I didn’t exactly expect to find swaying fields of cannabis in the canal-house gardens of Amsterdam but I was surprised by their formality in this famously laid-back city. Then again, their enduring classical designs – so unalloyed in some cases I would have been only mildly surprised to find William III, 17th-century ruler of the Netherlands, later king of England and gardener extraordinaire, strolling about the parterres – made sense given how well adapted they are to Dutch geography and culture.
The Netherlands is a terribly populous country and Amsterdam especially so. Even wealthy residences, such as the waterside houses built for successful merchants and other solid burghers in the capital in the 1600s, tend to be constricted. That paucity of space explains why so many of the 7,000 often beautiful, protected buildings in the capital appear, weirdly, to be tipping towards the middle of the street. In fact, their inclination allowed a pulley – still commonly used today – to be suspended from the gables to transport furniture too bulky for winding, narrow stairwells to the upper storeys. Their gardens, likewise, are typically long and lean and also use contrivances to beat their dimensions – intricate box hedging, water features and statuary that are meant both to make the most of the pinched space and to distract from it.
“Most of the canal-house gardens are only about 7 metres wide by 30-40 metres deep; gardeners have constantly sought solutions to make them not look so narrow,” explains Tonko Grever, curator of the Museum Van Loon, which, with its faded lush furnishings, constipated portraits and formal rose garden after a 1680 design is one of the most convincingly restored of the city’s historic residences. Complex, elegant parterres, designed to be appreciated from the bel étage – the upper reception floor – were meant not only to draw attention from the lack of space in the garden. Such decorations were also favoured for their steely winter looks by well-off families who spent the warmer seasons out of town. Arising first on the sweeping canvas of royal gardens, they were, finally, a visual treat to contrast with the flatness of the Dutch landscape.
I do not want these gardens to sound dour; even when severely clipped they contained quirks. The concentric circular rose beds in the Van Loon garden form, you soon realise, a map of Amsterdam’s canals. The swirling arabesque parterres in a garden on Herengracht look quite antique but they have been there only 15 years, Maarten van den Grinten, a jazz guitarist and one of the four owners of apartments in the house behind who share upkeep of the garden, says: “Ten children have grown up here and in the garden next door; it used to look like a football field. We chose parterres for the low maintenance,” he said with a shrug. “Next door” was reached through a gap in the hedge; many of the gardens I saw were shared in this easy way. Its style was a rare casual contrast like an exemplar of the natural planting subdued for a century or two when the Dutch William, metaphorical clippers in hand, ascended to the English throne.
“How much work do you do on it?” I asked Dorine de Gruyter, the artist owner, wondering if the apparent anarchy was a laborious artifice. “Oh, hardly any,” she said, leading me down a foliage-cramped path to where her knobbly sculptures, inspired by stilt-walking musicians she had met on a recent trip to Cuba, were displayed.
Art leavened the formality of many of the gardens. The classical statuary might have flirted with kitsch but was saved by a Dionysian quality that would have pleased the ancients: a cherub strangling a serpent, a fawn dancing in ecstasy. The modern works set up a dialogue with the venerable formality and symmetry of the planting.
Through the narrow portal of the artist Heather Jeltes’s house, you come first upon a tiny room in which she has installed a draped, candlelit dining scene. You could imagine Vermeer supping in its tenebrous confines. Further back, an even more minuscule courtyard was almost filled by a broad swing set against a trompe l’oeil painting – the illusion barely perceptible – of a trellis and creeping plants.
Leaving the private gardens for the public space of the street, I found evidence of Amsterdammers’ gardening compulsion. Verversstraat, a working-class lane off the tourist trail, is one of the greenest streets in the city. Even a dope-smoking salon had a glorious green archway. Every second houseboat bobbing up and down on secluded Dijksgracht had a higgledy-piggledy plantation. No spare inch is left unplanted – literally; you find roses poking up from plots of that size in the pavement.
With the help of the municipality, such kerbside gardens abound. Most are no more than a paving stone wide and I found Welmoed Koekebakker, an artist (yes, another; how does the city’s economy function?) tending one that had grown halfway up her house. My first question was a Londoner’s: “Don’t people steal the plants?” “In 15 years, I’ve had only one or two stolen,” she said. “People donate plants; sometimes I don’t like them. This has become a real gathering place for the neighbourhood.” in Financial Times, 10-1-2009
FOTOS: em Amesterdão os cidadãos podem criar micro jardins em frente aos seus prédios bastando para isso abrir buracos nos pavimentos; esta iniciativa é realizada com o apoio do município.