Cover photo from “The new old Amsterdam”

The new old Amsterdam


The Amsterdam of popular consciousness is a cuddle of brown cafes and cute canal houses, but in case you hadn’t noticed, the Dutch capital is finally beginning to punch above its weight when it comes to the hallmarks of a modern urban metropolis.

Enriched with greater diversity, Amsterdam’s entrepreneurial and startup spirit is palpable; free enterprise reigns, and the entertainment and design culture is ever stronger. In fact, the scale and pace of change now is unprecedented in the 8 years I’ve lived here. A critical mass and mix of institutions have shaken off the shackles of Calvinism and its dreary austere, measured aesthetic. In the process, they’re helping Amsterdam truly live up to its moniker of ‘creative capital.’

Amsterdam has long been a destination for international and creative companies due to favourable tax incentives, but ironically enough, its years-long push to become Europe’s creative capital hasn’t quite been matched with, well, creativity in the field of urban design. Neither, for that matter, has the city worked diligently to produce the kind of lifestyle that creative citizens wish to lead.

“London’s regional power is slowly being supplanted as Amsterdam becomes more important as a European creative hub”

Feeble opening hours for both shopping and bar-hopping, and a poor service culture aren’t exactly enticements to creative communities who look for spaces and experiences in which to express and be inspired. Despite this, there is a thriving creative class in Amsterdam, and Dutch design itself is held in high esteem around the world. Until recently however, both seemed to focus on exporting this knowledge internationally, rather than on sprucing up the city’s own backyard.

And yet, London’s regional power is slowly being supplanted as Amsterdam becomes more important as a European creative hub. Whereas Amsterdam was a time-out for burnt-out city-slicker creatives, its intermediary role now in a creative arc that extends to Berlin is critical.

Things arguably started to change in 2008 with an unlikely project – the renovation of the Bijenkorf restaurant. Once the province of the blue rinse set, it was transformed by local bureau Concrete into a stylish eatery with shades of London’s Harvey Nics (curiously, the even newer ground floor renovation is a virtual carbon copy of Selfridge’s).

Admittedly, there is a spattering of haughty, interior-design-lead restaurants around town (where there’s often an inverse relationship between great design and great food), but the Bijenkorf was one of the first public spaces in the city to put the buzz back in the beehive. Bo Cinq opened in 2009, which harks of New York’s Meatpacking District. With it, there was a growing sense that something was in the air.

“All signs point to the Dutch going from no frills to more frills”

More recently – and in increasingly rapid succession, it seems – institutions like The Hermitage (2009), the EYE and Stedelijk (both 2012) have burst open their doors to much acclaim (although the latter, for all its contemporary flair, did receive an arch review in the Amsterdam-obsessed New York Times). With their emphasis on grandeur and expansive spaces as opposed to the usual shoebox chic, these projects have each raised the bar when it comes to architecture and interiors in the capital.

Together with the super-sleek Conservatorium Hotel (2011) and Marcel Wanders’ quintessentially quirky Andaz (2012), all signs point to the Dutch going from no frills to more frills (and with any luck) doing away with ‘doe eens normaal’ as a guiding principle altogether.

If all goes to plan (and large infrastructure projects often don’t in the Netherlands, leading to frustration locally and embarrassment on the international stage), a Waldorf-Astoria and 13 other new hotels are in store for next year. There’s a new Rijksmuseum scheduled this April and an updated Van Gogh Museum in May – one can only hope they don’t suffer the same fate as the jinxed Noord-Zuid metro line – all of which will combine to elevate Amsterdam to first-rate cosmopolitan metropolis.

I guess the final proof of Amsterdam’s step up is the arrival of coffee snobbery and the glut of artisanal espresso bars popping up around town. It was only the other day that I overheard a little Dutch biddy defiantly ordering a soy latte. Koffie verkeerd indeed.

This article originally appeared on Amsterdam Ad Blog.