Short history
Topography

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Introduction

In the course of the 17th century the famous crescent shape of the Amsterdam city centre was designed and realised resulting in the unique ring of canals. A number of narrow streets and canals, fanning out from the centre of the crescent, traversed the network of concentric semicircular canals. On the outskirts of the city centre, the canals ended in squares, where the city gates were located. The squares were used as parking places, since vehicles were not always allowed into the city itself.
Aerial view of the old city centre
The Venice of the North consists of approx. 90 islands, separated by some 100 kilometres of canals and linked by about 400 stone bridges.

About 20,000 buildings make up the historical city centre (800 hectares). One third was built before 1850. Approximately 6,700 "national monuments" (i.e. historic buildings preserved by the national government authority) are located in this area, whereas another 290 "municipal monuments" are preserved by the Amsterdam council. A further 1,160 buildings fall outside these categories. They are labelled "original premises" because of their intrinsic cultural historical interest. In 1989 this monumental whole was recommended for inclusion in the list of protected cityscapes under the Dutch Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act (the legal status is expected to be granted this year). Moreover, the city centre is eligible for a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. After all, Amsterdam is the proud owner of one of the most important intact historical city centres of the world.

Amsterdam is not a city of churches and palaces, but of monumental mansions. The only two houses in Amsterdam worthy of the name palace are the Royal Palace in the Dam Square and the Trippenhuis, Kloveniersburgwal 29. And even these two were not commissioned by royalty or aristocratic patrons. Originally, the Royal Palace was designed to serve as Amsterdam’s town hall and the Trippenhuis was built for wealthy citizens.

Historical photograph
showing the former town hall (1648-55), now the Royal Palace

The monumental character of the Amsterdam city centre is largely determined by numerous 17th and 18th century houses, once owned by wealthy merchants and prominent citizens. Moreover, the warehouses deserve mention. Amsterdam warehouse architecture is unique in the world. Most of the state controlled monuments, however, are dwellings. The ring of canals (Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht; Dutch "gracht" means "canal") is the location of approx. 2,200 buildings, 1,550 of which are listed as historic buildings. Amsterdam's beauty is largely determined by the style of these buildings, better described as "citizens' architecture". The choice of this style was a conscious one. The aim: to replace the Gothic style with its vertical accents and religious overtones by a profane Classicist style. The Royal Palace e.g. contains many supreme examples of symbolism derived from Classical Antiquity.

Historical photographs of NZ Voorburgwal:
near Sint Nicolaasstraat and Pijpenmarkt

In the second half of the 19th century this monumental whole was severely threatened. Canals were filled in, streets were widened and bridges lowered. Many irreplaceable buildings were demolished in the process of restructuring the city. In 1867 the Nieuwezijds Achterburgwal (the present Spuistraat) was filled in and in 1884 the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal underwent the same treatment. Between 1893 and 1896 the Raadhuisstraat-Rozengracht traffic breakthrough was realised. As part of this major restructuring the Warmoesgracht and the Rozengracht were filled in and a breach was created in the rows of facades on the Herengracht and Keizersgracht to allow for the building of a new thoroughfare.

In 1900 watchful Amsterdam citizens managed to thwart the plan to fill in the Reguliersgracht. However, demolition work continued in other areas. The buildings between the Singel and the Keizersgracht were pulled down between 1917 and 1918 to allow for the widening of the Vijzelstraat. Then, in 1925, the houses between the Keizersgracht and the Prinsengracht were demolished as part of the same project. In many other places attempts were made to make the city centre more easily accessible to modern traffic. In the 1930s the Rokin was filled in. Moreover, the Amstel Embankment between Munt and Blauwbrug was widened. Major projects of this type were completed even after the World War II. In the 1950s further plans were made to fill in canals and pull down historical buildings. Fortunately, these plans were only partially realised. Had not the city come to its senses, the Nieuwmarkt and Jordaan areas would now have resembled the Weesperstraat, where a large-scale restructuring (1968) resulted in a motorway connecting the Weesperstraat to the IJ-tunnel. The Jodenbreestraat was widened and similar plans were made with respect to the Sint Antoniebreestraat. However, the successful restoration of the important Huis De Pinto proved a turning point. The municipal policy involving large-scale urban development was abandoned.

Large-scale projects affecting the historical city centre in order to accommodate the needs of modern traffic are no longer to be expected. The monumental mansions which underwent drastic alterations during the 19th and 20th centuries, when many of them were turned into offices, are now being restored to their original residential functions. Since the Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites was founded in 1953, over 4,000 premises underwent restoration. Almost 10% of these projects was completed by Stadsherstel (a private enterprise for the restoration of monuments). The historic buildings are lovingly restored and saved from destruction. The ring of canals is to become once more the stylish residential area it once was. Twenty years ago, only 60,000 people actually lived in the city centre. Over the past two decades this number has gone up to 80,000. However positive this development may be, it is anything but a cause for satisfaction. Out of the approx. 7,300 historic buildings (either state controlled or falling under the jurisdiction of the city of Amsterdam) about 2,400 require restoration. The Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites listed 280 "endangered" monumental dwellings which urgently require restoration.