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Netherlands

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To tourists at least, the city of Amsterdam is  known for its historic urban core of 17th- and 18th-century townhouses set along a grid of concentric and radial tree-lined canals, and for its supposed openness and tolerance, its red-light district, and easy availability of drugs.  Stereotypes of the people of Amsterdam’s inner city are no less the stuff of guidebook hyperbole: free-spirited hippies and revolutionaries, rough-and-tumble but lovable Dutch proletarians, sardonic barflies, and Jewish market workers, cigar makers, and diamond-cutters.  In reality, however, 90% of Amsterdam’s Jews were murdered during the Second World War (with the active connivance of the the city’s bureaucracy and police), its Dutch proletariat out-migrated to suburban new towns during the post-war decades, sardonic barflies yielded way to “cool” cafe-goers, and counter-cultural “Provos” of the 1960s were replaced by heroin addicts, urban “pioneers,” and, ultimately, by gentrifiers.

My own favorite neighborhoods of Amsterdam were far from the historic center and closer to the urban edge.  Late in the 19th century, the municipality of Amsterdam began a process of urban renewal and clearance of overcrowded slums.  First, new tenement neighborhoods were constructed, modern in terms of the time, and parks and green-spaces were laid out.  Then, during the early decades of the twentieth century, housing estates and apartment buildings were built farther afield, many financed and constructed by cooperative movements formed on the basis political affiliation, labor union membership, and/or religious confession.  The signature architectural style of the such cooperative housing was Dutch Expressionism, aka the Amsterdam School, a style that featured rounded corners and curved lines, garden-gnome-like sculptural ornamentation, hints of Jugenstil and Bauhaus, and cream-colored brick facades rather than the traditional Dutch dark-red.

While the center of Amsterdam has long been imbued with nostalgia for a mythologized Dutch “Golden Age,” the apartment buildings and cooperative housing complexes of outlying neighborhoods such as Amsterdam-South embodied a forward-looking vision and a dream: a commitment to social and economic equality and the development and perfection of the individual, this animated by a spirit of cooperation, and intentionally shaped and nurtured by a thoughtfully designed built environment.  I wonder from afar whether today, a century after the development of Amsterdam-South and in the wake of waves of demographic change, decades of post-war prosperity, and the transformation of housing from social infrastructure to commodity, anything of this ethos survives or is even remembered in the streets in which it once flourished.

The Photographs

At the top of the page: the dedicatory inscription at a corner of an apartment block in the early-1920s socialist cooperative housing complex De Dageraad (The Dawn). (For excellent architectural photos of the complex, see the entry for De Dageraad in the Dutch-language Wikipedia.) Below: An early-20th-century municipal sculpture alongside the Amstel river.  Both photos taken during the early-1980s on color positive film using a Rolleiflex f3.5 Tessar twin-lens reflex.

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Further to my previous post on the Dutch seat of government, the city of The Hague, a visual footnote:

In the 1970s and 1980s, the old downtown core of The Hague was in limbo. 17th- and 18th-century townhouses were neglected and underutilized, providing low-cost space for marginal and low-overhead businesses that had not yet fled to more modern, automobile-friendly quarters in newer high-rise quarters and industrial terrains; fledgling restaurants geared to the cuisine and tastes of new immigrants, Turkish and Chinese mostly; “red-light”-related enterprises; drug “culture;” and dwellings up for squatting.  Still, the characteristic tone of the The Hague prevailed.  In the photo above: a stark window display embodied The Hague’s no-nonsense approach to commerce, its contents stacked precariously and its sans-serif letter-press signage true to the spareness of the city’s aesthetics. In the photo below: the wryness of the city’s understated sense of humor comes to the fore in a cartoonish, delightfully innocent-looking, street mural portrait of — of all people — American LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary, with random defacement and senseless graffiti further augmenting its whimsicality.   Both photos were taken on 120-size diapositive (slide) roll-film using a Rolleiflex f3.5 Tessar medium-format twin-lens reflex camera.

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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.

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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.