Amsterdam as city of work of painting by David Hyon

Have you ever watched the process of oil painting on the canvas? From dot to lines to the whole canvas, artists slowly express the image in their head to the painting. To me, Amsterdam feels like a painting on the land created over the centuries. Throughout the multiple expansions, Dutch painted their idea, culture, history, and beliefs in the city of Amsterdam. These features are smeared and displayed all over the city through city design, architecture, and arts, and it is nearly impossible to understand from one glimpse.

ADAM, the dam on Amstel river, XXX, Venice of the North, or Mokum; Amsterdam is called many different names due to the variety of characters Amsterdam presents to the visitors. In my first visit to Amsterdam, Amsterdam felt like a giant maze. Landing at the Schiphol airport, taking a train to Amsterdam, and arriving at Amsterdam Centraal, then walking across the bridge to look for my hotel. From the glimpse of the city, I could already tell Amsterdam was different.

Small allies packed with pedestrians, curved streets filled with more bikes than vehicles, and similar houses along the canal. Amsterdam was clearly different from any other cities I have visited, and it brought so many questions. Why are the streets so narrow? Are cars able to go through here? Why are there so many canals? Won’t people fall? Why is there no one drinking the coffee at the coffee shop? And why is there a moving tram in the middle of the pedestrian street without any safety fence? One of the busiest areas in Amsterdam is Dam square where the original dam used to be. I remember my friend asking me a question when we are at the Dam square, “Where is the dam?”

I have my own weird ritual when I travel to a new city which is exploring the city without looking at the map. Usually, this ritual helps me get comfortable with the layout of the city and sometimes surprises me to an unexpected discovery. However, due to this ritual, I was lost multiple times in Amsterdam. Due to bent and curved streets, walking on Amsterdam streets feels like being inside of a fairy tale or fantasy adventure story; you never know what is at the end of the street. Sometimes it is connected to small alleys full of houses, sometimes to huge squares, and to busy shopping streets. Similar design of the buildings and canals makes it even harder to get around the city, Which Joppe would disagree with.

When Professor Troutman described the design of the Amsterdam canal house to Joppe as ‘Amsterdam style houses’, Joppe asked back  “what is Amsterdam style? All of those houses are different”. To him, none of the houses were the same as it is designed in different styles such as neoclassicism or renaissance. I was chuckling as I listened to this conversation. Not only because it reminded me of a joke dialogue about color variation “which color out of these five would fit best for the ribbon?” “ Five? they are all blacks”, but also because it illustrated the Amsterdam style I believe which is ‘difference in unity’.

Author of the book ‘Millennium of Amsterdam’, Feddes, said: “of course the expert will be able to erringly distinguish the successive architectural style, but the urban framework of the canals can easily absorb this diversity” about the canals and canals houses” (Feddes 75). One by one canal houses spark their uniqueness, but together they are expressed as a single entity. Like how lines on the canvas which seem purposeless as one, but together display a beautiful painting, different houses along the canal creates an Amsterdam style canal and different canals together creates Amsterdam.

Comparing Amsterdam to a painting, paint used was the diversity of Amsterdam. Amsterdammers may seem similar as a whole, nice, kind, generous, and somehow fluent in English, but different as a single, even the history proves it. In the beginning, settlement next to the dam on the Amstel river was built for farming purposes by farmers. Disastrous storm in 1160 caused a geographical transformation in Holland and repositioned Amsterdam as an ‘economically lucrative transportation junction in an extensive network of waterways’(Feddes 12). As a result, Amsterdam was no longer just farmland, and from here, Amsterdam started to grow rapidly as a trade point.

As a trade hub immigrants from all over the world flood into the city. The population explosively grew from 1000 in 1300 to 3000 in 1400, to 10,000 in 1500, to 70,000 in 1600,  and 200,000 in 1670. The Backgrounds of these immigrants were truly diverse. When Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1497, they decided Amsterdam would be an ideal place to relocate themselves. Alteration in 1578 attracted German Protestants to the city. The 80 years war tragically caused the fall of Antwerp in 1585, and rich and well-educated refugees of Antwerp resided at Amsterdam which became the foundation of the city’s strong administration and education. The success of Dutch East and West India companies in the golden age attracted more foreign immigrants. Growth was stagnant in the 18th century but quickly resumed in the 19th century by Industrialization. This time, more Dutch domestics migrated to Amsterdam, and the population reached over 500,000 in 1900. Perhaps Amsterdam not only gained in population but also in culture, and comparing it to a painting, diversity in culture meant more variation in colors.

The diverse occupational background of Amsterdammer added more colors as well. From farmer to the fisherman, craftsmen, and merchants, then to trader in the golden age; to administrator when Amsterdam became capital of the Netherlands; to gemcutter after industrialization. As more ethnicity and different occupations were mixed into the city, more ideas were added to the culture and expressed in characteristics such as tolerance and liberty. In a sense of painting, I consider these characteristics as style of the painting.

Another important characteristic of Amsterdam is capitalism. Joppe described the attitude of the golden age as “As long as they can make the money, they don’t care what others do”. Capitalism was the one penetrating philosophy to their diversity which forced them to gather as one entity, Amsterdammer. Economic prosperity was even the reason why city administrators allowed them from living illegally outside of city walls. According to Feddes, city administrators understood illegal residents as a hotbed for the economic vitality of the city (Feddes 81). So, as long as they brought economic value to Amsterdam, they were Amsterdammers. In a sense of ‘difference in unity’, money united them as one style.

The canvas used in the painting Amsterdam was the city itself. Rapid growth in population required multiple city expansions. More lands were reclaimed, buildings were replaced, city walls were torn down and rebuilt, and new city layers were drowned over the old. Change in the belief of the citizens was expressed in different designs of the New and Old church, and to the city hall. The city hall which later became the royal palace was an expression of Amsterdam’s economic success and liberty. Chaotic structure of the ring canal which was the original city and the clean and organized look of the outer ring which was later built displays the history of the city. 

As centuries of Dutch’s philosophy, culture, and beliefs are projected in the city of Amsterdam, it would be nearly impossible to understand the whole city. It would be considered lucky, if one can have more perspective or a deeper understanding of one, perhaps this is the nature of understanding. Great painting gives different senses to every audience and sometimes to one through different visits, and Amsterdam is a great painting. A great painting drawn by Dutch, using culture as colors, character as style, and land as a canvas.

Best way to understand this city would be through experiencing, learning, and observing the Dutch. Through learning about Amsterdam’s history, I gained perspective and another layer of understanding of the city was added. It would still be absurd for me to say “I understand Amsterdam ”, but at least now I know there are no same houses along the canals.


Joppe Schaaper, “Amsterdam Architectural History Crash Course”, video lecture #2 & #4, Amsterdam: City as Work of Art, GW, Summer 2020.

Fred Feddes, “A Millennium of Amsterdam : spatial history of a marvellous city”, 2012.


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