Capital of the Netherlands
Seventeenth-century canal ring area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht
Location and site
The historic urban ensemble of the canal district of Amsterdam was a project for a new ‘port city’ built at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. It comprises a network of canals to the west and south of the historic old town and the medieval port that encircled the old town and was accompanied by the repositioning inland of the city’s fortified boundaries, the Singelgracht. This was a long-term programme that involved extending the city by draining the swampland, using a system of canals in concentric arcs and filling in the intermediate spaces. These spaces allowed the development of a homogeneous urban ensemble including gabled houses and numerous monuments. This urban extension was the largest and most homogeneous of its time. It was a model of large-scale town planning, and served as a reference throughout the world until the 19th century.
The Amsterdam Canal District illustrates exemplary hydraulic and urban planning on a large scale through the entirely artificial creation of a large-scale port city. The gabled facades are characteristic of this middle-class environment, and the dwellings bear witness both to the city’s enrichment through maritime trade and the development of a humanist and tolerant culture linked to the Calvinist Reformation. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Amsterdam was seen as the realization of the ideal city that was used as a reference urban model for numerous projects for new cities around the world.
Criterion (i): The Amsterdam Canal District is the design at the end of the 16th century and the construction in the 17th century of a new and entirely artificial ‘port city.’ It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, town planning, and a rational programme of construction and bourgeois architecture. It is a unique and innovative, large-scale but homogeneous urban ensemble.
Criterion (ii): The Amsterdam Canal District bears witness to an exchange of considerable influences over almost two centuries, in terms not only of civil engineering, town planning, and architecture, but also of a series of technical, maritime, and cultural fields. In the 17th century Amsterdam was a crucial centre for international commercial trade and intellectual exchange, for the formation and the dissemination of humanist thought; it was the capital of the world-economy in its day.
Criterion (iv): The Amsterdam Canal District represents an outstanding example of a built urban ensemble that required and illustrates expertise in hydraulics, civil engineering, town planning, construction and architectural knowhow. In the 17th century, it established the model for the entirely artificial ‘port city’ as well as the type of Dutch single dwelling with its variety of façades and gables. The city is testimony, at the highest level, to a significant period in the history of the modern world.
Integrity and authenticity
The network of canals in concentric arcs of a circle that forms the basis of the urban layout, along with the radial waterways and streets, survives in its entirety, with its old embankments and historic facade alignments.
The majority of the houses erected in the 17th and 18th centuries are still present in a good general state of conservation. This basic situation is fundamentally healthy for an urban ensemble that is still alive and active. However, streets have sometimes been widened and the facade dwellings rebuilt, notably the current Weesperstraat arterial road. The old civil and hydraulic structures have generally been replaced, tall modern buildings affect some landscape perspectives, especially in the north of the property, and aggressive advertising pollutes the property’s visual condition.
Protection and management requirements
A very large number of buildings and structures are protected by national and municipal heritage listing. The situation with regard to protection seems to be complex, within the context of the operation of the Amsterdam Central Borough (the heart of the city), but the procedures that govern protection are complied with. Good awareness on the part of those responsible means that the excesses of urban growth that was at times difficult to control in the recent past seem to be increasingly better managed, notably advertising within the property and the visual impact of tall buildings on the urban landscapes of the property.
All the management measures form an effective and coherent system, within the responsibility of the Central Borough of Amsterdam and with the guarantee of the Bureau of Monuments. A horizontal management and monitoring body for the property has now been implemented, the Amsterdam World Heritage Bureau.
Source: World Heritage Center – UNESCO
In the 13th century Amsterdam was a small fishing village on the banks of the Amstel River and its mouth on the IJ, an arm of the Zuiderzee inlet. The name comes from the combination of Amstel and Dam, the latter word indicating a dyke or dam built to hold back the sea. This earth levee was also used to carry traffic and was extended by a bridge over the Amstel, made toll-free by a decision of the Count of Holland, Floris V. Amsterdam was proclaimed a city in 1306, and by the end of the Middle Ages it had become an important centre for maritime trade in northern Holland as its port developed on the river mouth. It mainly traded with the Hanseatic League, which it joined in 1369; but it was Antwerp that still dominated the maritime trade of The Netherlands and the North Sea.
Protected behind its dyke, the city grew around the port and Damplein, but the marshy soil had first to be drained and many houses built on piles. At that time it was restricted inside an initial semi-circular canal, the Singel, designed both for drainage and for military defence. In 1452 a fire destroyed almost all the city’s timber-framed buildings, and brick became the most common material for rebuilding the city. The city built fortifications along the Singel at the end of the 15th century.
The Netherlands passed under Spanish rule in 1515 with the accession of Charles V. The country rose in revolt in the 16th century in defence of public freedom and religious tolerance, since much of the population had espoused the Reformation. After a period of wars and compromises, the seven provinces of the northern Netherlands formed the independent United Provinces in 1581. This situation attracted rich Jewish families, Antwerp traders, and French Huguenots in particular to Amsterdam, the largest city in this relatively dispersed federation without any prince regent. It became a land of refuge and of free-thinking. For two decades the military situation, the naval in particular, with Spain remained tense; there were many conflicts, but maritime trade and warehousing activities developed quickly. The Dutch East India Company (VOC, 1602) and the Dutch West India Company (WIC, 1621) were created to trade with the Indian Ocean and the Americas respectively. The 17th century was a particularly flourishing period for the United Provinces, whose sovereignty, economic importance, and cultural uniqueness were fully recognised by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648).
At the end of the 16th century, Amsterdam developed very rapidly and the port-city soon ran out of space within the medieval confines of the Singel. A vast project, for defence and urban growth, was carried out in the 16th and 17th centuries. The new line of defence based on a new boundary canal, the Singelgracht, designed by Daniel Stalpaert, extended the city outwards by around 800m. The Singel was then transformed into an inland port (1601-1603). The positioning between the latter and the Singelgracht opened up space for a new urban area that still had to be drained and backfilled. The project, conceived by Hendrick Jacobszoon Staets, led to the construction of a new port and trading city, built along a network of three new main canals which made it possible for trading vessels to dock. They were in the form of a series of concentric arcs, parallel to the Singel and adopting the same hydraulic morphology. They were dug simultaneously starting from the IJ, towards the south. The two first sections took the work as far as the Leidsegracht radial canal, allowing backfilling and building to begin; the third section extended the work to the Amstel around 1620. Following exactly the same principles, a fourth section was undertaken beyond the river towards the ‘eastern islands’ in the mid-17th century.
However, regular planning following the annular canals stopped at the outermost edge of the three, the Prinsengracht. In its western section, between it and the new Singelgracht defence line, the Jordaan district followed the old plot boundaries of the gardens after which it is named, breaking with the rectilinear pattern of the initial plans. This district, which was originally more working class and inhabited by immigrants, is the only part of the nominated property at its urban boundary with the Prinsengracht Canal.
This planned extension of Amsterdam is the work of the mercantile middle class that ran the city. It managed the projects financially, supervised the drafting of the plans, coordinated the work, issued building regulations, and supervised their application. In meeting the needs of trade, practical functionality and hydraulic and military safety were the driving forces for the project. The general rise in wealth of the city and its inhabitants in the 17th century made it possible for this ambitious urban and port extension to be completed in accordance with the initial project.
Amsterdam’s growth made it one of the great European capitals, and its port became the most important for international maritime trade. In 1685 the city’s per capita income was four times that of Paris, allowing the quantity and quality of the real-estate development along the canals throughout the century. Amsterdam continued to develop its tradition as a mercantile, middle-class, humanist, and tolerant city. It continued to welcome
immigrants, notably the French Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and more generally the free-thinkers of Europe. In this way, it enriched its economic and artistic elite, but also its expertise with the arrival of highly skilled craftsmen. At that time Amsterdam was one of the cultural capitals of Europe and among the most brilliant and most dynamic, notable for its printers, whose products were sold throughout the world.
The orderly growth of the city’s new districts along its canals became a reference urban model, an image of the ideal city that would be adopted and repeated right across 18th century Europe.
The example of this city, enriched by its maritime trade, defended by its canals, dykes, and locks, and never flooded throughout its entire history, attracted the attention of all the great European builders of the day. It directly influenced civil engineering and town planning in England, Sweden, and Russia, where Peter the Great recruited its craftsmen and engineers to create Saint Petersburg, in similar swampy land on the banks of an estuary.
The end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century saw the prosperity of the city and its port decline. Wars against France and England undermined its maritime trade. The renewal of the port would come in the 19th century as a result of the creation of canals – the North Holland canal in 1825, followed by the direct connection with the North Sea in 1876. Its traffic is still, however, less than that of Rotterdam, close to the mouths of the Rhine and the Meuse.
A trend towards converting the warehouses into apartments began in the 18th century and gathered pace as time passed, in response to the growing urban population, and then to the city’s role as a capital demanding greater services. In the 19th and early 20th centuries office buildings were erected, in harmony with the old context in terms of scale, architecture, and materials. However, the arrival of the railway and the central station on the banks of the IJ cut the city off from its direct contact with the inlet.
In the 20th century Amsterdam became an important administrative and financial centre. It shares the role of political capital of the Kingdom of The Netherlands with The Hague. In World War II around 100,000 Amsterdam Jews were deported, the majority of whom lived in the canal districts. The material damage caused by the war was relatively minor.
Retail shops and growing tourism are reflected in the city’s changes in the second half of the 20th century.
Ms. Femke Halsema
Mayor of Amsterdam
City of Amsterdam
P.O. Box 202
14 020 (local number)
Ms. Inez Weyermans
Project Manager of the Municipal Office of Monuments and Archaeology
Municipality of Amsterdam