Essential Architecture-  Amsterdam



Amsterdam, City of Bridges

Water and bridges are of vital importance to Amsterdam’s unique position among the historic cities of the north. Along the banks of the river Amstel a city developed that depended on the water for its survival. At one time water was even more important than dry land. After all, it was the water that allowed tradesmen to transport goods from A to B; it served to keep the enemy out and last but not least it contributed to the beauty of the city. No wonder Amsterdam is often called the Venice of the North.

In the course of time the number of bridges steadily increased. A map, prepared by Cornelis Antonisz in 1544, shows that 16th century Amsterdam had 52 bridges and 6 culverts. Pieter Bast’s map of circa 1600 includes 110 bridges and 10 culverts. As a result of the large-scale urban expansion of the early 17th century this number nearly doubled. When Gerred de Broen prepared his map, circa 1732, the urban expansion projects had been completed. By then there were 297 bridges and 9 culverts.

After the 17th century expansion plans had been realised, the size of the city remained stable until the developments which followed the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century required a new approach. From circa 1860 onwards Amsterdam’s territory was extended beyond the Singelgracht and large residential areas were built to accommodate the needs of the ever increasing population. At that time the city centre underwent far-reaching changes as well. Several canals were filled in, a measure initially motivated by the stench and the atrocious hygiene. At a later stage canals were filled in in order to accommodate the needs of modern traffic and to create adequate thoroughfares which gave access to the newly built parts of the city. As a result many bridges were demolished. In many other cases the steep slopes of the original bridges were levelled to a certain extent in order to allow for the electrical trams to pass.

Even in the 20th century many bridges were demolished, mainly in order to meet the requirements of the ever increasing traffic. Whereas hundreds of historic buildings were considered worth preserving, old bridges met with an entirely different fate. They were ruthlessly demolished and replaced by modern bridges. In our days bridges are treated with the respect they deserve. They are part and parcel of the ring of canals and have become historic sites in their own right. Even though many of the bridges are no longer authentic, they are important features of the urban set-up. The list of historic buildings and sites now includes 72 bridges. Many of them have been placed on the list not because of their great age and authenticity, but because they help to shape the appearance of the Amsterdam city centre.

Historical Development

Wooden Girder Bridges

The history of Amsterdam may, from a certain perspective, be looked upon as a history of bridges. Initially, wooden bridges were built, modelled on the type which was common in the Dutch countryside. They served to accommodate the needs of road traffic mainly in areas where the east-west connections were of vital importance. Their purpose was entirely practical. Form followed function even then. The water was spanned by wooden beams which served as girders. Wooden planking across the beams created an acceptable road surface. Whenever the length of the span required extra support, one or more trusses - interconnected wooden beams reinforced by corbel pieces - were constructed.

Not many girder bridges survive today. Many have disappeared, others have changed beyond recognition.

Brick Arched Bridges

The ongoing urbanisation and the increasing prosperity were instrumental in the development of the brick bridge. Brick came to replace wood and the arched bridge with its elegant masonry took over from its wooden predecessor. One or more arches (vaults), semi-circular or elliptical in shape came to support the road surface. The arches were often articulated by means of sandstone blocks. The approach of strictly separating the road surface from the supporting structure below was abandoned and bridges were now conceived of as integrated architectural designs.

The advent of the brick arched bridge coincided with a more conscious approach to urban development. Whereas the wooden girder bridges served practical purposes only, arched bridges were designed to enhance the appearance of the new city which resulted from the 1610 urban expansion plans. Bridges became an integral part of the ring of canals.

It is true to say that brick bridges were also a status symbol. Balthazar Florisz’ 1625 map clearly illustrates the 1610 urban expansion plan including the bridges. All the bridges in the prestigious part of the ring of canals (Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Brouwersgracht) were brick bridges, whereas the Prinsengracht and the Jordaan area had to make do with simpler wooden bridges.

Movable Bridges

The increasing prosperity and desire to underline the newly acquired social status by beautifying the city almost certainly played an important part in the growing popularity of the arched bridge. However, this type of bridge had one major disadvantage as compared to its wooden predecessor: its limited headway. In order for ships to pass through, the captains had to lower the masts. Wooden bridges commonly had a small movable section allowing for easy passage. Single or double draw bridges soon proved the answer. Pieter Bast’s map of circa 1600 shows a number of bridges of this type with their striking balance beams and porticoes

Iron and Steel Leaf Bridges

The Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century heralded a new Golden Age for the city of Amsterdam. The ever increasing traffic required far-reaching adjustments to the infrastructure. Canals were filled in and many old bridges were demolished. Besides, the electrical tram made it necessary to level the slopes of many of the steep historical bridges. Apart from all this the influence of new technological insights affected the design of bridges. New ways of constructing bridges were developed. Cast iron, weld iron and steel appeared on the scene.

The steep arched bridges were widened and levelled. From circa 1860 onwards, however, they were partly replaced by leaf bridges. Their flat upper sections consisted of iron or steel girders, often flanked by columns and decorated with cast iron consoles. Gradually, the wooden draw bridges were replaced by steel bridges as well.

The traditional appearance of a city of arched bridges was considerably affected by the developments outlined above. The plans were not always supported by the public. The contemporary press printed many disapproving comments and strong pleas to preserve the traditional bridges. In circa 1800 there were 96 wooden and 90 stone bridges left. By 1875 the numbers had decreased to 48 and 68 respectively. The Second World War marked a low point with 3 wooden and 15 original stone bridges. Between 1945 and 1982, however, the protests were taken to heart. Dozens of leaf bridges were replaced by reconstructions of traditional arched bridges, in an attempt to restore the old cityscape to its former glory.

Bridges and the Amsterdam School of Architecture

In the early decades of the 20th century another turning point was reached when the architects Piet Kramer and Johan van der Mey were appointed advisors to the local government. They developed an entirely different style by introducing fanciful cast iron balustrades and sculptures into their designs which were very much part of the mainstream of the Amsterdam School of Architecture.

Piet Kramer (1881-1961) was especially renowned for his contributions the design of Amsterdam bridges according to the insights of the Amsterdam School of Architecture. Between 1917 and 1952 he designed hundreds of leaf bridges characterised by cast iron balustrades and sculptured land abutments. During the economic recession of the 1930s and the Second World War architecture became more austere and insights changed once more.


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