DIY Through The Centuries

Self-assembly on IJburg
Self-assembly on IJburg

On June 18 and 19, the Day of Architecture Amsterdam was marked by self-assembly. Building a house on your own land*, where the design and execution are entirely separate from the house next door is back. Unique solutions within reach, tailored to individual needs. Who would not like that?

After a long period of stagnation, the Netherlands scrambled back to building in the late nineteenth century. Increasing urbanization caused great need for housing. Investors and contractors went to work and stamped barracks from the ground, often with small, stuffy homes with low light and poor quality as a result. This so-called revolution construction was already getting bad press. In response emerged in the twentieth century modernism, with rational buildings, attention to light and hygiene, but also the endless repetition of townhomes with Vinex as an end.

Illegal wooden houses outside the Haarlemmerpoort by Anthonis van den Wijngaerde (1547-1561) Amsterdam City Archives
Illegal wooden houses outside the Haarlemmerpoort by Anthonis van den Wijngaerde (1547-1561) Amsterdam City Archives

Who wanted to live in the city had the choice between existing buildings and often new too uniform constructions. Only in recent decades there has been a change. More and more people choose to build their own home, even if they share the sides with the neighbors. Looking further back in time, there’s nothing new under the sun. In the sixteenth century, when Amsterdam had a huge growth period, there was no space left inside the city walls, so people build their illegal dwellings outside the walls. A survey in 1564 showed that as many as 964 illegal houses and structures could be found outside the walls of the city.

In the construction of the canals, from 1613, they made a virtue into a necessity. Because the city needed money to dig canals, build bridges and to build new defenses, plots of lands were auctioned by district. Anyone with interest and money could buy a lot and build his own house. The city gave the embankments and some building heights of the terrain. Also, the city council gave the builders some simple rules in the seventeenth century, which everyone must adhere. Those rules related mainly to keep open the courtyards, the height of the buildings in the radial streets and the soundness of the fundaments, on which they held close supervision.

View of the Golden Bend in the Herengracht by Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde (1671-1672) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
View of the Golden Bend in the Herengracht by Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde (1671-1672) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

In terms of design and performance it was fairly free to build whatever they wanted. This led to wide and narrow facades, high and low gabels arose on Herengracht, initially even facades of wood! But of course, soon facades of brick and stone prevailed and an endless variation and adaptation to the rich variety of gables which we can be still admired every day. The individuality of the homebuilder led to an urban monument of world class and provides inspiration for the homebuilder now.

*Own land is a big word in Amsterdam, you have the plot on lease from the city.