The Hague Recalled: Restrained Decoration, Self-Conscious Uniformity, Class Division, and a Poetry of Its Own


S’Gravenhage, Den Haag,The Hague: Three names for a single Dutch city set behind the sand dunes of the North Sea coast, the seat of government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  I lived and worked in The Hague more decades ago than I care to admit, and for long enough to have observed the city over the course of a generation.

The Hague stood out from its better know neighbors, Rotterdam and Amsterdam.  Unlike Rotterdam, The Hague did not possess a busy deep water harbor or exaggerated memories of hard-working stevedores, and was left unscathed by bombing during World War II.  Unlike Amsterdam, The Hague was neither a commercial nor  manufacturing center, nor a center of learning, nor a wellspring of labor activism and progressiveness, and it also lacked Amsterdam’s contrived, self-promoted cachet for openness and the avant-garde.

In the years I knew it, The Hague was a city of government ministers and bureaucrats high and low, of the military and of aging ex-colonials.  The Hague was the base of Royal Dutch Shell and its far-flung petroleum and petrochemical empire, and of the myriad engineering firms that catered to it.  It was home to a middle-class that managed its service sector and to a working class, both Dutch and immigrant, that did the heavy lifting and filled repetitive entry-level jobs.

On the surface at least, The Hague was outwardly conservative, staid and quiet, its streets deserted after nightfall.  Socially and economically, The Hague was near-Byzantine in its stratification, its residents segmented and corralled according to finely-drawn class distinctions that defined one’s place and prerogatives: the neighborhood in which one lived, the accent with which one spoke, the way one dressed and cut one’s hair, and the education and work paths and prospects that were barred to one or open.

Still, The Hague had a poetry of its own.  It was a city of greenery and of parks in which the salted scent of the nearby North Sea was ever-present .  In  summer sunlight and the grayness of winter, the sky over The Hague seemed to hover low enough to touch.  The city’s eerie near-silence in off-hours revealed subtle sounds:  the occasional rhythmic slaps of shoe soles on sidewalks, the soft whoosh and rattle of bicycle  tires on rain-soaked brick-paved streets, the distant metallic grind of street-car wheels against  tracks, and the calls of ever-present seagulls.

Calvinist city to the core, The Hague was uniform in outward appearance and minimal in its decoration. Its fashions embodied a preference for a subdued, intentionally near-dowdy, elegance.  Architecturally, The Hague was a city of red brick, repetitive patterns, ornamental restraint, and subtle emblems of class — a sparseness that I’ve come to appreciate in hindsight.


The photos above were taken in the late-1970s or early-80s on medium-format color transparency film, using a Yashica Mat 124G or a Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5 (I forget which) both of which were equipped with  fixed 75mm lenses that gave tad more of a wide-angle view than the 80mm focal length considered visually “normal” for 6x6cm photographs. (Photographing architecture in 6×6 format has always been a delightful challenge, as was the requirement for absolute precision in measuring and setting exposures when using transparency film.)

The image at the very top shows how even the defining flamboyance of turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau was toned down and tamed to fit the conservatism of The Hague, and rendered subordinate to the city’s traditional red brick exteriors and Neo-Baroque  gabled facades.

The second image portrays a row of late-nineteenth-century town houses built for the upper-middle-class wealth, a study in uniformity and announcement of status.  At the time the photo was taken, many of these buildings had been subdivided into single-story apartments or rooming houses.  I assume they have been gentrified and reinstated as single-family dwellings in the decades since.

1 comment
  1. Maarten Rouppe van der Voort said:

    Beste Steve,

    Met belangstelling heb ik je artikel over ‘s-Gravenhage, Den Haag,The Hague gelezen en vooral de foto van het Sweelinckplein vond ik zeer fraai. Graag wil ik je suggestie doen om in je geplande vervolgartikel over Den Haag even stil te staan bij de wijk Bezuidenhout en een klein gedeelte van het centrum aan het eind van de Tweede Wereldoorlog.

    Den Haag is weliswaar niet door de Nazi’s gebombardeerd maar wel – per ongeluk – door de Engelsen. Op 3 maart 1945 is door miscommunicatie aan geallieerde zijde in plaats van de lanceerinrichtingen van V2’s (gericht op Londen) in het Haagse Bos, de wijk Bezuidenhout gebombardeerd. Hierbij vielen circa 500 doden en veel gewonden. Voor jou ter oriëntatie: het gehele gebied waar nu de Utrechtse baan is (en bijvoorbeeld het hoofdkantoor van Nationale-Nederlanden/Beatrixlaan) is plat gebombardeerd. Saillant detail, de Amerikaanse ambassade (ontwerp Marcel Breuer) aan het Korte Voorhout is gebouwd op de plek waar een hotel stond dat compleet is weggevaagd. Overigens gaat de ambassade daar binnenkort weg en wordt het Breuergebouw mogelijk een museum.

    Als je Googelt met de zoekterm ‘Bombardement Bezuidenhout’ kom je genoeg informatie hierover tegen. Een belangrijk verzetsfotograaf uit die tijd is Wim Berssenbrugge die veel foto’s in stereo & kleur heeft gemaakt. Toen een bijna unicum. Als je hem Googelt kom je die foto’s ook tegen

    Ik hoop dat je met bovenstaande informatie iets kan en wens je veel succes toe met je volgende artikelen.

    Met hartelijke groet (ook namens Joke),

    Maarten Rouppe van der Voort

    For those who do not read Dutch (Nederlands), here’s a quick translation of parts of Maarten Rouppe van der Voort’s valued comment above:

    Indeed, The Hague was not bombed by the Nazis but it was bombed, albeit by accident, by the British. On March 3, 1945, due to a miscommunication on the Allied side, the (residential neighborhood) Bezuidenhout was bombed instead of the planned target, launching facilities for (German) V2 rockets aimed at London, that were situated in the (nearby wooded park), Haagse Bos. Approximately five hundred civilians were killed in the attack and many others were wounded.

    The entire area now occupied by the Utrechtsebaan (a major highway artery into the center of The Hague) and by office buildings on the nearby thoroughfare, Beatrixlaan, was bombed flat. An interesting detail: The building of the American Embassy — designed by Marcel Breuer! — set on the Korte Voorhout (at the edge of the historic downtown of The Hague), was built (in 1958) on the site of a hotel that was reduced to rubble in the bombardment. The American Embassy, by the way, will soon move to another location; thereafter, the Breuer building will possibly be slated to house a museum.

    Maarten also notes that: An important photographer from the wartime Dutch resistance is Wim Berssenbrugge, who, unique for the time and situation, took numerous stereo and hand-colorized photos. Maarten closes with a suggestion that I do a google search for Berssenbrugge’s photos, something that I will indeed do soon! Join me?

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