Amsterdam, by Design

In the Dutch capital, a rich collection of Baroque, neoclassical and early-20th-century expressionist structures coexists almost organically with a new crop of contemporary buildings, creating what one designer calls “a good friction.”

Behind the bar at the Grand Hotel Amrath in Amsterdam, a wall of opaque glass changes colors like a fluid rainbow. Grey, violet, blue, white, pink—the subtle hues remind me of sunlight disappearing behind clouds, then peeking through again, washed in a sea of pastels. Along another wall, tall windows frame a postcard view of narrow, gabled houses lined up like soldiers across a picturesque canal. Gray dominates the outside scene, and a light rain falls on the cobbled streets.

Inside the hotel café, I’m drinking strong Dutch coffee and preparing to immerse myself in Amsterdam’s rich history of architecture, particularly its evolution in the last century. Here in this well-preserved city of 750,000 people, iconic 17th-century canal houses reflecting Baroque and Classical design elements commingle with sleek modern buildings—chic boutiques, trendy restaurants and a new crop of design hotels—and the result, for all that variety, feels surprisingly organic. That’s because, according to Virginia Beach-based architect Al Opstal, who grew up in the Netherlands, “Switching from the old to the new is second nature to the Dutch in Amsterdam.” While the city’s architecture is not exactly cohesive, Opstal believes, it gives Amsterdam “a unique historic perspective and a charm all its own.”

The Dutch are a practical people, and they’re also problem-solvers, as evidenced by their reputation as skilled engineers. They famously rescued their own country from rising seas, and right now Dutch engineers are assisting with a 10-year overhaul of New Orleans’ dikes and levy systems. (In Virginia, Dutch firms have been involved in major engineering projects including the Monitor-Merrimac Tunnel and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.) But the Dutch do more than just build things. They manage to imbue engineering projects, even mundane structures, with an aesthetic—as anyone who has visited Amsterdam and strolled across one of the city’s 1,600 bridges will attest.

To introduce me to Amsterdam design, Alice Roegholdt, a local architecture expert, is preparing to lead a tour of the Grand Hotel Amrath, a five-star property a few blocks from Central Station. It’s a monument to the unique expressionistic period of architecture and design known as the Amsterdam School, which flourished in the Netherlands between 1910 and 1930. Incorporating elements of Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, Cubism and Art Deco, this style features fanciful brickwork, ornamental spires and decorative windows and doors. One can see examples of the Amsterdam School in apartment buildings, department stores and even “street furniture”—think mailboxes and streetlights.

The Grand Hotel Amrath, originally known as The Shipping House, is considered among the best examples of the Amsterdam School style, Roegholdt says. As we walk around the hotel’s exterior, she points out architectural details such as the busts of famous Dutch sea heroes and explorers, who seem to stare into the distance as if seeking landfall. A wave motif splashes along the wrought-iron fence that encircles the building, and sculptures of sea horses, anchors, fish and King Neptune playfully reinforce the nautical theme.

The architects most prominently associated with the Amsterdam School include Jo van der Mey, Peter Kramer and Michel de Klerk, each of whom contributed to the design of The Shipping House. Originally, the building served as headquarters for six steamship companies, then later as an embassy and government offices until opening in 2006 as a luxury hotel. The building’s renovation carefully preserved most of the original details—among them, on the second floor, ticket windows with fancy wrought-iron bars. Original tiles, scuffed and worn in places, and Art Deco light fixtures also add to the property’s authenticity. Above the grand staircase in the center of the hotel, a stained glass installation stretches up the walls and across the ceiling in golden hues, depicting the world’s continents. Here and there, ships laden with goods ply the waters of the seven seas, a reminder of this small country’s dominance in the spice trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.

When The Shipping House was completed in 1928, Roegholdt explains, critics complained the building looked different—too contemporary. “The world looked at Amsterdam as an old-fashioned city,” she explains. “The shipping companies decided to make The Shipping House modern to counteract the world’s opinion. They wanted to keep history and also keep it new.”

Het Schip, which translates into The Ship, is considered by some to be the ultimate representation of the Amsterdam School. It’s an apartment building on the south side of Amsterdam, completed in 1921. Michel de Klerk, its architect, envisioned the building as a “palace for the working class,” explains Isabel van Lent, a docent at Museum Het Schip. During a tour, she points out some of the characteristics of the Amsterdam School found in Het Schip—the inventive brickwork, using different patterns and colors; a cigar-shaped tower that serves only an aesthetic purpose; and 64 differently shaped windows. “De Klerk got criticized because he wasn’t rational,” van Lent says, referring to the playfulness in de Klerk’s work. “He had humor,” she adds, “but he was a real perfectionist.”

Van Lent leads us across the street to the museum’s café, where a tidy exhibit of street furniture from the Amsterdam School era is arranged in a courtyard. This collection of water meters, street lamps, public toilets and trash cans, painted in bold, primary colors, offers another glimpse into how designers turned ordinary practical objects into works of art. Instead of plain streetlights, for example, elegant pyramid-shaped lamps trimmed in brass with opaque glass light Amsterdam’s streets at night. Rieneke Leenders, a Dutch artist who lives in Virginia Beach, believes that the Netherlands’ small size and dense population encourages artful design. “Most of what you see [in Amsterdam] is artificial—there’s hardly any nature—so you create a beautiful environment,” she explains.

No place better reflects the Dutch propensity for fusing practical function with avant-garde design than the Lloyd Hotel, in the Eastern Docklands area of Amsterdam. Built in 1921 by a Dutch shipping company in the Amsterdam School style, the six-story building sits in a newly developed neighborhood among modern apartments and shops. The Lloyd originally housed European migrants en route to South America. Later, the building became a juvenile detention center, a WWII prison and, most recently, a collection of artists’ studios. As Renate Schepen, communications manager, says, the building has long been “a place of transition.”

Today the property retains some of the institutional feel you might expect—but with a twist. In addition to quality lodging, the current owners wanted the Lloyd Hotel to function as a showcase for Dutch culture—a venue for concerts, lectures, and the exchange of ideas among guests, both local and foreign. To give the Lloyd a fresh look, the owners commissioned more than 50 Dutch designers to create contemporary rooms, furniture and public spaces within the building’s stately brick walls. The result is an eclectic hotel that attracts everyone from backpackers to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who owns a restaurant nearby.

In its present iteration, the Lloyd Hotel, which opened in 2004, has 117 rooms ranging from one to five stars, each an original vision of a modern Dutch designer. My spacious room, a four-star, features 12-foot windows that reveal a stunning view of the Amsterdam skyline. The white décor—walls, old-fashioned radiator and bedding—seems to recall the building’s institutional past, a theme that’s repeated in other rooms I visit. While some have wooden beams and an earthier feel, all are stark and minimally decorated yet have unique charm. In one, a swing hangs from the rafters; another has a fold-out bathroom: a closet door opens to become a wall, revealing a sink, toilet and shower. Public spaces—lounges, libraries and even the on-site restaurant—feel airy and uncluttered thanks to an open floor plan, high ceilings and light that pours through tall windows and skylights. According to Schepen, these elements combine to create an antidote to the building’s oppressive past.

Not everyone in Amsterdam’s design circles feels it’s important to be connected to the past. Onne Walsmit, an architect for a busy modernist design firm named Concrete, worries that Amsterdam is unable to “move on like other cities.” He says, “If the whole center of Amsterdam is being turned into a museum, it will become stuck. It’s difficult for Amsterdam to move on to the next stage.”

And yet his own company is at the forefront of efforts to push old Amsterdam in a more contemporary and dynamic direction. Walsmit and I are sitting in a hip coffee shop called Coffee Company on Berenstraat in the heart of the city, part of a chain that’s sprinkled across the Netherlands. Concrete designs the company’s shops, tucked into an assortment of buildings, each featuring warm lighting, mocha-colored tiles and a large wooden table about 10 feet long. “The table is very inviting,” Walsmit says. “Other people will sit here and you can begin to talk.”

Going out to drink coffee has always been an important part of Dutch culture—long before it became trendy in the States—and this cozy space has echoes of older, more traditional “brown cafes,” where you’ll also find communal tables filled with strangers chatting together over hot cups of coffee or cold beer. Yet, the sleek décor of Coffee Company is completely modern. Walsmit admits the firm does try to bring past and present together to create “a good kind of friction.”

Amsterdam is home to a number of spaces that exemplify Concrete’s commitment to forging a more modern city while still respecting the past. A few restaurants, for example, bear the firm’s mark. Envy, a chic “delicacies” restaurant around the corner on Prinsengracht, features minimalist décor, yet has inviting old-world ambiance. “We tried to make a homey feel with a contemporary design,” says Valerie Blanco, Concrete’s visual marketing specialist.

When you enter the restaurant, you immediately walk past the open kitchen, where chefs deftly prepare the restaurant’s signature small plates. “It’s almost like the whole restaurant is the kitchen, a chef’s table,” says Blanco. A wall of tables lines the left side of this narrow bistro. Opposite are refrigerators whose glass doors reveal all manner of foodstuffs—from Serrano ham to bowls of fresh eggs, rounds of aged cheeses to colorful vegetables—bathed in a lime-green light. A communal table with stools runs down the middle of the restaurant, where diners sit elbow to elbow as they share tasty morsels. The menu is eclectic, with an emphasis on seasonal dishes showcasing Europe’s finest meats, produce and cheeses.

A couple of doors down, Vyne, another Concrete project, offers a variety of wines by the glass in a gorgeous space that manager Jan Gryspeere describes as a bridge. “On one side is all natural colors, leather and wood,” he explains after serving my husband and me a tasting-size trio of Rhones in gourmet stemware. “The other half of the bar represents the new, with mirrors, green lighting and stainless steel.” As we relax on soft leather banquets, enjoying our wine, across from us eerie green light emanates from modern stainless steel coolers whose glass doors reveal hundreds of artfully arranged wine bottles. Somehow the contrasting elements in Vyne aren’t divisive; instead, a Zen-like calm pervades.

Concrete’s vision is exemplified by a new chain of affordable hotels the firm designed called citizenM—short for mobile citizens. The first property opened in 2008 at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, a second citizenM opened last year in the city center, and a third is planned for Glasgow, Scotland. From outside, the hotel at Schipol appears rather boxy, but when you walk in the door, you’ll find yourself in an innovative space that will especially appeal to modern adventurers—Holiday Inn this is not.

Kiosks in the lobby offer hassle-free self check-in, although citizenM “ambassadors” are on hand to assist if you should need help. After entering your personal information, you receive your key, a card that keeps track of your preferences for use during future visits. Personal settings include lighting, music, temperature, and wake-up calls.

But it’s the futuristic accommodations at citizenM that distinguish it from other hotels. The rooms are quite small (about 150 square feet), and half the space is taken up by a “super” king-sized bed—topped by a fluffy white comforter. Next to the bed is a wall-to-wall window, above which nestles a flat screen TV. The bathroom and closet take up the other half of the room, but there’s no wall separating the two areas. Instead, curved doors slide from behind the wall to create two round booths—one for the shower and one for the toilet—reminding me of Star Trek transporters.

Another forward-feeling design property is Artemis Design Hotel on the north side of Amsterdam, which offers stylish accommodations in a comfortable environment. When you walk into the lobby, you’ll immediately notice how uncluttered and spacious the area feels, thanks to high ceilings, large windows and clean white walls. De Stijl, the hotel’s trendy restaurant, draws its name and inspiration from a Dutch artistic movement that followed WWI. Painter Piet Mondrian, whose works feature primary colors and geometric shapes, helped advance this artistic style, also known as neoplasticism. Its influence was felt by renowned Dutch architects Gerrit Rietveld and Mies van der Rohe.

De Stijl is somewhat stark, but beautiful. A wall of windows overlooks a plaza, where on warm days diners can sit under umbrellas and eat al fresco. Back inside, long tables stretch beneath huge, silver bowl light fixtures that add a transcendent glow to the chef’s bounty. In the lounge area, cozy alcoves—perfect for a romantic conversation—punctuate a curving wall of warm, brown paneling. A circular bar, glittering in glass and granite, serves up libations to a 20-something crowd drawn to this modern watering hole for after-work unwinding.

Back in Amsterdam’s center city, I’m dodging raindrops again as I walk along cobble-stoned streets with Suzanne van Oirschot, a young artist who designs jewelry and furniture. The perky redhead works part-time for a company called Like-a-Local, which pairs travelers with local residents who provide theme-based personalized tours, such as history, art or fashion. Our design-themed tour will take us to shops and art spaces in Amsterdam. First stop: a shop/gallery called Droog, the Dutch word for dry, where 80 designers in a collective take turns exhibiting innovative pieces of what my guide calls “applied art,” i.e., home accessories and furniture. “Droog is on the edge between furniture and art,” van Oirschot explains, noting that displaying a piece in Droog is a career-boosting achievement for Dutch designers.

Housed in a 17th-century building on Staalstraat, Droog provides yet another example of old merging with new—for inside the space is modern and airy, lit by skylights and painted in vibrant colors. Large and small pieces are scattered about, functional works of art—chairs, dressers, lamps, vases and tableware. Droog’s website notes that the pieces “tell a story about themes such as memories, nostalgia, craftsmanship and nature.”

Another shop, Frozen Fountain, carries more applied art: jaunty leather evening bags, glass pitchers, colorful cushions. A collection of snowy white tableware—coffee cups, plates and bowls—conveys a simple, timeless beauty, a reminder that form and function should dance together in graceful unity.

At the end of the tour, I say goodbye to van Oirschot as yet more rain falls from a leaden sky. She hops on her bicycle, waves, and heads over a centuries-old bridge, pedaling toward the future.

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