Form and Function for Four Hundred Years
I just got back yesterday from a little mini-vacation in Amsterdam. (I blogged before going about the Amsterdam Botanical Garden – the Hortus Botanicus; it was indeed wonderful.)
When I visit a place, I’m always curious to find out about its history, so I talk to people and read things – I especially like historic plaques, and I also appreciate the marketing stuff written by enthusiastic locals. It’s often not entirely objective (heavy on the good, light on the bad), but I enjoy the pride people tend to take in their home-place, and these pieces are generally full of interesting and easily digestible information.
And I especially like it when something I read clarifies something I’ve observed. We stayed in a lovely little hotel right on the Singel, one of the canals, and we did a lot of walking around. I was struck by the combination of beauty and function I saw all around me: the canals themselves, the rows of canal houses, the brick roads with their bike lanes, the shapely old trees shading it all. It reminded me of one of my favorite sayings, an admonition of William Morris, one of the fathers of the Arts and Crafts movement: “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” I try to use that sentiment as a guide in my own house, and it seemed to me that much of what I saw of old Amsterdam fulfilled those requirements.
Then at one point, I picked up an English-language magazine focused primarily on talking about how cool it is that UNESCO has recently made most of central Amsterdam a world heritage site. It explained how, when the city was first being built up – almost 400 years ago – the canals, houses, green spaces, and connecting roads were designed by and for the residents of the city, primarily merchants and tradespeople. Unlike most cities of that era, which grew up around the castle or fortress of the local ruler, Amsterdam was created to make the lives of ordinary people easy, efficient and pleasant: to balance work and culture, family and business. To be both useful and beautiful.
The result is a place that, 400 years on, still works well: it’s human in a wonderful way; sized for people to walk and bike, hang out with their families, run their enterprises, enjoy neighborhood restaurants and art galleries, visit museums and concert halls.
I loved it; it’s a city model for the 21st century.