The three main canals of the Grachtengordel – Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht – were dug in the seventeenth century as part of a comprehensive plan to extend the boundaries of a city no longer able to accommodate its burgeoning population. Increasing the area of the city from two to seven square kilometres was a monumental task, and the conditions imposed by the council were strict: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht were set aside for the residences and businesses of the richer and more influential Amsterdam merchants, while the radial cross-streets were reserved for more modest artisans’ homes; meanwhile, immigrants, newly arrived to cash in on Amsterdam’s booming economy, were assigned, albeit informally, the Jodenhoek and the Jordaan. Of the three main canals, Herengracht, the “Gentlemen’s Canal”, was the first to be dug, followed by the Keizersgracht, the “Emperor’s Canal”, named after the Holy Roman Emperor and fifteenth-century patron of the city, Maximilian. Further out still, the Prinsengracht, the “Princes’ Canal”, was named in honour of the princes of the House of Orange.
In the Grachtengordel, everyone, even the wealthiest merchant, had to comply with a set of detailed planning regulations. In particular, the council prescribed the size of each building plot – the frontage was set at thirty feet, the depth two hundred – and although there was a degree of tinkering, the end result was the loose conformity you can see today: tall, narrow residences, whose individualism is mainly restricted to the stylistic permutations among the gables. The earliest extant gables, dating from the early seventeenth century, are crow-stepped but these were largely superseded from the 1650s onwards by neck gables and bell gables. Some are embellished, others aren’t, many have decorative cornices, and the fanciest, which almost invariably date from the eighteenth century, sport full-scale balustrades. The plainest gables are those of former warehouses, where the deep-arched and shuttered windows line up on either side of loft doors, which were once used for loading and unloading goods, winched by pulley from the street down below. Indeed, outside pulleys remain a common feature of houses and warehouses alike, and are often still in use as the easiest way of moving furniture into the city’s myriad apartments.