Essay 1

The Architecture of the Human Spirit

The Netherlands is a nation of freedom and determination. Amsterdam shows off Netherlands culture from its inception out of the sea to become an epicenter of multiculturalism. The history of Amsterdam’s creation through architecture helps us understand the social and political history that has shaped Amsterdam into what it looks like today. An objective history lesson cannot fully encapsulate Amsterdam’s spirit, but through the nuances of the city’s cultural climate throughout history, we begin to connect to the city. The meandering streets, the sun rising above the water, and the manmade playground creates a sanctuary for those within. Nescio’s “Young Titans” shows an intimate view of the city through the universal process of hope, defeat, and acceptance that every bright-eyed boy will go through. Understanding the Netherlands’ history and how architecture was a reaction of the times, combined with the emotional and deeply personal relationship between a person and their city, one can understand Amsterdam’s essence.

In many ways, the Netherlands was created by sheer will of the human spirit, from dragging the country out from underwater to being a place of freedom and refuge for all people. From the early 12th century, the Dutch were creating ways to overpower the water that surrounded them. These innovations were ever adapting to new technologies of the Dutch people. From poulters to dams and dikes, the Dutch have managed to create their paradise. Once the Netherlands were out from underwater, Amsterdam’s city started to be created through canals. The city was constantly changing to accommodate more people and more ideas. The geometric planning of the town expanded into what we see today. The city’s architecture tells a story of not only technological developments but also social changes to Amsterdam.

The Reformation of the 16th century highlights The Dutch value of religious freedom present in an architectural shift from Catholic to Protestant. The protestant reformation values help us understand the city’s planning with a focus on functionality and impact rather than excess. This trait is carried on through the 20th century as present in the Amsterdam School and Bauhaus architecture. Amsterdam’s different religious identities are reflected not only through the various religious buildings but also with all the architecture of everyday life. From the protestant-esque row houses to the neo-classical royal palace, the architecture tells the story of the Dutch’s intertwined and complex values.

The architecture of the 17th century compared to the 20th may seem wildly different, but both embody Amsterdam’s spirit. The classic Dutch architecture of Vermeer’s “The Little Street” comes to mind when many people think about Amsterdam with the brick building opening right onto a canal. The architecture of the Dutch has always had an emphasis on function before style. Another aspect of the architecture of Amsterdam and the Netherlands is the eclectic styles all in one place. Baroque next to Neo-Renaissance next to Bauhaus, emphasizes that the Netherlands is a melting pot of different cultures and styles. There is no “classic Dutch architecture” as Joppe Schaaper, an architectural historian, says because every building has its own story and reason. This same spirit of freedom of expression during the Reformation is present in the Amsterdam School architecture emerging with an emphasis on social spaces. The city itself is an oasis of beauty with canals, parks, and intimate spaces. As you dig deeper into the history of Amsterdam’s creation, it is clear that Amsterdam’s sanctuary has been created intentionally and with every person regardless of religion, social status, or wealth in mind.

The story “Young Titans” by Nescio embodies the universal queries surrounding aging and life itself in the guise of how Koekebakker sees his home of Amsterdam. “Young Titans” is a story that anyone who has grown up calling one place home can identify with. The ever-changing reality of life seems inconsequential compared to the stagnant beauty of a town we know. For Koekebakker and his friends, Amsterdam will always be their world, no matter the changes that age and fortune bring to the different boys.

Where is that one spot you would always feel grounded where you grew up? Whether it’s a particular bridge, the neighbors swing, or with your toes in the sand, those places contain the constancy and beauty needed by everyone as they navigate the unpredictable.

For the young boys, the world was at their fingertips. Rebellion coursed through their veins as they wanted to be greater than the expectations of their lives. This ragtag group of boys has come together regardless of wealth or identity because they feel a need to revolt against the status quo of life.
Amsterdam is Nescio’s boy’s sanctuary in which all dreams of theirs are possible. There is hope for all as they watch the tide come and go. Nescio describes the monotony of longing for fulfillment in the world, and even when we remember that it exists all around us, it is all too natural to forget. This universal conundrum, taken into the context of his city, allows us to comradery with Koekebakker and Amsterdam. The nights sitting at Oosterpark talking for hours or sitting on the dikes to watch the sunrise are just as essential to the experience of Koekebakker as the conversations themselves. Where we grow up informs how we see the world, and Nescio shows how interconnected Amsterdam is for these boys. The world seemed infinite because of the surroundings of this group.

How could one not think they could change the world as they look out on a city created by the tenacity of the human spirit.

The feelings of confusion, frustration, and isolation that every teenager feels when faced with the inevitably of their lives paired with Amsterdam’s background feel like they can understand the city through Nescio. Much like Amsterdam’s functional architecture, these boys must realize, however begrudgingly, their functional and necessary parts to play in society. Through this functionalism, they find beauty in their own lives and destinies, just as the Dutch created beauty in their creation of buildings and cities. As Kokkebakker ages and watches his city change and stays the same, he writes, “God’s throne is unshaken” (Nescio 62). In turn, Amsterdam might not always be perfect boys Eden; the relationship they have to Amsterdam is unshaken.

The foundation of Amsterdam creates not only a beautiful landscape but an unabashed spirit to the city. Like the golden ratio to the Greeks, the Netherlands’ precise planning permeates into the culture of the people. The spirit of a city cannot be understood without history, nor how that spirit manifests in the people. In many ways, Amsterdam’s history and spaces are an echo of the sanctuary that Nescio describes. From the poem writing to job hunting, their lives weren’t perfect, but they were influenced by the city surrounding them. The sanctuary for the boys in their attic, is by no means an ideal space, with its backward wallpaper and eclectic decorations of shovels and proverbs, but it was there own. Every moment spent in that attic led them to the men they were in life. Their attic was their personal history, just as Amsterdam is the history of every man and woman who lived, hoped, and grew with the city.

Amsterdam is in no way an Eden of the world. There are social, political, and natural problems that occur just like the rest of the world, however, Amsterdam and the Dutch have always strived to create the perfect city. Amsterdam’s architecture and design show this history of innovation and adaptation to the natural forces outside the city’s control. The visual history of this city parallels the boys in Young Titans’ experiences with Amsterdam. While Amsterdam might not be the poetic dream they hope, it is a home that they always return to. The city’s design informed the hopes and desires as well as the disappointments of boyhood for Nescio’s Young Titans. In old age, Koekkebekker looks back on the city no longer as a place to want to leave, but as his home and memories attached to it. From the Reformation to the Golden Age to a few boys wishing to write poetry, the history and memories have shaped Amsterdam into what it is today. Highs and lows, mistakes, and progress, Amsterdam’s architecture reflect the journey of the people.


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

Joppe Schaaper, “Amsterdam Architectural History Crash Course”, video lecture #1 and  #2, Amsterdam: City as Work of Art, GW, Summer 2020.

Johannes Vermeer, “The Little Street” 1657, Oil on Canvas, Rijkesmuseum Amsterdam


One thought on “Essay 1

  1. I also wrote about how the Dutch created their city basically from nothing, even having to reclaim much of the land on which it was built. I really like the direction you took this idea, as while I focused on the actual physical form of the city, you emphasized its spirit. This is such a nebulous concept to define and describe, yet it is very real, and you capture it quite well. Amsterdam embodies the Dutch spirit of innovation, freedom, progress, and hard work, and the city feels as though no other culture could have or would have built something similar. I especially liked your mention of the varied architectural styles of the city and how that captures the melting pot of the Netherlands as a whole. The Dutch did not have their own distinct style of architecture, but took styles which already existed and ran with them, adapting them to their unique needs and environment.
    You also address the idea that, alongside all the freedom and expressiveness, there is also a sense of functionalism to Dutch architecture and culture. A feat of Amsterdam’s magnitude could not have been achieved without the collaboration of huge numbers of people over hundreds of years, and certain aspects of Dutch architecture also reflect this functionality. Amsterdam exemplifies beauty in design, and the way a city can perfectly reflect the culture of its inhabitants.

    Liked by 1 person

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