Many loved images of Amsterdam’s narrow and wonky canal houses have shaped the world’s perception of Dutch architecture. So why does the classic canal house look like this? 

Even if you have never set foot in the Netherlands, you most likely have an idea of what classic Dutch architecture looks like. This is because, bicycles, weed, and tulips aside, the image of the Dutch canal house is probably what most people imagine when they think of the Netherlands.

Indeed, Dutch architecture is probably part of the reason why so many tourists flood into Amsterdam. From the extremely narrow facades to the seemingly questionable structural integrity, why are these classic buildings so wonderfully weird? Here are the answers to all the questions you never knew you had.

Why are Amsterdam’s canal houses so narrow? 

Perhaps the most striking feature of the classical Amsterdam canal house is the sometimes absurdly narrow facade. Anyone new to the Netherlands may wonder how it is that all the elements of everyday life can be carried out in an abode the width of a Volkswagen. However, if you have been lucky enough to get invited in, you will find that in spite of its narrowness, the house is usually very deep.

The longer you look, the narrower they seem. Image: Kata Pal/Pexels

So why is it that the Dutch went about creating such oddly-proportioned houses? The answer is simple: it was cheaper that way. Back in the 16th century, Dutch citizens were taxed for many things, including the width of their houses. Perhaps this feeds into the stereotype of the Dutch always looking for a bargain! The Dutch found a solution to the issue of taxation and simply made narrow but deep houses.

Dutch staircases: the price that must be paid

However, an extremely narrow house resulted in another architectural phenomenon that is often found in Dutch households: the narrow staircase.

In my experience, the first moment in which I faced culture shock was not upon hearing Dutch, nor upon boarding public transport, but at the moment at which I found myself standing at the bottom of a very narrow and steep staircase with a heavy suitcase. My brain could not comprehend how it was that both myself and my belongings could make it to the top unscathed.



However, for many Dutchies the journey up and down such a treacherous landscape is second nature, and this is because the narrow staircase has become as integrated into Dutch life as the narrow houses. It makes sense, if you are to make your house narrow and tall, you have to make the staircase proportionately narrow and steep. I am sure this form of Dutch staircase has taken many victims throughout history, but it goes hand in hand with the awkward beauty that is the Dutch canal house and for that reason we can’t be too mad at it.  

The hoisting hook: common to the Amsterdam experience  

Apart from its hazardous nature, the second issue that many people (both Dutch and international) may have with the narrow and steep staircase is the problem it presents when trying to move furniture in or out of a building. Those of us who have lived in such houses know the struggle of finding furniture that is nice, cheap and most importantly —detachable. Sometimes, the only way an item of furniture is making it up the stairs is in pieces.

Nowadays they just use cranes. Image: Arch/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

How did the Dutch manage in a time when furniture couldn’t be bought in flatpack form from Ikea you may ask? The answer is the hoisting hook.

You may have noticed the hoisting hook on your strolls along quaint Amsterdam canals and wondered what on earth their purpose could be. Well, the answer is tied to the narrow nature of many houses. If furniture or goods could not fit up the stairs, it was hoisted up from the outside of the building and brought in through the windows below the hook. It is believed that this is also why the windows are so large. 

Why are Dutch canal houses so crooked? 

You may have noticed that certain buildings have a characteristic tilt to them. Whilst it is certainly charming you might be wondering what this could mean for structural integrity. Believe it or not, if the house is leaning forward (Pisa style), this was completely intentional (unlike Pisa). 

This can be related back to the hoisting hook. As you can imagine, the act of hoisting furniture up into a building is an awkward affair and so, the buildings were given a certain forward tilt so as to avoid structural damage during the process of lifting heavy furniture (no one wants a sofa crashing through the bedroom window). An additional advantage to a leaning facade is that it allows for more space, thus making up for the narrowness of the house. 

However, if you noticed that certain houses appear to be leaning on each other for balance…then that is not intentional. Many historic Dutch houses, especially those in Amsterdam, were built on wooden poles that were sunk deep into the sandy marsh that was the Amsterdam landscape. Over time, due to changes in water levels and general aging, some of these poles began to rot, leading to a certain sideways tilting amongst the houses. In one case, houses on a street in Amsterdam began to actually sink due to the construction of a metro line underneath.

Renovations also play a role in this quirky tilting. If one house in a row of canal houses undergoes structural changes, this leads to a shifting of the supporting poles which can cause certain houses to lean against each other more. This is why you may see poor corner houses struggling the most as they have no neighbour to lean on!  

Imagine trying to lift a couch up to the top floor. Image: 0805edwin/Pixabay

Amsterdam canal houses: a thing of beauty? Or highly impractical?

The classic Amsterdam canal house is definitely a thing of beauty, so much so that certain countries try to emulate it (for example, Huis Ten Bosch in Japan!) Whilst the classic image of cosy Amsterdam canal houses might make a snazzy addition to the Insta, there are certain elements to the canal houses that are purely impractical, especially in this day and age.

For example, a canal house may not age well in the future given their wooden support beams, unless you are willing to invest in a new foundation. I am sure this summer has also made many people aware that heat control is certainly an issue. That being said, I can’t quite imagine the Netherlands without these wonky wonders. Check out some stunning photos of Amsterdam and bask in their beauty! 

Have you enjoyed life in a canal house? Or are you a curious spectator? Let us know what you think of canal houses in the comments below!  

Feature Image: Skeeze/Pixabay


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