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SPACELAB research laboratory for the contemporary city

>> Amsterdam’s core - museum or living urban monument?

Stephen Read The historical core of Amsterdam has changed in many profound ways over time (especially over the last century in relation to the urban agglomeration and region) and its relevance within the modern metropolitan city has been questioned. It remains though an area of colour and vitality and in many ways remains the cultural and functional fulcrum of the modern city. Research on urban spatial/functional structure done at the DUT and at LJCL in London offers suggestive spatial reasons for the endurance of the core as a powerful and binding urban focus and for the nature of the relationship of the historical centre to the city around it and to the region.

Introduction One of the consistent themes in the discourse about cities today is the way that they are changing and the pace at which they are changing. There is a lot of discussion about the transformation of cities in relation to their peripheries and their regions and the part that transportation and information technologies play, and the part that the mobility of people plays in the interaction between the city and its region. However, one of the interesting things about cities is not simply that they constantly change - but that so much of them doesn’t. Right at the centre of so many modern European cities, in their historical cores, there exists a great deal of the very old - and even the ancient - in the routes and the spatial patterns that make up their spatial and functional shapes and structures. Whatever changes the city may experience in the course of its development, these changes take place in the context of, and are conditioned by what came before - and the most binding part of this legacy is the spatial/ functional structure bound into the network of public open space and the patterns of movement laid down in the past. This paper presents work in progress and as such is directed more towards the raising of questions than to the answering of those questions. The work that it describes arises out of the need, within the context of a broader study of the structure of the form of the spatial movement network of Amsterdam and its region, to consider historical development - which is considered to have profoundly influenced the present-day movement network - more directly and specifically.



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Faculty of Architecture Delft University of Technology Berlageweg 1 2628 CR Delft

The growth of the city and the roles of space and scale. The spatial networks of cities arc clearly not simply neutral conveyers of movement within cities. Certain routes are prioritised by people and traffic - and not simply because they have been so allocated by planners orpoliticians, or because their profiles have been designed to carry7 more traffic, or because they have greater densities of certain functions associated with them or are more architecturally attractive - although all these factors do play some role. Routes through the urban fabric tend to be prioritised primarily because of their specific geometries within the network that makes up the urban spatial grid - and because of their actual spatial relationships with other routes and with spaces at other levels in the urban spatial hierarchy. Urban spatial grid shapes and relationships are a product of processes that take place in history - and this is nowhere more true than in the historical cores. The purpose of the current study is to try to begin to understand the nature of some of these processes better and the effect they may have on the present-day functioning of the historical centre of Amsterdam taken both alone and in relation to the rest of the city that has developed around it. The modern city is not all about flux and change - indeed many aspects of the city change only slowly and only slightly. There is a certain fixity and immobility for example about the network of public space and its shape and configuration that exists alongside the changes that are the subject of so much current attention. The fact that public space patterns right at the centre of our cities may also be intimately linked with the way the city functions - because of the mutually constitutive nature of the space/time/function relationship - means that historical spatial patterns and the historical process of the forming or shaping of the urban spatial network is not simply and purely an historical/morphological subject - but one that may deeply affect the way the city has subsequently developed and may profoundly influence the present-day functioning of the city, through establishing specific types of spatial/functional pattern, as well as preferred axes of connection into the centre itself. The dynamic of the city involves change and fixity, and the most interesting aspects of the picture seem, from the exploratory research so far done, to lie in the relationship between what changes (the areas and directions of expansion) and what stays relatively fixed (mainly what has already been built) and between different scales and different levels in the hierarchies embedded in the spatial network. Spatial description and spatial structure The spatial techniques described here concentrate on the concrete present- day form of the spatial network of the city’ and do not explicitly consider the historical development of that network. However it is taken as read that in the urban context, space and form, time and history, and people and society are mutually constitutive elements in any framework of analysis or explanation. So while the techniques used here appear to be a- historical and for that matter not even specifically geometric or social or functional, they are capable of identifying structure that has its origins in the historical development of the city or in specific geometric or functional conditions, for the simple reason that history, geometry and social factors have given form to the city and have influenced that form toa very large extent according to their own imperatives. It is necessary to bring history into the story of the spatial structure of the city in a more explicit way in order to understand better some of these processes which have given form to the city. The idea of structure in this context refers to aspects of the shape of the spatial network which are linked to hierarchy in space and hierarchy in function in space.


Space syntax is a set of techniques for the exact description of the shape of the network of space in the city. It has been developed mainly at the Unit for Architectural Studies at University College London and has been used in this study

to try to identify structure within the exact shape and configuration of the urban spatial network of Amsterdam. The object of working with the techniques is to search for patterns or regularities in the relationships between this description and quantifiable aspects of the functioning of the city.

Figure 1. Amsterdam - axial map What this means in practical terms is that a plan of the network of space of the city is overlaid with a graph called an axial map - which consists of the least number of longest straight lines or axes that completely and continuously cover the network of space of the city. Each of these elements or axes has a relationship to each of the other elements or axes in the system which can be expressed very simply in terms of the least number of other elements one has to pass through to get from the one to the other. And, just as each element has a relationship with each other individual clement which can be quantified simply as a number, each clement of thesystem has a quantifiable relationship with the rest of the system as a whole. This is usually the average - standardised to allow7 for the effect of the size of the system - of all the numbers of elements one has to pass through to get from that clement to all the other elements in the system - the average in other words of the numeric relationships between the element or axis in question and all the other elements or axes in the system. So in essence there is nothing complicated about the technique itself. What is complicated is the spatial nehvork being studied - and what we are trying to do is to describe this complex thing in such away that we reveal structure within it. Its a case of trying to allow a global picture to emerge from a lot of local effects. The quantities obtained from this analysis - done with computers - can be compared to other quantifiable features in the city - like densities of people or of movement. Nobody is suggesting that the only determinant of function in the space of the city is the shape of the spatial network - but testing the model has proved that it can predict the densities of people in public space, for example, rather well. 3

Testing the model. Work on Dutch cities and their spatial networks has highlighted some interesting regularities in the relationship between the shape of their spatial networks and their functioning - as well as some very interesting differences as regards these relationships between London - where most of the work using space syntax has until now been done - and Amsterdam.

Figure 2. Amsterdam - areas tested with Space Syntax

Figure 3. Amsterdam - Watergraafsmeer - correlation between Space Syntax measures and presence of people in public space 4

Space syntax has been tested in many areas and in many situations in Amsterdam and in other Dutch cities. At the simplest level that has meant comparing densities of people surveyed in real public space with the quantities derived from the model. Although the correlations (see for example ďŹ gure 3) were generally good they were not always as good as those found in London. The reasons for this are not completely clear at this point in the process of exploration, but some interesting ideas are emerging from the whole picture which may in the future lead to a deeper understanding of the role played by network shape and conďŹ guration in city functioning.

Figure 4. 36 areas in 5 Dutch cities - area level spatial measure/functional measure correlations At another level, its been found that we get some very interesting correlations between these sorts of spatial measures taken for areas as a whole and the general averaged out rate of occupation of the public space of the areas taken as wholes. There is in fact no comparable effect in London - but this relationship appears to be robust in Dutch cities and the potential of this for evaluating urban layouts and urban designs in the Dutch situation is considerable. The space of the city appears to be organised and structured in ways that are not always obvious or immediately clear to us when we just look at a plan - and this organisation seems on the face of it, from the results of the research done so far, to have a profound effect on some types of function. By far the most important factor affecting this spatial/functional interaction appears to be spatial hierarchy.


Urban spatial hierarchy - the area and the supergrid The hierarchies in movement networks have mostly up to now7 been defined by reference to rates and types of movement - in other words in terms of the functional measures of what’s happening in the spaces themselves, and not in terms of their spatial measures. This is because there has been a lack of means of measuring the spatial characteristics of urban networks that reliably link them to functional effects. There are of course many ways of describing space but describing space in a way that does not consistently relate to the things that happen in that space is of course of limited value.

Figure 5. Amsterdam, Jordaan and Grachten - movement rate profiles If we look at profiles of movement and public space occupation rates in neighbourhoods in Dutch cities a typical pattern emerges. One almost invariably finds that some small percentage of the spaces in an area - usually around 10% - carry a very considerably higher rate of movement than the rest of the spaces in the area - there is a very clear hierarchy as regards the way spaces are used in the area, with a small number of spaces being prioritised for more intense and more long-distance movement through or past the area. These spaces are often, but not always, also functionally important locally as high streets or shopping streets, and the exact relationship of the more typical spaces in the area to those spaces prioritised for longer-distance movement and the relationship of those longerdistance movement spaces to the whole pattern of longer-distance movement in the vicinity seems to some extent to determine the function and character of the prioritised spaces. These spaces prioritised for longer-distance movement - taken as a whole over the whole city - form a network with a specialised long or longer distance movement function and are called the supergrid. Their special characteristic is not necessarily a high rate of movement per se, but rather a high rate of movement in relation to the more typical spaces in their vicinity. In other words they are the spaces that people will move towards when they move out of the local area, or make a journey that is at a more global scale than the scale of the local area itself.


It is not remarkable that we can determine the spaces that make up the supergrid on the basis of measuring movement and numbers of people in public space. However, what is more remarkable for the idea of spatial as opposed to functional hierarchy, is that it is possible to determine the supergrid pretty accurately simply by performing certain simple numerical operations on the axial map. The derivation of the patterns shown in figures 6 and 7 is purely spatial - but anyone who is familiar with either London or Amsterdam will sec the functional logic in them immediately. The spaces picked out form - with some rather interesting anomalies in the case of Amsterdam - the system of global movement in these two cities. London produces

these very clear global scale patterns that correspond very nicely with the roads that one ďŹ nds picked out as being more major roads in the London ‘A to Z’. A similarly derived pattern in Amsterdam is clear enough - but is not quite as reliable as that of London. This representation of the supergrid network is derived purely from spatial data - but clearly it is also historical in the sense that it must be processes that have taken place in history which have produced these spatial/functional patterns.

Figure 6. London - supregrid

Figure 7. Amsterdam - supergrid


Figure 8. London - figure ground

Figure 9. Amsterdam - figure ground


Processes of formation As designers we are very conscious of geometric order and we often use geometric order in the form of regular grids and other regular - or consciously irregular patterns quite explicitly when designing layouts of urban areas. In fact one can start talking about another kind of order in the space of the city - one that is very closely related to some kinds of functional order in the city. There is more geometric regularity in the Amsterdam map than there is in London whereas London seems to have more of this other kind of order - because clearly there is a type of order here although it is not an order that \vc as designers necessarily ‘see’ that well compared that is to how well we see geometric order. It is possible of course that both these types of order - the more geometrically regular order in Amsterdam and the more structural order one finds in London have their origins in the ways that these different cities have grown and developed. Figure 10. London - 17thC map Figure 11. Amsterdam - 17thC map The most obvious spatial difference in the processes of development of the spatial patterns of Amsterdam and London as they occurred in the 17th century must lie in the relative degree of conscious planning between the two cities. Whereas it is clear that virtually all of Amsterdam has expanded in very deliberately planned and contained spatial bursts - as if ‘blistering’ in stages at its perimeter, huge expanses of London have ‘just grown’ in a much more piecemeal and continuous way - more or less ‘leaking’ into the surrounding landscape. It is clear also that whereas in London this ‘leaking’ into the landscape was structured around and along already existing movement routes, in Amsterdam the expansion of the city was structured more by the area of the spatially contained expansion project.

Figure 12. London - figure ground/axial map


Figure 13. Amsterdam - figure ground/axial map

If we compare a sample area of Amsterdam with an area of London again and pick out the longest spaces that we find in both of them, then it seems that long spaces in London are organised in a very particular way. One can see that they tend to be strung together much more than are those in Amsterdam. This sort of chain of long spaces arrangement may be some sort of key to what is going on here. London tends to be (and this is all relative of course - there is nothing that pure and straight-forward when it comes to cities) structured by movement. Areas or neighbourhoods within London tend to be centred on these chains of long spaces - supergrid spaces. This is the origin of London’s high-streets - and the origin at the same time of one of the biggest problems with them. Today they are often made unpleasant by the volume of global traffic which passes through what also serves as a local neighbourhood centre. There’s a story in here about organic versus planned cities; John Summerson said “a town, like a plant or an anthill, is a product of a collective unconscious will, and only to a very small extent of formulated intention.” The town he is referring to is of course London which has resisted all attempts by central authorities at planning. And nothing would be further from the truth were he referring to Amsterdam.

Figure 14. Amsterdam west - supergrid movement routes. Amsterdam, structured as it seems to be by the expansion project, has supergrid routes threaded almost as an afterthought through or even around neighbourhoods. The supergrid is often relatively compromised by this threading process - one does not see the same clear strings of long spaces that one sees in London. The supergrid is much weaker than the supergrid of London, but is still clear enough - the spatial analysis still in general picks it up quite accurately.


It seems that there is a kind of match between origins and present day function in the spatial pattern of London - which arises out of the origin of the spatial pattern itself in routes of movement and the subsequent relative stability of this pattern and stability of the relative distribution of the city around this pattern. So movement orders and structures the original shape of the spatial network which then orders and structures present day movement. And that is a lot of what the space syntax instrument seems to be picking up - not all of it but a lot. The space syntax instrument ‘sees’ these movement routes as strings of lines or axes - and

really what it is measuring is strings of generally long axes. That doesn’t seem to mean that all the axes in a supergrid route need to be long - only that taken together it is made up of generally long axes. It’s picking up a formal/geometric property of supergrid routes that is measured in generally long axes - or perhaps one can think of it as long sight-lines - in the model and one that is pretty consistent even in Amsterdam. Speaking then in crude terms, a city’s primary movement routes which in fact means those that tend to structure movement in the rest of the spaces of the city as well - tend to be straight and characterised by long sight lines. Spatial formation processes in Amsterdam. So what’s the story then with Amsterdam? These movement routes in Amsterdam are nowhere near so purely structured by movement as are those in London. While there is a supergrid that clearly operates as such, its origins are nowhere near as

Figure 15. London - supergrid close-up.

Figure 16. Amsterdam - supergrid close-up.

clearly pure movement as are those in London. Its a bit of a paradox really - because Holland being as flat as it is, one would imagine that there is little resistance to movement in any direction. In fact the land is crossed and divided - geometrically pre- structured if you like - by dikes and waterways and this doesn’t just apply to the landscape as a whole, it has also applied to the city and its origins. Figure 17. Water in the landscape. Figure 18. Water in the city.


The long axes - or long sight-lines - that one finds in the historical Dutch city may often facilitate longer-distance movement today but they have their origins in a process of formation that is not always to do with movement. In a real sense one could say that compared to the movement system in London (and again this is always a relative thing of course), the movement system of the centre of Amsterdam is an ad hoc or post hoc construct on the back of processes that often have more to do with large scale environmental engineering than movement. The purpose then of this little historical study on the origins of Amsterdam is to start to fill in some gaps in my understanding of the spatial/functional dynamic of modem Amsterdam - and

to try to begin to understand the processes of development of the spatial structure of Amsterdam better and to try to link that to the present day functioning of the city. I have taken 6 stages in the development of the historical core - including today - at about 1300,1544,1612,1650,1662 and the present day and the study is based on contemporaneous maps. Diagrams are being drawn which it is hoped will isolate the important factors in the development of important features in the spatial network. It is expected that these factors will include the positions of city gates at the various stages of development and the positions of dikes, city walls and moats. One of the ways that routes within the historical city were structured by movement was by the positioning of gates. What I’ve begun to do at the simplest level is simply to trace some of the routes within the city which began as being access points to the city at various stages of development. Dikes, walls and moats often established long sight-line axes which in some cases were incorporated into the longer distance movement network, and which in any event tended, simply by being there, to affect the movement network in some way. All this is very much unďŹ nished business - in fact only just begun business - and I welcome any criticism.

Figure 19. Amsterdam - axial map 1300

Figure 20. Amsterdam - 1300 diagram 12

Figure 21. Amsterdam - axial map 1544

Figure 22. Amsterdam - 1544 diagram


Figure 23. Amsterdam - axial map 1612

Figure 24. Amsterdam - 1612 diagram


Figure 25. Amsterdam - axial map 1650

Figure 26. Amsterdam - 1650 diagram


Figure 27. Amsterdam - axial map 1662

Figure 28. Amsterdam - 1662 diagram


Figure 29. Amsterdam - axial map 1997

Figure 30. Amsterdam -1997 diagram


The spatial logic of the historical core. I am going to present some ideas about the spatial nature of the historical core of Amsterdam as tentative conclusions to this unfinished work. I expect that these ideas may change somewhat as the work progresses, but at the moment they represent what appear to me to be reasonable speculations about the final outcome. The historic core of Amsterdam is only poorly spatially integrated with the rest of the city immediately around it for a number of good spatial reasons. The first is that the original city was small, and while the scale of the spaces - and here I am talking about length of sight-lines rather than the width of spaces - was adequate for the size of the city in the seventeenth century, there is a real scale contrast as one enters the historical core from the nineteenth and early twentieth century belt today. This seems to affect perceptions of accessibility and comprehensibility of the historical core. Amsterdam does not have the equivalent of the boulevards of Paris which have given that city a spatial scale at its centre which is more appropriate to the scale of the whole city. Amsterdam’s core does have long sight-lines along the Damrak/Rokin, Nicuwezijdsvoorburgwal, and the Spuistraat and their extensions into the Vijselstraat and the Leidsestraat, but these tend to be used as quick connections in one direction - south-north - to Central Station and the Prins Hendrikkade and its connections to the regional road network and do not form a multi-functional movement network - with that complex layering of functions that is the mark of true urbanity. Movement in the east-west direction in the historical centre remains difficult, due entirely to the small scale and convoluted connections left by the processes of spatial pattern formation - especially those before the 17th century. Another point is that there are other long sight-lines in the centre generally formed by connections running alongside dikes, and given form by those dikes - Klovenicrsburgwal, Oudezijdsvoorburgwal, Oudezijdsachterburgwal, for example and of course on the west side, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and the Singel - but the connection of these potentially powerful routes is negated by their poor connections to the rest of the global movement system. There is no question that their poor connections are a result of them never having historically been part of a movement system which included the areas outside the old city that now comprise the newer parts of Amsterdam. The historical centre is therefore spatially isolated from the newer parts of Amsterdam with the exception of a couple of rather specialised north/ south routes. At the moment I am developing a space syntax technique which identifies clustering of groups of elements within the whole axial map and 1 expect that this will show this relative independence of the historical centre in relation to the rest of the spatial configuration of Amsterdam in a graphic way. Another reason is that the core is not truly at the centre, but is in fact at the edge of the whole configuration. The connections to Amsterdam North from the core are tenuous to say the least and the waterfront along the IJ- oevers as well as the core behind it suffer from this problem which is common to many waterfront and other city edge situations, and identified by Jane Jacobs amongst others.


What is the most interesting aspect of the relationship of the historical core of Amsterdam to the rest of the movement network however, is the way that this relationship has been affected through scale changes in relation to the region as opposed to the city of Amsterdam. Much has been written recently about processes of ‘urban transformation’ and the regionalisation of urban systems along with the rise of the importance of the periphery at the expense often of the centres of cities. Conventional perceptions place the historical core of Amsterdam at the centre of a model which develops in concentric rings out to the periphery. The idea I am researching challenges this, taking a more fragmented and metropolitan view

of the city, placing the historic centre alongside a constellation of urban centres strongly connected in a regional network. The experience of the historic centre on a Saturday morning supports, I believe, the view that the centre is as closely if not more closely connected, as far as the functional importance of the connections are concerned, to Purmerend, Castricum and Haarlem as it is to Osdorp or Amsterdam Zuid. The historic centre looks at the moment more like a regional shopping centre rather than the economic heart and engine of the city. It seems likely that the continuing relevance of the historic centre is tied most strongly to its relationships to the region and to other centres in the region and seen in this light, the importance of a strong regional-level connection to the explosively growing Amsterdam RAI/ Schiphol axis seems obvious. Recommended reading Hillier B., J. Hanson, The Social Logic of Space, CUP, 1984. Hillier B., A. Penn, J. Hanson, T. Grajewski, Xu J., ‘Natural movement: or, configuration and attraction in urban pedestrian movement’/ in; Environment and Planning B, Planning and Design, vol. 20, 1993. Hillier B., Space is the Machine, CUP, 1996. Jacobs J., The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Penguin, 1984. Jacobs describes the city as a system of organised complexity and identifies spatial configurational reasons for urban health and blight. She proposes that activity and a diverse urbanity depend on certain conditions of the urban grid. Read S., Function of urban pattern/Pattern of urban function, Publikatieburo Bouwkunde, Technische Universiteit Delft, 1996. Read S., ‘Space syntax and the Dutch city’, in; Proceedings of the First International Space Syntax Symposium, University College London, 1997. Awaiting publication in Environment and Planning B, Planning and Design. Read S. ‘Space syntax and the Dutch city - the Supergrid’, in; Proceedings of the First International Space Syntax Symposium, vol. 3, University College London, 1997. Rossi A., The Architecture of the City, MIT Press, 1982. Rossi emphasises the way the city changes - but at the same time talks a lot about the permanent phenomena that link different historical stages with each other. The most powerful and meaningful permanences are, according to Rossi, the city’s basic layout, the street and the plan and for him there is a dialectic relationship between this kind of permanence and growth. ‘Cities tend to remain on their axes of development, maintaining the position of their original layout and growing according to the direction and meaning of their older artefacts...’


Amsterdam's core  

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