One of the first things to be noticed once you arrive in Amsterdam is that most of the tall and narrow houses along the Canals and in the old city centre have the strange habit to lean forward on the street or on the side, over the next house.
At first you might think it’s the drugs that here in Amsterdam are sooo good that they give you strange hallucinations but, even when the effect has passed, those houses are still there, still reclining in a sort of bow, like they’re dancing an old madrigal.
Being that Amsterdam has been historically built on water during centuries, you might think that’s because they’re standing on fragile and unstable soil and those houses are slowly plunging into the mud.
That’s far from the truth.
If there’s a thing that Dutch people master is water management and though Amsterdam has had its few struggles in history, has always managed to build and organize its urbanization in a safe and smart way.
The real reason is another.
Amsterdam is very young compared to most European cities. There is no prehistory, no migration, no preexisting temples: emperors and kings have never held court here.
The first houses of sailors and merchants started to sprout around 1100 AD along Nieuwendijk and Kalverstraat. They were just huts with a clay floor sloped down from the centre to prevent water streaming into the house and four wooden walls that could be torn down very quickly with a hook in case of fire.
Long time passed before Amsterdam became a real city, building itself around commerce and water and despite the city burned several times, in 1500 houses were still made with wooden façades. As stories were added, each of them was build on top of the other a little further into the street, as the house encountered far less strain from wind and rain than would a building with vertical walls.
Amsterdam always shaped itself around nature and shaped nature for its good.
As stoned walls came into use, the houses kept the same structure, staying in alignment with the old wooden houses, with the result that the already narrow streets and dykes appear even more cramped, but sure peculiar and fascinating.
The leaning walls had also another advantage: as merchants flourished, they started to stock their wares into the attic and this protruding construction allowed to hoist the good up and down much easier, without the risks of collision with windows and walls.
Look at the top of most old houses in Amsterdam center: you’ll see a hook. That’s what they used centuries ago and that’s what Dutch people and expat are still using to move in and out furniture.
Try bringing on the second floor your favorite couch using the narrow and steep stairs! Then you’ll see how useful is the hook still nowadays.