A Personal Fieldguide to the Urban Materiality of Amsterdam
“Autumn was what I was gonna say. When the leaves change. It's just- I think it's the most contemplative of seasons.” -Michael Scott, The Office
As lovely as they might be, cities can be awfully alienating - with the dark, cold winter looming ever closer, this sentiment can quickly worsen. Large urban settlements like Amsterdam have so much going on that it can feel overwhelmingly isolating; in some way or another impacting one’s mental wellbeing. But the reason for this is not that these settlements are unnatural, or that we crave to ‘go back’ to the pristine, natural savannah with no distractions. Rather, it’s an issue of perspective. Even after more than a century of rapid urban growth, it seems as though we have yet to fully embrace the city lifestyle. I personally find that cities can be indifferent—rude, even—to the point that we stop truly caring about the canvas upon which we paint our lives: the immediate, material environment.
We are dependent on our surroundings inasmuch as they are dependent on us. Objects demand of us to treat or use them in certain ways. Repeated sensorial input familiarizes our bodies to habitual sensations. In a way these environmental patterns become part of who we are and in doing so, they dull our ability to look deeper into what they are and the elaborate network of material connections that comprise our being. There is a very conceited view stemming from industrial modernism that relegates the environment to a mere side actor that is ready to be used and molded to our liking. We have dedicated entire realms of human knowledge to the pursuit of shaping and reshaping our environment to our benefit—think of architecture, engineering, agriculture, landscaping, and so on. This echoes the egocentrism that pervades the contemporary, individualistic lifestyle that is so often found in cities. Too often I notice that I go about my day heeding little to no attention to what surrounds me—too preoccupied with whatever task is next while taking my material surroundings for granted. This hyperfocus on fulfilling my tasks, my objectives, and my responsibilities is blindsiding. My entire world becomes a deadline. I’ve noticed that this lack of care and attention given to peripheral inputs is also a large part of why urban life can feel alienating, despite the abundance of potential opportunities of action.
And so, I decided to conduct a personal, not-so-scientific experiment. I was determined to find a way not to relive the existentially draining experience that was winter lockdown in Amsterdam. On three consecutive days, I went out for a walk in my neighbourhood with no intention or purpose other than paying attention to how the materiality of the landscape affects me, sensorially. As I stepped outside, I was confronted with the imposing building in front of my door, in true Amsterdam School style with burgundy bricks and smooth rounded angles. As I turned back around to lock the door, I was greeted by the friendly spider that nestled its web between the bush next to the door and the brick facade of the building where I live. Something about this sight struck me—I could not pinpoint it at that very moment, but over the coming days I was about to find out.
I wandered around the neighbourhood, weaving between the busier commercial streets and the quieter, more residential areas. I found that in the busier streets I was blinded by all the movement, and my sight gave more way to the sounds surrounding me. Wisps of fleeting conversations from passersby were interrupted by the metallic screaming of tram wheels and engine rumbling from cars. The sound of poorly-oiled chains squeezing through gears, accompanied by the distinctive screech that rubber makes when travelling on asphalt with the occasional brrring. Or perhaps the sight and sound of someone lighting up a cigarette and the smell that follows informing me that it was perhaps not quite a cigarette.
Tired by the sensory overload I left the busier streets for a quieter walk in the more residential areas. Immediately, I noticed that material movement diminished in both intensity and frequency—there was no tram line and the road was narrower. With less of an overload, I felt that I had more room to indulge my different senses. I began smelling the environment. The smell of herbs and spices, interlaced with a distinctively pungent beef stock, flurried my nose all at once, bringing back memories of eating beef stew at home with my family. A little further down the street someone was heating up some onions, albeit maybe a little too much. I was reminded of the time: 1 p.m. I realized that had I visited this particular street at a different time, say at night, the smells would probably be different, if at all present. I thought about those poor onions—growing on some farm, harvested, transported, and sold, only to be burned. As I wondered about how many insights I’ve probably missed along the years by routinely going about my day, I could see the entrance to the park.
Here I felt a sort of harmonious balance overcome my senses. My awareness was stable and I felt as though I could dissect the experience to its constituent inputs. The smell of damp soil was a backdrop to the sound of gravel and crunched leaves beneath my feet. Ombre hues of orange, brown, and green overwhelmed the park’s pallet as the crisp, golden mid-November sun shined through the dew on the grass. As the jostling of the trees revealed the ever-fleeting wind, I could feel the cold, dry air cozying up to my skin. Yet, I did not mind it. When I returned home I wondered why it was that I found the busy urban street such a drag as compared to the park. Why was I fine with the dry skin and cold-induced tears, but not with the sound of a passing tram? After all, the tram did nothing to harm me.
Perhaps the park felt more natural, giving me a greater sense of comfort. But ‘natural’ is a pretty arbitrary word, its meaning wholly dependent on cultural and personal context. What is ‘natural’ for me? Eventually, my mind returned to my eight-legged neighbour: Boris. Boris has somehow managed to move beyond the duality of ‘natural’ and ‘non-natural’. He embraced the inanimate bricks as much as the breathing bush, taking them both to be equal shareholders of his environment.
I took this to heart: cities are but networks composed of material manifestations of human thought—objects and things. I tried to treat the urban landscape with care, rejecting my distaste of urbanism. Lamp posts and stop lights were like trees that I touched as I walked by. The more I did this, the more intimate of a connection I felt with the environment. At this point, I began to care about each distinct object in the urban landscape around me: where did they come from? What were their stories? How am I supposed to treat them so as to not harm their ecological balance? I felt some kind of relief from the alienation I held towards those objects. After all, the city is a reconfiguration of mountains and forests. We destroy these landscapes to build our urban settlements, but that is not to say that cities are unnatural. If anything, we should pay attention to and deeply care for our urban materialities by embracing all objects as part of one shared ecosystem. Not only would this help relieve urban alienation but it would also prompt new reflections on current, unsustainable systems of dealing with the environment as a whole. I urge you to take a walk through Amsterdam to truly connect with the materiality surrounding you and maybe you’ll find all the answers you’ve been looking for in a brick.