Why Amsterdam’s Canal Houses Have Endured for 300 Years

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series on the home designs that define four European cities: London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris. Read the collection here.

Amsterdam’s canal houses may be beautiful, but we shouldn’t assume that they were always sites of a leisured, easy life. Look closely at the appearance and layout of these skinny, extremely photogenic buildings, laid out across the city’s canal belt during the Dutch Republic’s 17th century peak, and there are telltale signs that they were built not solely for living: Cranes projecting from their gables; deep, murky plots; and internal staircases almost as steep as ladders. Indeed, these houses may still be impressive, but when completed, their uses were a little different from what we might associate with a “house” today.

(Josh Kramer)

“The canal houses were from the outset combined residences, storage units, and places of business,” says Wouter Van Elburg, architectural historian and Ph.D. candidate at Amsterdam University. “Taking their form in the 17th century, they reflect the Dutch mercantile spirit of the time that said, ‘if we can sell it, we’ll use it’.”  Their distinctiveness—few other standard European urban home types still around today had their character fixed as early as three hundred years ago—reflects Amsterdam’s particular history.  In the days when Amsterdam was Northern Europe’s dominant port, “there was a different wealth distribution than in most European countries,” says Van Elburg. “While at the time most countries were still controlled by kings, here there was a substantial amount of wealth among the bourgeoisie.”

At a time when most European states’ wealth was still concentrated in the hands of a tiny landed gentry, that broader Dutch bourgeois clientele created a different template for urban architecture. Master builders sought to display the aspirations and wealth of their occupants, but also to create buildings that functioned as viable quasi-commercial units.  

Houses along this Amsterdam canal, the Egelantiersgracht, were built mainly for artisans, and would have contained workshops, storage, and possibly multiple families. //AP/Margriet Faber

Many goods spent some time being warehoused in buildings along the city’s canals. Up to 50 percent of canal house space was used for storage, says Van Elburg, with households buying up less perishable food at times when it was cheapest and storing it or re-selling it throughout the year.

That doesn’t, however, mean that people were necessarily living in smelly, dirty spaces sleeping cheek-by-jowl with barrels of salted herring. “Looking back in traveler commentaries from the period,  there is one thing that crops up time and again,” says Van Elburg. “They all point out this idea of Dutch houses being so palatial. There’s a sense of little palaces standing everywhere in the country.” Calvinist mores tended to mean the greatest displays of opulence were concealed inside the building, and even households with just two or three rooms might sleep together in one to retain the best room for representational display purposes.

Once you understand its past, the canal house’s character starts to make a lot more sense. A typical example has a gable (or in 19th century examples a cornice) that is equipped with a crane. With goods being taken up regularly to attics for storage, residents needed an easier route to get goods (or furniture) to the upper floors than heaving it upstairs, so houses came equipped with an easy-to-use winch.

With this crane in place, internal staircases became extremely narrow and steep: Nothing heavy necessarily needed to be carried up them and doing so freed up more commercial space for warehousing. Meanwhile, the extremely deep plots canal houses were built on, which sometimes allowed space for a small courtyard garden and a “back house” behind it, mattered less if dingy rooms at the rear were used for something other than living in. (Indeed, it was the depth of the plot that made it possible for the Frank family to shelter in relative concealment in the “back house” of a 17th- and 18th-century canal house on the Prinsengracht)

This mix of wares and people in the canal houses remained constant until the 19th century, when French occupation saw Napoleon demolish the guild system that facilitated small-scale warehousing. A fast-rising urban population not yet matched by a construction boom, meanwhile, meant that by the 19th century people were becoming more profitable occupants for basements, attics, and back rooms than goods. By the end of the century, altered building regulations and more international influence meant Amsterdam moved on to newer (albeit not necessarily better) forms of apartment housing. Nowadays, canal houses have largely been converted into apartments, and even those in former working-class areas are highly sought after. They often make great places to live, but they have their quirks—not just steep staircases but also attic bedrooms with such sharp-angled walls you can only fully stand up under the roof’s ridge.

The tall, skinny layout and slant-walled attic bedrooms of Rotterdam’s 1970s Cube Houses shows the residual influence of the canal house layout. (AP/Bas Czerwinski)

The move away from canal houses to apartment housing doesn’t mean that their influence has necessarily been lost, says Van Elburg. Indeed, they have still heavily influenced future layouts. “Later Dutch housing still has the typical long corridor going the length of the building from the front to the back door.” Another thing that was retained was the idea of keeping one “good room” sealed off and used only for special occasions. Even today, you might find yourself in a contemporary Dutch building with a staircase almost as steep as a ladder.

Meanwhile, modernist icons such as Rotterdam’s Cube Houses might seem a thousand miles away from the Old World charm of the Amsterdam canal belt but nonetheless echo their predecessors in the vertical layout and angled walls. Even as materials and aesthetics have shifted, characteristics of the canal house are still alive and well in the Netherlands, even if they’re breathing inside a different skin.

In the next piece in this series, we’ll look at the Paris’s Chambres de Bonne.

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What the ‘Battle of Seattle’ Means 20 Years Later

When Seattle police began tear-gassing peaceful protesters on November 30, 1999, John Sellers was supposed to be in jail.

A day earlier, he had rappelled off a crane to hang a giant banner emblazoned with two one-way street signs. One was labeled “WTO” and the other “Democracy,” with their arrows pointing in opposite directions.

Protestors hang a flag from a construction crane in downtown Seattle in protest of the 1999 World Trade Organization conference. (Reuters)

He was visiting Seattle that week as a member of the Ruckus Society, a Portland-based group specializing in high-profile “direct action” that calls attention to environmental and economic injustice. The focus of the group’s attention was the World Trade Organization, whose delegates were set to meet at the Washington State Convention Center to kick off global trade negotiations for the new millennium.

The delegates were met by an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 protesters who feared the ill effects of globalization—a coalition including environmentalists, labor unions, indigenous groups, international NGOs, and students. It was a nonviolent protest that blocked entrances to the convention center, but when the Seattle Police Department deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters, a violent melee broke out downtown. Anarchist groups seized on the chaos to destroy cars and smash windows, causing an estimated $20 million in property damage and lost sales in the city.

The event became known as the Battle of Seattle, and while it was hardly the first activist effort to take on globalization, its scale and impact marked a defining moment in the evolution of activist tactics and law enforcement’s response. The mass street protests successfully shut down the WTO meeting and stalled trade talks that were criticized as detrimental to the developing world. An event that was supposed to mark Seattle’s arrival on the world stage instead became a cri de coeur for the global justice movement.

“Seattle saw the emergence of a new form of, and frame for, protest,” says York University sociologist Lesley Wood, author of Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action After the WTO Protests in Seattle. “It marked a generation of political activism, and because it was successful in the actual shutting down of the meeting—which doesn’t happen that often—the story went viral pre-social media.”

Sellers was arrested for his crane stunt, as he expected. What he didn’t expect was for police to release him, a protest organizer, on the eve of a major international event—one that was bringing President Bill Clinton to town. But the Ruckus Society had previously left a credit card with a bailbondswoman just in case, and much to his surprise, he was allowed to post bail.

“I couldn’t believe they let us out of jail the night before the WTO. They had us,” Sellers recounted last week at a 20th anniversary panel discussion in Seattle hosted by the Northwest news outlet Crosscut.

Out on bail, Sellers absorbed the fleeting carefree hours as tens of thousands of people thronged the streets before the violence on N30, as the last day of November became known in protest parlance. He watched as Teamsters square danced with environmentalists in sea turtle costumes, college students boogied down to late-’90s rave music, and Infernal Noise Brigade sparked a generation of radical marching bands.

Two women protest the WTO’s environmental impact on the global ecology in downtown Seattle, November 29, 1999. (Reuters)

“It was the best protest party I’ve ever been to,” Sellers said. Following relatively milquetoast social movements in the ’80s and early ’90s, Wood said the WTO protests marked a moment when organizers realized that “protest doesn’t have to be boring anymore.”

A street party was not what Washington Governor Gary Locke and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell had in mind. Earlier that year, they were tickled when the White House had selected Seattle to host an event whose first two rounds had taken place in two alpha global cities, Singapore and Geneva. Washington state likes to tout itself as the most trade-dependent state in the nation and civic leaders thought Seattle was a poster child for free trade. “Choosing Seattle was a huge strategic error,” said Sellers, recalling the post-grunge city as a hotbed of political radicalism and a stronghold of the labor movement.

Releasing Sellers was just one of many errors the Seattle Police Department made during the event. They allowed the protesters to block intersections at the front door of the convention center, and then used heavy-handed riot police tactics to disperse them. Big-city police have since learned from the Seattle Police Department’s failures 20 years ago: It’s a big reason why protesters today are quarantined in “free speech zones” miles away from their targeted event.

Seattle riot police ride an armored vehicle through downtown streets during the November 29, 1999, protest. (Reuters)

If police learned from their counterparts in Seattle, protesters did too. The 1999 WTO protests loom large in the activist imagination. Tactics deployed in Seattle spread through nascent online listservs and message boards, leading to the global proliferation of now standard urban protest practices, including carnivalesque costumes and floats, on-site real-time media, and bodies-on-the-line direct action, as well as more controversial components like black bloc anarchists. While the black bloc tactic traces its roots to West Germany in the 1980s, the bandana-obscuring-the-face anarchist gained mainstream attention with media coverage of the WTO protests. Today the black bloc has resurged in antifa groups fighting the far right.

Conversely, activists can thank the global justice movement for pioneering the organization of simultaneous worldwide events. When this year’s Global Climate Strike in September saw some 4 million people in 4,500 cities and towns demand action to address the climate crisis, organizers were building on a legacy that began with solidarity protests in the late 1990s. According to Wood’s research, there were protests in 54 cities in June 1999 against the G8 meeting in Cologne; activists took to the streets in 97 cities in November 1999 against the WTO.

One of the more mundane but enduring aspects of the WTO protests was their democratic organizing techniques. “The Occupy movement and the Indiganados in Barcelona inherited a lot, from spokescouncils to general assemblies,” Wood says. To this day, the Movement for Black Lives and radical environmentalists continue to use spokescouncils to efficiently find consensus among large groups.

Central to the whole event, of course, were the issues of trade and globalization. Twenty years later, these issues play a leading role in national and geopolitical affairs, in ways that don’t break down neatly along traditional party lines and don’t seem to have a clear trajectory going forward. That wasn’t the case in 1999, Wood says: “Trade agreements were accelerating and there was a sense that the WTO was going to incorporate the whole planet” into a global trade deal.

Protesters put on gas masks as riot police moved in to clear a downtown intersection in Seattle on November 30, 1999. (Reuters)

But she credits the protests with empowering delegates from developing countries to walk away from a deal on agriculture that the U.S. and EU were foisting upon them. “The stakes were very high because at that point countries from the global south and NGOs felt like it was a done deal and there was no way to stop it,” she says.

Even if free trade remains a central issue in the political arena, today’s protest movements have become more insular than they were 20 years ago. Instead of targeting global institutions, there’s more focus on national issues. As a result, activists are arguably less connected today than they were in 1999. Rather than coordinating action through international networks, there’s a greater focus on sharing tactics. “Chileans apparently learned from Hong Kongers that you can use laser pointers to take down drones,” Wood says.

In Seattle, global solidarity hasn’t disappeared. On Black Friday, the eve of N30’s 20th anniversary, the Puget Sound Anarchists are calling for a one-day fare strike to protest the rising cost of living in Seattle. While public transit might seem like an odd target in “America’s bus-lovingest town,” the organizers cite the turnstile-jumping Chilean high school students as their inspiration. They also extol a list of recent social unrest, from France to Hong Kong to Ecuador to Haiti.

The world might be a different place two decades later—Seattle certainly is—but echoes of the WTO protests can be heard all over.

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Berlin Wants to Freeze Rents for 5 Years. Can It Really Do That?

Berlin’s planned five-year rent freeze might be popular among locals, but the city may have trouble navigating a legal minefield to protect the law when it takes effect in January.

That much was confirmed Saturday when newspaper Berliner Morgenpost dropped a bombshell by publishing emails from Germany’s interior ministry to the Berlin head of Angela Merkel’s CDU party. In those emails, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer expressed his belief that the rent freeze is illegal, as it would “distort” national laws.

In a relatively inexpensive city whose housing sector is dominated by rental units— 80 percent of residents rent their homes—the plan has found broad support. The law, approved in October, caps rent increases at 1.3 percent per year (to account for inflation) for all homes built before 2013, while owners of newer homes, including those recently built and buildings planned for the future, are able to raise rents as they see fit.

The minister’s objections paint the issue as a turf war between national and regional powers. The rent freeze won’t fly, Seehofer says, because it would mean the State of Berlin overstepping its jurisdiction under Germany’s constitution. Federal legislators make Germany’s real estate laws on a national level, and a decision confined to only the State of Berlin could risk distorting that national legislation.

The rent freeze, Seehofer’s October 31 email says, would unfairly ban landlords from factoring rising maintenance costs into the rates they charge tenants. What’s more, while rents for new contracts have been galloping higher in the city, not every Berlin landlord has raised their rents to the maximum level. This group would now be prevented from raising rents even though their tenants are now paying substantially below-market rates.

These objections are a problem for the State of Berlin. They aren’t necessarily a nail in the law’s coffin, however, because the national government doesn’t itself decide the law’s legality—and as a body dominated by the right-wing CDU, it tends by default to look askance at policies forged by Berlin’s ruling center-left coalition. Furthermore, as CityLab previously reported, these issues were not entirely unforeseen. Any ruling would be up to the courts if (or, more likely, when) landlords legally challenge the law.

Seehofer’s emails are, nonetheless, a warning sign that courts might rule in landlords’ favor, and will certainly heat up a debate over the law, against which the backlash is particularly fierce. This month, a developer withdrew from a project to build 900 new apartments on the edge of the city, citing the rent freeze. These apartments would not have been subject to the freeze, but the developer claims that rent freezes at its other properties would reduce the amount of cash it had for further investments, and thus make the development unviable. Sections of the media have also gone on the attack. A representative of the center-right party FDP, writing in the business publication Handelsblatt, recently damned the law as an example of “German envy culture,” motivated more by a vindictive attitude toward wealth than a desire to improve market conditions. Others have accused the city of trying to “rebuild the wall.”

That view is not going unchallenged. As an article in left-leaning newspaper Tageszeitung points out, the abuses the law seeks to remedy are real enough. It cites as an example the Swedish landlord company Akelius, which has relied on the legal loophole of  “modernization” as a justification for hiking rents on its 14,000 Berlin apartments. These rent increases can happen even if the actual quality of the supposed modernizations is poor and does nothing to improve living conditions. Meanwhile, other sections of the business media are asking if, rather than being an example of Berlin radicalism, the city’s new laws might become a template for action across Germany.

The debate isn’t over, and it may just be heating up. For now, Berliners are left in a curious position. They can’t be certain that the rent freeze will genuinely make the city more livable. They also can’t be certain, at this point, that it will come into force at all.

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