The ‘impossible city’ – review of “Amsterdam” by Geert Mak


Source: wikitravel.org

Amsterdam is one of those great world cities that has always fascinated me. I am not sure exactly why, though the intricate network of canals and land reclamation projects certainly come to mind. To date, I have only briefly been in the city (technically in the suburbs) at massive Schiphol Airport after being diverted from London’s Gatwick due to snow in April of 2008. However, it is on my list of key global cities to visit. For that reason and due to a recommendation from a fellow planner through Linkedin, I decided to buy and read the book Amsterdam, by Geert Mak, which was published in 2010.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

What an outstanding read! Any and all urban planners should read Mr. Mak’s book if they want to more clearly understand the components that go into forming a global city (in an unlikely location) – one of the most important is just plain good luck. There are so many interesting facts and tidbits of history contained in the book it would be nearly impossible to summarize all of it fairly. Here are a few gems gleaned from the first two-third of the text (still reading the last third):

Amsterdam is young compared with most European cities. there is no prehistory of migrations; of military barracks, or temples; emperors and kings have never held court there. (page 9)

When all is said and done, Amsterdam was an impossible city.  Everything that was built sank into the mud, especially in later centuries… (page 20) 

Yet the young city drew strength from the fact that it was situated close to so many important cities, at least by the standards of the day. Added to this were factors that so often lead to great success: (1) chance; (2) an invention that was to have momentous consequences; and (3) above all, the stupidity and short-sightedness of others. (page 21)

The great invention was the cog: a large broad-beamed wooden ship with a rounded prow and stern, like an enormous clog with a mast. seaworthy and able to transport large quantities of goods cheaply. (pages 21-22)

It is sometimes said that every person dies twice: the first time when he dies, and the second when he is forgotten by the last survivor from his own time… By the same token, most of the life of a city dies in a single generation; after that, faces, smells, sounds and atmospheres can only be reconstructed with the help of fragmentary sketches or the occasional preserved picture.  (page 40)

Nevertheless, if this function of the city as a meeting place, and with it the idea of tolerance, were to be threatened by any group, the city fathers would crush the interlopers mercilessly. (page 64)

…this merchant city’s urge for freedom was to prove stronger than any religious doctrine. (page 76)

More than ever, Amsterdam was a hubbub of activity. Aside from this, the city was increasingly assuming the function of a storehouse for goods in transit. (page 90)

National sentiments had not yet come into play; if anything, one was loyal to one’s city. Above everything, however, stood the requirements of the trade. (page 91)

An important catalyst for Amsterdam was the fall of its largest competitor, Antwerp. In 1576, Spanish mutineers instituted a horrific bloodbath in that city, and in 1585 Antwerp was finally occupied for Philip II by the Duke of Parma. In response to this, the gateway t the sea, the river Schelde, was blocked by a pirate from Zeeland. bringing about the complete collapse of Antwerp’s trade. (page 91)

The Amsterdam of the “golden” seventeenth century was, to all intents and purposes, one enormous slot machine. Each available piece of earth, every skilled hand, was turned to this end. (page 100)

The seventeenth century was the century of the city. (page 105)

Amsterdam’s pre-eminence during the seventeenth century had not been based on a large and strong land base, but on the fact that its position was advantageous for international trade. (page 151)

Today, we most often think of London, New York City, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Dubai as the world’s leading financial, trade, and business centers. However, it was Amsterdam that first earned this distinction in the 17th century and still has a profound influence on global commerce and markets today.

Amsterdam has been, and likely always will be, a city built on trade, commerce, and finance. Initially, the principal port and shipbuilding city of Europe, during the 17th century, Amsterdam became the modern world’s first global city as local merchants, bankers, and businesses capitalized on the city’s business and immigrant friendly atmosphere. As the city’s wealth and influence grew exponentially, it transformed into the modern world’s first global financial center.

While the nearby city of Rotterdam may have surpassed Amsterdam as an ocean/river port and shipping center, insightful and innovative projects like the Zuidas Aerotropolis at Schiphol Airport have established Amsterdam as a leading intercontinental passenger and air freight transfer point and destination. According to Airports Council International, Schiphol Airport is the world’s 15th busiest airport in terms of passengers, 17th in terms of air freight/cargo, and 20th in aircraft movements. The Zuidas project in itself is an example of the kind of foresight a city and its leaders need to stand out from the crowded competition, ignite innovation, build prosperity, and create a brand name/image around the world.

I strongly recommend the book Amsterdam to anyone interested in history, Holland, Amsterdam, city planning, economic development, or who just like a great, good read. Enjoy!

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10 Responses to The ‘impossible city’ – review of “Amsterdam” by Geert Mak

  1. Thanks for your personal marvelous posting! I certainly enjoyed reading it, you’re a great author. I will make certain to bookmark your blog and may come back in the future. I want to encourage you continue your great work, have a nice evening!

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    • Rick Brown says:

      Thank you very much.

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      • Flobin says:

        The above was a spam comment. See the link in their name. That being said, cool post.

        Did you get to the part about the Algemeen Uitbreidingsplan? (Sometimes referred to as AUP.) It’s standard fare here in architecture/urban design/urban planning classes in the Netherlands. If it’s not in there, it’s a bad book.

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  2. Amsterdam is lovely! Cyclists’ paradise.

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  3. Nick Helmholdt says:

    I was lucky enough to spend a night in Amsterdam several years ago during a study abroad to Germany. It is a spectacularly dense and flat city. I clearly remember how the swarms of bicyclists really were able to ride without yielding to autos or pedestrians through the entire city.
    Thanks for the book recommendation. I will check it out since I have Dutch heritage and know embarrassingly little about my background.

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  5. Cordell Rinn says:

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