Amsterdam may be the world’s most beautiful large city. Paris is beautiful, no doubt, but it is also much more grandiose, and that reduces much of the city to only a spectacle to be gawked at. Eternal Rome has its spots – the Pantheon and Piazza Navona neighborhoods come immediately to mind – but it is not especially beautiful across the whole. London has some charming cubby areas, but overall is far too grotesque in its absurd scale.
Amsterdam is thoughtful, human scale, richly textured. The city cloaks its inhabitants and visitors alike in refinement.
Before I visited (I’ve now been twice) I thought it was a gimmick city – canals and boats, frilly architecture, quaint bridges. Yes it is all that, but instead of gimmicks, they are the backdrops to a quality of life unmatched anywhere.
Amsterdam’s location, tolerance, business drive, education, and democratization all combined to enable the city to capture great wealth in beginning in the 16th century. And instead of wealth being concentrated in the hands of a very few, it was spread across the inhabitants; in the 17th century the per capita income of Amsterdam was four times that of Paris. To fully enjoy all that their great wealth could bring, Amsterdam’s citizens embarked upon the city building that created the city we know today. They used their great wealth to create a thing of beauty. Beauty lasts.
Years ago, I was frustrated when I looked at the 17th century canals in plan view. They take the form of chunky angles rather than true arcs. But on the ground it works by partially terminating and deflecting the view – making a more dramatic impression, rather than more subtly, which is what curves would have done.
I was also skeptical of the scale of the “planned” canals compared to the medieval ones. There is a lot of distance between building facades. Was it too much? No. And due to the wonderful urban forestry, the trees provide a wall of green along the canal fronts, making the space more intimate.
The pic above shows at least four equally viable modes of transport: walking, biking, cars, boats. The tram runs on the far bridge. So, five modes of transport in one picture. How many can you realistically take in any American city?
My only criticism is that too much space is given to cars on these canal streets. The parking areas restrict the relationship with the water. Walking down these streets is also unpleasant when traffic comes along, especially on a winter’s day where there isn’t much no slippery spots.