Essential Architecture-  Amsterdam


Urban Expansion 

The Medieval City Centre

Amsterdam after 1340 Amsterdam after 1425

In 1342 the mounds located on either side of the river Amstel were raised and extended, the initial stage in the growth of medieval Amsterdam which is still reflected in the street names. The Oudezijds and Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal (i.e. "walls/ramparts" on the old and the new sides of the Amstel river) together formed Amsterdam’s oldest city ramparts. They were, so to speak, the frontline of the new defence (Dutch voor = front). These ramparts were formed by earthen walls strengthened by wooden palisades. The digging of the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal was made a little easier since the rivulet the Wetering was incorporated in the project. The final result was that the small town, which had developed around the dam in the Amstel river, acquired two new boundaries: one on the old side (i.e. the left bank of the river), the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, and one on the new side (the right bank of the river), the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal.
Further expansions were realised after two more canals had been dug behind (Dutch achter = behind) and running parallel with the ones described above: the Oudezijds Achterburgwal (1367) and the Nieuwezijds Achterburgwal (now Spuistraat; 1380). The newly built ramparts were made to converge with the older two at the Haarlemmerpoort and Olofspoort respectively. In this way the old city gates could remain operational.

The development of the ecclesiastical life of the city followed in the footsteps of the urban expansion projects. Excavations have yielded evidence of the existence, round the year 1300, of a small chapel at the Oudekerksplein, the predecessor of the Oude Kerk. In 1334 Amsterdam was granted permission to set up an independent parish. A second parish church, the Nieuwe Kerk, was built at the end of the 14th century. Moreover, several chapels were built.
The religious movement of the so-called Modern Devotion was the impetus behind the founding of several convents outside the city walls (The Old Nunnery in 1391; the New Nunnery in approx. 1403; the convent of St. Paul's in 1415 and the convent of St. Ursula or the Eleven Thousand Virgins in 1419). When a dike burst in approx. 1380 it was decided that a new sea bank was required right behind the Oudezijds Achterburgwal (the St. Antoniesdijk, before 1387). Following this development more canals were dug: the Kloveniersburgwal and Geldersekade (1425), then the Singel as far as the Spui (1428). As a result several convents now came to be located within the confinement of the city's boundaries.

Regulierspoort (Munttoren) in the Munt Square and St. Antoniespoort (Weigh House) at Nieuwmarkt
Remnants of the former city walls: Schreierstoren at the Prins Hendrikkade with the Sint Antoniespoort (Weigh House) at Nieuwmarkt at the background.

In the period between 1446 and 1452 the land south of the Spui was enclosed and became part of the area within the confinement of the city walls (the Singel was extended as far as the Amstel river). In 1454 the ramparts were completed. There were three city gates: Regulierspoort, Haarlemmerpoort and St. Antoniespoort. The size of the city amounted to 79 hectares. Land reclamations continued until well into the 16th century when a quay was built west of the Damrak.

In 1481, at the instigation of Maximilian of Austria, work started on the construction of a stone city wall with towers at regular intervals along the canal. This huge project took many years to complete. In fact the project was not finished until 1494. Remnants of this medieval line of defence are the Weigh House (Waag) at the Nieuwmarkt (i.e. the former St. Antoniespoort), the Munttoren (i.e. the former Regulierspoort) and the Schreierstoren.

Amsterdam in 1538

The oldest surviving map of Amsterdam is a painting by Cornelis Anthoniszoon (1538) showing the result of the medieval developments with the city wall and towers in place. As was usual at the time, the artist is facing the city from the IJ. Therefore, the northern part of Amsterdam is at the bottom of the map.

The raid on the Haarlemmerpoort
by the Sea Beggars. This illustration presents a realistic image of medieval Amsterdam

From the middle of the 15th century onwards houses were gradually "turned to stone". Immediately after the great fire of 1452 a by-law was passed prohibiting the building of wooden side walls. In spite of continuous attempts to ban the use of wood as a universal construction material, wooden facades did not disappear from the cityscape until well into the 17th century. The painting by Cornelis Anthoniszoon (Amsterdams Historisch Museum) still shows Amsterdam to be a city built of wood.

The 1585 Urban Expansion

Amsterdam after 1425 Amsterdam after 1585

Between 1546 and 1560 the Amsterdam housing stock doubled (from 3000 to 6000). Moreover, building activities outside the city walls significantly increased. In 1543 and again in 1548, businessmen launched expansion plans for the Lastage area. However, the plans remained on the shelf (mainly because of land speculation).

In 1585 Antwerp fell. It was not a coincidence that in that very same year Adriaan Anthonisz., one of William of Orange's advisors, was ordered to design a new city wall. This first expansion plan after the Alteratie was necessitated by military reasons: the medieval city walls no longer met the requirements of modern warfare. Between 1585 and 1593 a state-of-the art city wall was built. As a consequence of the project the city was enlarged, at the western edge of town, by a strip of land 60 metres wide (the area between the Singel and the current Herengracht). In the east the Lastage area was added to the city. As a result the size of Amsterdam amounted in total to 168 ha.

The 1613 Urban Expansion

Amsterdam after 1585 Amsterdam after 1613

The rather conservative urban expansion plan realised between 1585 and 1593 soon proved inadequate. In 1613 the implementation of the major 17th century expansion plan was begun. The project was necessitated by the staggering growth of the city. As part of the plan the three main canals as well as the Jordaan were built, with the Singelgracht becoming the new city boundary. This project is known as the third expansion plan. In 1663 a further stage in the project was realised by extending the concentric canals beyond the Amstel river (the fourth expansion plan). These two projects, which are part of an overall plan, resulted in Amsterdam growing to four times the original size within the time span of half a century. The project created sufficient space to satisfy the city’s needs for years to come.

by Hendrick de Keyser (1615); pulled down in 1837

The preparatory work and the actual implementation of the 17th century expansion plans took many years. On July 10, 1609 the proposal for a crescent shaped groundplan was approved. On August 7, 1609 the States of Holland passed a decree allowing for the extension of the city’s jurisdiction for the purpose of the third expansion plan. Such a legal provision was required to enable the city to expropriate the necessary land. In February 1610 the expansion plans drawn up by Hendrick Jacobsz Staets were presented to the city administrators. On July 4, 1611 a committee was set up which was charged with the supervision of the activities. On June 11, 1611 a decision was made to build a Nieuwe Waal. The work on the expansion plan was begun at the western edge of town. On March 5, 1613 the committee presented the map of the new defence walls to the city administrators. A proposal was made to begin in the north- western area (bounded by the Heiligeweg). On August 10, 1613 the plan comprising the realisation of the three concentric canals was approved; followed on August 27 by approval of the plans for the lay-out of the side-streets and side-canals. On November 29, 1613 the administrators decided in favour of the building of the first main canal, the Herengracht. This part of the project did not require any land to be expropriated for the canal was located in exactly the same place as the old city wall. In the course of the months of January and February 1614 all the approximately 200 lots on the Herengracht were sold. In January a decision to build the Prinsengracht had already been made. The Keizersgracht was to follow later. On November 19, 1615 a by-law was passed pertaining to 27 lots located between the Herengracht and the Keizersgracht. This piece of legislation laid down very strict rules pertaining to the sizes of buildings and gardens and the upkeep of plants and trees, as well as the proper behaviour of the occupants. The city administrators intended to curb the breaking of rules and to create model plots. (The basic rules laid down in the 1615 "keur" or by-law pertaining to these keurblokken, i.e. lots to which the legislation applied, formed a topic of discussion even in our days). By 1620 the new canals had been realised for the larger part. Meanwhile, Oetgens, the spiritual father of the expansion plan, benefited tremendously from this undertaking. Because of his activities in the area of land speculation he was to be accused of insider trading.

In the Jordaan area construction work began in 1614, but the district was not built over until the 1640s. The infrastructure was based on the countryroads and ditches which were already in place. Consequently, there were no decent connections anywhere between the new district and the ring of canals. This situation continues to this very day (see illustration on the right). Only the Rozengracht (filled in later) serves as an adequate link. Moreover, the lay-out of the Jordaan caused many streets and canals leading to the ring and the rest of the city centre to join the Prinsengracht at an awkward angle. At the time of the third expansion plan attempts were made to curb building activities outside the city walls. In 1613 a by-law was passed subjecting such illegal building to strict rules. However, data which became available as a result of the 1622 census prove that large-scale construction works were being carried out in these areas.

After the completion of the first stage of the major expansion plan, the third expansion plan, no further work was done for a number of decades. The realisation of two stone gates (the Heiligewegpoort in 1636 and the Regulierspoort at the Botermarkt in 1654) proves that the overall plan more or less fell into oblivion.

The 1663 Urban Expansion

Amsterdam after 1613 Amsterdam after 1663

The dotted lines on Blaeu's map of 1640 already indicate the lay-out of the 1663 expansion project. Again the northern part of Amsterdam is shown at the bottom of the map. The map clearly illustrates the fact that an entire neighbourhood which had developed outside the city's boundaries was pulled down to create sufficient space for the expansion plan.

Map by Blaeu (1640)

The fourth expansion plan of 1663 was in actual fact begun as early as 1655 when the three, largely man-made, islands of Kattenburg, Wittenburg and Oostenburg were added to the territory of the city of Amsterdam. Around 1660 the Admiralty of the Dutch East India Company moved its activities to the islands heralding the fourth expansion plan which was officially approved by the city administrators in 1658 with a follow-up in 1660. In January 1662 city architect Daniel Stalpaert presented the expansion plan showing all the building lines. In May 1663 the States of Holland passed the necessary decree.

on the fourth expansion

In October 1663 the sale began of the plots on the Leidsestraat and Utrechtsestraat followed in December by the plots on the new canals. Many owners of canal houses bought one or more plots in the side streets as well. In 1665 e.g. Hendrick Hooft bought a plot which is now Herengracht 556 as well as six houses and a coach house with a gate on the Utrechtsestraat. The older part of the ring of canals had been subdivided into 30 feet wide plots. The stage-two plots, however, were 26 feet wide. Most owners, therefore, bought two adjacent plots, allowing them to build large double houses 52 feet wide. As a result the buildings in this part of the ring of canals were more spacious from the beginning.

Map by Nicolaas Visscher
(approx. 1680)
Map 1689

But the scale of the latest expansion plan proved too ambitious. A large area east of the Amstel river remained open terrain and was finally turned into a recreational area (the Plantage). Apart from several large charity institutions and a spacious park, no building activities were undertaken until the 1860s. In actual fact the Zoo (Artis) is a remnant of the original usage of this terrain.

The 19th Century Urban Expansions

Beyond the Singelgracht

Amsterdam after 1663 Amsterdam end of the 19th century

Owing to the major achievements of the 17th century no further expansion was required until well into the 19th century. After 1870 the growing prosperity resulting from the Industrial Revolution led to a second Golden Age. Population growth was staggering (approx. 224,000 in 1850; approx. 317,000 in 1879; 408,000 in 1890). For the first time in centuries Amsterdam needed to build new homes. However, prior to the realisation of any expansion projects, the national government in The Hague had to pass a law. In 1874, when all legal impediments were out of the way, Amsterdam could start building in the area beyond the Singelgracht.

The liberal political climate of the 19th century prompted the city administrators to allow private enterprise to control the larger part of the expansion of Amsterdam. A large quantity of cheap homes was built and new districts arose (Staatsliedenbuurt, Kinkerbuurt, Pijp, Dapperbuurt etc.). Unfortunately, the new districts sorely lacked the well-balanced structure and methodical approach of the earlier projects. Just like the very first expansion projects, the 19th century plans largely followed the pattern of existing roads and ditches. Besides, the quality of the construction work was poor. Some houses collapsed before they had been completed. "Jerry-building" is the term commonly used for such building. The result was a zone of poorly built working class districts.

Van Niftrik's Plan (1867) Kalff's Plan (1875)

It is true to say, however, that better plans had been made available. In 1867 Van Niftrik designed a splendid plan but the city administrators shied away from the costs involved in expropriation proceedings. In 1877 the expansion plans were formalised, resulting in the Kalff plan. In contrast with Van Niftrik's set-up, the Kalff plan was based on existing infrastructural patterns. Therefore the Kalff plan was no more than a rough framework, allowing private property developers considerable leeway.



Special thanks to the Amsterdam Bureau of Monuments and Archeology website,