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, the seat of government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, set behind the sand dunes of the North Sea coast.  I lived and worked in The Hague more decades ago than I care to admit to, 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, in its seeming ordinariness.  Unlike Rotterdam, The Hague did not possess a busy deep water harbor nor exaggerated memories of hard-working stevedores, and was left relatively 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 aged 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, 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 combed one’s hair, and the education and work paths and prospects that were open to one or barred.

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 a tad more of a wide-angle view than the 80mm focal length usually considered visually “normal” in perspective 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. 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?

  2. Dear Maarten, a belated response to your comment above: I indeed read the Wikipedia entry on the bombing of the Bezuidenhout neighborhood in The Hague. Thanks for filling in this gap in my knowledge. In fact, considering my training in urbanism and my later activities in urbanism and urban history, I am surprised at myself for not having researched or even deduced the bombardment from its obvious footprint of post-war construction close-in to the urban core. Indeed it makes me ask myself what was (and wasn’t!) going on in my head during my many years in The Hague. 🙂 I also thank you for the reference to the stereo photography of Berssenbrugge, a craftsman-like application of slow, precise technique to document fast-moving events. For now, I’ll close with a question: Back in the 1970s, I was told that the building near the Peace Palace that housed, at the time, the American Chamber of Commerce, had been built on the site of the municipal civil registry and that the latter had been destroyed by a “pinpoint” bombing attack by the British, ostensibly to obliterate the identity/address cards of Dutch Jews. Was there indeed such an attack or is this but an “urban legend” of sorts or a post-war rationalization of a more complex story? A cursory google search on the subject revealed nothing and my knowledge of matters concerning the fate of Jews in the Netherlands during the war, and the passivity of the Allies in the face thereof, makes me doubt the supposed intent of the attack, not to mention its efficacy (indeed 8,000 of the 10,000 Dutch and foreign Jews resident in The Hague in 1940 were murdered during the war). So, do fill me in when you have a moment. Sincerely, SL

  3. Nice pictures, Steve! Make me homesick, but only a wee little bit…
    The first on, corner Waldeck Pyrmontkade/Laan van Meerdervoort used to house the”One Hour Cleaning Sevice”. I must have passed there hundreds of times, in the tram (streetcar) on my way to and from elementary school.
    Where was the second picture taken? Look like the Sweelinckplein. Or one of the streets close to it.
    Best from Lower Saxony!

    • Thanks, Ernst. Now, years later, I too sometimes miss the Hague as I knew it decades ago — all too silent, wonderfully eccentric, and smelling of the nearby sea, but with an undercurrent of sadness lingering from 1940-1945. As to the second photo: the Sweelinckplein, indeed!

      • The smell that comes to my mind first, is the smell of “Indisch” (=Indonesian) food. But then, I went to elementary school in the “Statenkwartier”, before they constructed the Congresgebouw…..
        At least half of my classmates had an Asian background, be it 50 %, 25 % or less.

        In my memory the sea is limited to Scheveningen, where we were a tourist attraction in the sixties, a group of young people, fully dressed in blue denim, in the middle of the (especially German) bathers 🙂

  4. For 17 years, I kept an apartment in the Archipelbuurt. On summer nights, depending on the direction of the breeze, if I kept my balcony door open I could smell the North Sea. “Indische eten” was also a part of my life in Den Haag, mostly home-cooked by the parents of friends but also at “Toko’s.” Two of my favorite Toko’s were, if I remember correctly, on the Regentesselaan, just off of Laan van Meerdevoort. If I’d ever return to Den Haag, at the top of my list would be a walk in the dunes from Scheveningen to Kijkduin and dinner at one my favorite Toko’s … if they still exist! Not to forget, I would also track down each of the locations on this wonderful website

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