To American eyes, the canal ring of old Amsterdam is charmingly ancient with its narrow, winding canal/streets and picturesque narrow row houses. When compared with the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean, it is relatively young and its architecture and urban planning actually represent the beginning of the modern mercantile age. Unlike the great city states of Greek and Roman culture or the feudal power center of the middle ages, Amsterdam represents the power of trade. An un-important fishing port (the dam on the Amstel) from the 12th century, it grew to rapid prominence and then dominance after the European discovery of the new world in 1492 and the push for control of the shipping trade. During its Golden Age in the 17th century, Amsterdam was the world center of wealth and power. Its design reflects the ages need for defense. When other cities depended on many angled walls with interlocking fields of fire, Amsterdam protected itself with a series of canals that multi-tasked as moats, thoroughfares and the all important Dutch water management (draining useless marsh land into sturdy, buildable ground). Precautions still had to be taken in construction. Amsterdam may look like a city of brick but the whole structure is actually constructed on a huge forest of driven piles – wooden pylons driven deep into the mud and supporting every structural wall in the city. This construction system has held up remarkably well through the centuries although if you look closely at my snaps, you’ll see one or two houses leaning heavily on their neighbors as their underpinnings settle diferentially.
The city is organized in concentric half circles surrounding its oldest construction and working outward. The original defensive moat, the Singel, was rendered obsolete in 1585 when an extensive urban planning project was undertaken to expand the crowded city and provide valuable real estate for the cities leading lights to build grand houses along. Three new canals (grachten) were added with great care, making sure to maintain the cities water defenses througout the process, that the water flow would be continuous to keep the canals from turning into cesspools and to create enough new area to encourage people to spread out while still maintaining enough squeeze to keep the construction exclusive.
For anyone interested in the history of the canals or in any sort of historical engineering and problem solving – I highly recommend the new Grachtenhuis museum which focuses on the history and construction of Amsterdam’s canal system and is housed in a beautiful canal house on the the Herengracht in central Amsterdam.