Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A different kind of wealth distribution in 17th-century Amsterdam paved the way for its quintessential home design.
Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series on the home designs that define four European cities: London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris. Read the collection here.
Amsterdam’s canal houses may be beautiful, but we shouldn’t assume that they were always sites of a leisured, easy life. Look closely at the appearance and layout of these skinny, extremely photogenic buildings, laid out across the city’s canal belt during the Dutch Republic’s 17th century peak, and there are telltale signs that they were built not solely for living: Cranes projecting from their gables; deep, murky plots; and internal staircases almost as steep as ladders. Indeed, these houses may still be impressive, but when completed, their uses were a little different from what we might associate with a “house” today.
“The canal houses were from the outset combined residences, storage units, and places of business,” says Wouter Van Elburg, architectural historian and Ph.D. candidate at Amsterdam University. “Taking their form in the 17th century, they reflect the Dutch mercantile spirit of the time that said, ‘if we can sell it, we’ll use it’.” Their distinctiveness—few other standard European urban home types still around today had their character fixed as early as three hundred years ago—reflects Amsterdam’s particular history. In the days when Amsterdam was Northern Europe’s dominant port, “there was a different wealth distribution than in most European countries,” says Van Elburg. “While at the time most countries were still controlled by kings, here there was a substantial amount of wealth among the bourgeoisie.”
At a time when most European states’ wealth was still concentrated in the hands of a tiny landed gentry, that broader Dutch bourgeois clientele created a different template for urban architecture. Master builders sought to display the aspirations and wealth of their occupants, but also to create buildings that functioned as viable quasi-commercial units.
Many goods spent some time being warehoused in buildings along the city’s canals. Up to 50 percent of canal house space was used for storage, says Van Elburg, with households buying up less perishable food at times when it was cheapest and storing it or re-selling it throughout the year.
That doesn’t, however, mean that people were necessarily living in smelly, dirty spaces sleeping cheek-by-jowl with barrels of salted herring. “Looking back in traveler commentaries from the period, there is one thing that crops up time and again,” says Van Elburg. “They all point out this idea of Dutch houses being so palatial. There's a sense of little palaces standing everywhere in the country.” Calvinist mores tended to mean the greatest displays of opulence were concealed inside the building, and even households with just two or three rooms might sleep together in one to retain the best room for representational display purposes.
Once you understand its past, the canal house’s character starts to make a lot more sense. A typical example has a gable (or in 19th century examples a cornice) that is equipped with a crane. With goods being taken up regularly to attics for storage, residents needed an easier route to get goods (or furniture) to the upper floors than heaving it upstairs, so houses came equipped with an easy-to-use winch.
With this crane in place, internal staircases became extremely narrow and steep: Nothing heavy necessarily needed to be carried up them and doing so freed up more commercial space for warehousing. Meanwhile, the extremely deep plots canal houses were built on, which sometimes allowed space for a small courtyard garden and a “back house” behind it, mattered less if dingy rooms at the rear were used for something other than living in. (Indeed, it was the depth of the plot that made it possible for the Frank family to shelter in relative concealment in the “back house” of a 17th- and 18th-century canal house on the Prinsengracht)
This mix of wares and people in the canal houses remained constant until the 19th century, when French occupation saw Napoleon demolish the guild system that facilitated small-scale warehousing. A fast-rising urban population not yet matched by a construction boom, meanwhile, meant that by the 19th century people were becoming more profitable occupants for basements, attics, and back rooms than goods. By the end of the century, altered building regulations and more international influence meant Amsterdam moved on to newer (albeit not necessarily better) forms of apartment housing. Nowadays, canal houses have largely been converted into apartments, and even those in former working-class areas are highly sought after. They often make great places to live, but they have their quirks—not just steep staircases but also attic bedrooms with such sharp-angled walls you can only fully stand up under the roof’s ridge.
The move away from canal houses to apartment housing doesn’t mean that their influence has necessarily been lost, says Van Elburg. Indeed, they have still heavily influenced future layouts. “Later Dutch housing still has the typical long corridor going the length of the building from the front to the back door.” Another thing that was retained was the idea of keeping one “good room” sealed off and used only for special occasions. Even today, you might find yourself in a contemporary Dutch building with a staircase almost as steep as a ladder.
Meanwhile, modernist icons such as Rotterdam’s Cube Houses might seem a thousand miles away from the Old World charm of the Amsterdam canal belt but nonetheless echo their predecessors in the vertical layout and angled walls. Even as materials and aesthetics have shifted, characteristics of the canal house are still alive and well in the Netherlands, even if they’re breathing inside a different skin.
In the next piece in this series, we’ll look at the Paris’s Chambres de Bonne.