• Monday, August 15, 2022

    write for AmsterDOCollaborate

  • Cloudless Amsterdam – the city seen from the sky

    It was a simple but brilliant idea that Peter Elenbaas put forward in the spring of 2004. At that time, he was a staff photographer at the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool. Besides, more as a hobby than as his daily routine, he took pictures from high above the city on days when he accompanied one of his friends, who had a flying licence. Those first aerial photographs, still in black-and-white on coarse-grained film, date from the 1980’s.

    Amsterdam, 23 juli 2012.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
De Montelbaenstoren aan de Oudeschans.

    The idea Peter put forward in 2004 implied the publication of a series in the newspaper of aerial photographs in colour – partly to make it through the silly season. He asked me to write the accompanying text. The series, published three times a week from July till early October under the heading Cloudless Amsterdam (Amsterdam Onbewolkt), had an instant success with the reader. The publishing house Bas Lubberhuizen, specializing in photography and Amsterdam, took up the idea and published the series in a more extensive form as a book in the autumn of 2004. A tradition was born. Since then four more volumes have seen the light of day, and this year for the first time also in an English version: Cloudless Amsterdam. A City in Motion.

    We chose the photographs for this edition not only from some seven thousand aerial photographs Peter took in the summer of 2012, but we also included a few pictures he took decades ago. Together they give an impression of how Amsterdam has changed over the years – and of all that has been preserved.         

    Amsterdam, 18 augustus.

    The development of Amsterdam is the archetypical Dutch story: land captured from the water. There was hardly any distinction between water and land in this region until early in the thirteenth century, when farmers from other parts came to the River Amstel in search of fertile soil. They built drainage canals and ditches, and on the ground they gained they constructed quays or embankments on which they built their wooden houses. Small settlements sprang up along both banks. Around 1270 the inhabitants built a dam in the river to connect these hamlets and protect them against the tidal movements of the IJ. That was the beginning of Amsterdam, ‘a town out of nothing’, as the latest generation of city historians has described the process. And the heart of the city still lies in the same place – the Dam.

    Around 1300, Amsterdam had become a port and a trading centre. This trade was conducted with towns round the Zuiderzee (now the IJsselmeer), but by the end of the fourteenth century there were contacts with ports on the Baltic too.
    In 1480 work began on the construction of a brick wall with gates and fortifications to protect the inhabitants. The painter and woodcarver Cornelis Anthonisz captured the city in an oil painting in 1538. Anthonisz sketched the image of the city with great accuracy in a bird’s-eye view from the IJ. Several woodcuts and prints were made of the painting, one of which is shown in the book, accompanied by an aerial photograph after Anthonisz’s painting.

    At the end of the sixteenth century and above all in the seventeenth – the Golden Age – Amsterdam became a world city and expanded dramatically. To give it room to grow and to facilitate the construction of the canals, the city wall, then barely a hundred years old, had to be demolished. The Herengracht was dug in 1613, followed in 1614 by the Prinsengracht– which lies in the outermost ring – and by the Keizersgracht in 1615. The canal district as a whole has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2010.

    It was primarily the houses of wealthy Amsterdam merchants that sprang up along the new canals. They had previously lived in Warmoesstraat on the right bank of the Amstel, as that was the ‘pricey’ side of the then port on the IJ. The economic prosperity of the time was reflected in the imposing canal-side mansions that also served as warehouses.

    Another outward sign of the city’s prosperity in the seventeenth century was the building of a new town hall on the Dam, now the Royal Palace. The building, huge for its time and with foundations of 13,659 wooden piles, was designed by the architect Jacob van Campen. It took seven years to build.

    By the end of the seventeenth century Amsterdam had taken on outlines that did not change until the twentieth century. But inside the city boundaries in the intervening period much was changed, demolished, built and rebuilt, and filled in.

    At the end of the nineteenth century, an economic boom attracted waves of immigrants, the majority from inside the country’s borders. In twenty years the population had grown by 200,000. To cope with this population explosion an expansion plan was hurriedly drawn up for a still rural area to the west of the Amstel, beyond the Singelgracht. Once again, they took the easy option of following the existing pattern of farm ditches to create the street plan.

    Private initiative provided the city with many fine amenities. The cost of constructing the Vondelpark (1865) was borne by well-to-do Amsterdam citizens, as was the building of the Concertgebouw and the rebuilding of the city’s theatre, the Stadsschouwburg, in the Leidseplein after it burned down in 1890. Private individuals also took the initiative to build the Stedelijk Museum (1895). The building of Centraal Station (1889) and the Rijksmuseum (1885), both designed by the architect Pierre Cuypers, was funded from the general fund. Spacious, high-quality residential districts, likewise financed by private investors, grew up around the Vondelpark, the Concertgebouw and the museums.

    In the twentieth century there was one expansion plan after another for Amsterdam. A well-known design from the early period was Plan Zuid – Plan South – devised by the architect and town planner H.P. Berlage, who had already left his mark on the inner city with his monumental stock exchange (1903) in Damrak. But his greatest creation was Plan Zuid in 1917, which town planners and architects worldwide still consider exceptional. It covered a large area to the south of the existing city for which Berlage designed a varied street plan with wide avenues and narrower streets, with squares, public gardens and canals.

    The fame of Plan Zuid is also partly down to the architectural interpretation of Berlage’s design by the architects who built the apartment blocks and individual buildings in Plan Zuid between 1920 and 1940: the architects of the Amsterdam School, who chose to build in brick, with particular attention to the rhythm of the façades and elevations and the lavish use of ornament. In a later stage of the realization of the plan they were followed by representatives of the Nieuwe Bouwen movement, who shifted the focus on to stark, uncluttered lines and new building materials.

    While Plan Zuid was taking shape, new legislation prompted the building of social housing by housing cooperatives, usually originating from the emerging trades unions. This led among other things to the building of ‘garden villages’ like Watergraafsmeer, rapidly dubbed ‘Betondorp’ (Concrete Village) because of the new building methods used to construct it, and the garden villages on the north bank of the IJ.

    It was still not enough, however, to solve the increasing need for new housing. In 1935 the city council’s Urban omslag onbewolkt webDevelopment Department came up with a General Expansion Plan. It was founded on a strict separation of the four urban functions: living, working, travel and recreation. People travelled daily to the city centre or to the industrial areas around the docks for work – the new districts were purely residential. After the Second World War the implementation of the plan powered ahead.

    The philosophy of functionalism was followed even more strictly in the 1960s with the development of the Bijlmer, a large residential district in the southeast. This was yet another town-planning experiment: gigantic apartment blocks up to ten stories high in a shape based on the honeycomb. After just a few decades it became clear that neither expansion plan created the urban climate that the designers had in mind. In the interim the idea of the compact city had gained ground: high-density development within which urban functions were mixed. Recently an attempt has been made to redress the mistakes of the past in the western garden suburbs and the Bijlmer through demolition, renovation and new housing.

    In Amsterdam the idea of the compact city clearly struck a chord. A spectacular development has taken place in the eastern docks area and around the East and West Docks. Around 1975 Amsterdam City Council decided that the by then run-down area had to become residential. High-density development was needed: the idea of the compact city found acceptance for the first time. The approach was extremely successful. It gave rise to a great variety of architectural designs, from large housing complexes to single-family dwellings, from high-rises to low-rises. In a relatively short time a shabby industrial area was turned into a number of city districts, which are surrounded on all sides by water.

    The city is in motion on the north bank of the IJ, too. Large and small firms in the creative and cultural sectors are setting up in business, and new residential districts are being developed in the former shipyards and industrial areas, which had not been used for decades. In a few years’ time Amsterdam North, which in many respects was a somewhat isolated area, will get a metro link to the city centre.

    The building of Centraal Station at the end of the nineteenth century had the effect of cutting the city off from the IJ. With the development of both banks, the former main artery will again be connected to the city. This is also a striking aspect of the newest example of city expansion, the IJburg district, which is being constructed on artificial islands in the IJmeer to the west of the city. IJburg takes Amsterdam back to its roots: land conquers water.


    Lambiek Berends



    Cloudless Amsterdam – A City in Motion
    Published by Uitgeverij Bas Lubberhuizen, photography: Peter Elenbaas, text: Lambiek Berends, 144 pages, hardcover, full colour, € 32,50. To order this book, visit:






  • No comments yet.
  • chat
    Add a comment