “is the most distinct feature of the Dutch Delta Landscape” (Meyer, et. al., 45). This entire chapter describes the process of creating a polder, essentially a piece of reclaimed land surrounded by dikes and embankments which keep the water out and allow the land inside to be urbanized or used for agriculture (Meyer, et. al., 45). Polders are the main source of the Netherlands’ blank canvas, and they give Dutch cities their distinctly flat topography. Over thousands of years, the Dutch developed various methods of polder creation which continue to evolve to this day, becoming increasingly efficient both in creating new land and using the limited land which is already available.

While polders and land reclamation are integral to many Dutch cities, the process which specifically created Amsterdam’s stretch of canvas occurred in the Middle Ages, especially the thirteenth century. By 1275, Count Floris V of Holland formally recognized the settlement of “Amstelredam,” meaning the dam on the River Amstel (Feddes, 12). For the next few centuries, Amsterdam would grow to a roughly symmetrical city, divided down the middle by the Amstel and united by the dam across it. This layout is most similar to the archetypal “dam town” identified in chapter 4 of Delta Urbanism; in fact a map of Amsterdam around 1400 is used in this chapter as an example of this city plan (Meyer, 67-68). In A Millennium of Amsterdam: Spatial History of a Marvellous City, author Fred Feddes describes Amsterdam as chromosomal in shape, “with two parallel strings which are connected at one point” (Feddes, 26). The chromosome is the first of many visual metaphors Feddes uses to represent the city, essentially shaped like the letter “H” and bisected by the Amstel. Both Meyer and Feddes remind us that, in this early stage of development, the concentric growth which would later come to characterize Amsterdam had not truly begun. However, the groundwork, or rather waterwork, was being laid in the form of the Singel canal. This canal served as a moat around the young dam town, and would only later be mirrored by additional concentric canals moving outwards from the central chromosome of the medieval city. For most of the sixteenth century, Amsterdam’s most important waterway was the Amstel, its namesake, and it would only later begin to take on the concentric shape which it is famous for today.

The second visual metaphor introduced by Feddes is that of the half moon, which he uses to describe the city in the seventeenth century. As the city expanded in population it needed to expand in size, and after smaller expansions in the late sixteenth century, four new rings were  added at the beginning of the new century to provide space for its new inhabitants. The innermost three, moving outward, were the Herengracht, the Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht, known together as the “ring canals” (Feddes, 75). In the mid-seventeenth century, the rings were expanded all the way around the city, taking their current shape and completing the half-moon. The half-moon metaphor reminds us that Amsterdam is not actually circular, as the IJ (later expanded into the North Sea Canal) essentially cuts it down the middle, leaving a semicircle instead. The fourth and outermost of these seventeenth century rings was the defensive wall and moat known as the Singelgracht, which formed the bark around the tree and would remain the city’s outermost extent for the next century and a half. Feddes provides the map below, created by surveyor Gerrit Drogenham, one of my personal favorite maps of the city. It roughly depicts Amsterdam’s unchanged layout from 1688, when the map was produced, into the mid-nineteenth century, when a new wave of rings would surround the old half moon in a new expansion. Visible in the center is the chromosomal shape of the old city, bisected by the Amstel. Surrounding it is the Singel, then the Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht, and finally the Singelgracht.

It is here that I’ll turn to the perspective of architectural historian Joppe Schaaper, who explains the way the city grew out from this center, slowly abandoning the strict half-moon and taking on a more sprawling shape. While Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands described the city’s foundation, examining Amsterdam from the ground up, and A Millennium of Amsterdam described the city’s core, employing a bird’s eye view, Schaaper looks at the buildings constructed in each period to provide a a walking tour through time beginning at the center of Amsterdam in the fourteenth century and moving out through the twentieth. Schaaper’s lecture, “Architectural History Part 3,” picks up in the mid-nineteenth century. For the previous century and a half, the city had remained essentially unchanged in shape, and had actually declined in prosperity due to the end of the Dutch Golden Age and their waning position on the world stage. In the latter half of the 1800s, however, buildings like Amsterdam Centraal and the Rijksmuseum were constructed in the Classical and Gothic Revival styles. Large public parks like the Vondelpark were constructed as both practical and symbolic additions to the growing city. These styles would continue into the early 20th century, when a new ring grew from the tree.

Schaaper calls this next expansion “Ring ‘20 ‘40,” as most of it was built between 1920 and 1940 in an architectural style known as the Amsterdam School. This new, expressionistic style emphasized brick and and rounded, naturalistic forms. It was heavily implemented in new planned sections of the city, giving them a unique character which places them clearly in space and time between the World Wars. Schaaper’s emphasis here is on architecture as the defining element of concentric rings, rather than horizontal urban planning. The interwar ring is depicted in the map below, and it is evident that the city’s shape is becoming looser:

With this vast concentric zone added, we come to the post-war years, in which the metaphor of tree rings became obsolete and branches became a more accurate description. In this period, Amsterdam grew even further, with huge planned sectors added to the city in all directions in what was known as the General Expansion Plan. It had been devised before the war, but could not be fully implemented until the 1950s. Neighborhoods like Amsterdam New West were constructed in a style inspired by German Bauhaus and New Objectivity. The Bijlmermeer neighborhood, built atop a new polder, was also constructed in an innovative style, but has only recently shaken its reputation for high crime rates and poverty. North of the old center of Amsterdam, the islands of the North Sea Canal were renovated and new islands were created, another example of the Dutch creating more canvas when existing land ran out.

With that, the tree of Amsterdam is complete, forming a portrait of a city where each ring is preserved in time, expanding out from an old center and culminating in branching outskirts representing new experiments in creating habitable space. By employing a variety of perspectives, from land reclamation to city planning to architectural design, we can gain a more complete picture of Amsterdam as a whole, identifying the common themes which permeate its history. Now, as climate change threatens the low-lying city and space continues to run out, the concentric model of Amsterdam is becoming obsolete, as the city turns to new directions for housing such as the islands recently built near the old center. Amsterdam’s history largely consists of the Dutch building new circles across their blank canvas of a landscape, but only time will tell if the canvas will run out.


Fred Feddes, A Millennium of Amsterdam: Spatial History of a Marvellous City, 4thed. (Bussom, Netherlands: TOTH, 2012; 4thed. 2015), excerpts.

Han Meyer, “Composition and Construction of Dutch Delta Cities,” in Han Meyer, et al., Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands (APA Planners Press, 1990), ch. 4 (65-99).

Inge Bobbink and Steffen Nijhuis, “The Making of Dutch Delta Landscapes,” in Han Meyer, et al., Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands (APA Planners Press, 1990), ch. 3 (45-63).

Joppe Schaaper, “Historical Architecture.”


One thought on “Circles on Canvas: Amsterdam’s Spatial Evolution

  1. I loved this metaphor “Amsterdam’s rings chart its history like the rings in a cross-section of a tree”. I thought this metaphor was so accurate as city development started from the ring canal and grew outward. I couldn’t agree more that this unique process of development later became the identity of Amsterdam. I enjoyed how well you connected Feddes, Meyer, and Schapper into your description of the city’s development. How Meyer, and Bobbink and Njijhuis’s writing is about building foundation, and Feddes and Schapper’s is about history. I also loved were able to gain a more complete picture of Amsterdam as a whole through these perspectives. Going back to the point that the unique design of Amsterdam is their identity, did you know the street design of Jordaan in third expansion followed the original footpath of the informal urbanization outside the wall? Therefore, the city was not only built by the city’s administrators, but also by the people of Amsterdam. I thought this was an interesting fact to throw, as it explains the complicated and unique design of the city, and backs up your point of identity.

    Thanks for amazing writing!!


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