Being just back from a second trip to Amsterdam, my almost inexplicable love for the place reigns supreme and, whilst I struggled to name this feeling, it was so palpable that I didn’t really want to leave. But then on the way home, in that kind of meditative eye-glaze you sink into as the train pulls away from the platform and you see the place for the last time, I was struck by what it is that this and two other cities with which I have this long-running love-affair have in common.
These three – Amsterdam, Bath, Venice – all had their heyday in the so-called “age of enlightnement” at the very beginning of the seventh wave of our evolution. Their very structure, their geometries, the architecture that still defines the experience you have of them from the moment you arrive, all hails from those days. There are patterns and order and mathematics to be found in the way that tall buildings form meaningful shapes around a more malleable landscape, be that water as in two of them or green areas nestled in a green basin between hills as in Bath; and in that marriage of contrasts I find such overwhelming beauty that my artist’s eye hardly knows where to look next. The era when places like this were built was the hey-day of the scientist and mathematician holding sway upon our environment and there’s a big part of me that loves that, for all I profess to have this uneasy relationship with orderly left-hemispherical perspectives and to prefer to see things through the much-more fluid right-brained spin that informs my artistic bent. But then there’s this; in all three cases, those structures hold shape for that “something much more fluid” to happen, just like a goblet holds wine. Creativity, expression and the most eclectic rule- and gender-defying impulses and urges of humanity seem to swirl and play around the outward expression of order there, like water flows easily and unpredictably around the pillars of a bridge. In all three places, their very vibe seems to emanate from this easy marriage of structure and flow.
There’s something crystalline about places that were formed along strictly organised lines, masterminded by great architects…and then softened by human existence over time in the way that moss grows haphazardly over a wall. It’s not the history of the places that draws me per se but the process of succumbing and melding with something more fluid, after the event of their creation, that beguiles me; it’s where they are at now that appeals. Like a cup overspilling, the colour and creativity of human life that they burst with – now – is like that liquid I refer to, although it’s not; its more energetic in nature, it’s a feeling that manifests as beauty. Which means its non-linear, not tied to time and space, it infuses every part of the whole. Once a vibration touches crystalline structure, it rings out across the whole, which becomes infused with that feeling like a soul signature singing out; a clear note from a crystal glass, coherent and real. It’s that vibe that seems to radiate from a place (no less a person; for we are becoming crystalline too) when a particular feeling is held for a tipping point duration of time; to be registered by anyone else who comes near. Its the coherent structure of the place that amplifies that vibe so that others tune in, they resonate, get quickly up to speed with it…which is something that Amsterdam seems to do so well amongst all the places I have ever been; or perhaps I just recognise its particular vibe…
Like the last time we visited, butterflies under glass seemed to “speak to me” everywhere we went; there were just so many of them, inspiring my next paintings and many of my thoughts. Unlike last time, I was left mostly appreciating how these were working with my overall theme; for here were all these glass boxes and, inside them, these beautiful, colourful, transient things held for all to see. Last time, my feelings were mixed; I was trying to be the good vegetarian objecting to them being caught to be put on display, seeing them primarily as something held captive and pinned into their frames yet missing the flavour of this fluid thing becoming “more” somehow for being held inside a structure that, in a sense, partners with its beauty, allowing it to be on display, to be seen more clearly by more people, offering them an experience they might otherwise never have. While my head remained undecided about “what to think”, my eyes just wanted to feast and were transported by so much beauty.
In fact, everywhere you turn in Amsterdam, your eyes feast constantly on panes of glass with colour and quirk and tableaux of life made all the more beguiling for the sense of peering at them through windows. The things I photographed the most were almost always under glass; shop displays, flowers, plants, curiosities…why this human fascination (which I share) with glass boxes, domes and terrariums? Because the transparent wall, the sense of looking into something as though into another world or dimension, helps us to see and appreciate beauty even more than when we can touch or be part of it. Our addiction to a sense of a fragile demarkation between one reality and another feels like it underlies the whole reason for the hemispherical divisions of our own brain; the reason we evolved to have distictly left and right-brained experiences, which was not always the case. Before such a partition came onto our evolutionary path, we were up to our elbows in everything in this universe, so much so we didn’t know where we ended and “other” began. When we create structures, using the most “logical” aspect of our minds, we see the sublimely illogical, the most unfeasibly beautiful and pointlessly glorious aspects of life all the better. Through the window of our own minds, we allow for some things to just be for the sake of being so life enchantingly beautiful for the eyes and soul, no other reason necessary…and Amsterdam was like a feast of such windows.
Yet (and perhaps this is why I am so drawn there) it also feels like a place where those demarkation lines are softening, where colour and expression are so brimful that they now spill out onto the streets, with all the lines blurring. A few days there is enough to make me fall back in love with the city-living from which I usually recoil. My dreams of withdrawing to the country always seem to evaporate as I daydream of a life lived like this, in a place where I could be all that I am without compromise and yet still pound pavements day after day, sit in cafés full of chatter, walk streets crowded with people. A well-balanced life feels possible in such a place and if only I could find its equivalent (last time we returned from Amsterdam we seriously considered Bath) I would consider moving there in a moment. Yes, I hope our cities of the future feel like this, not as sterile, orchestrated and drab as they tend to be painted.
An arrival in Amsterdam is nigh-on impossible without first encountering the area around the central train station, the world famous Red Light District, the coffee shops advertising cannabis and the gentle whiff of the same as you walk along the pavements. Akin with so many cities, the sheer diversity of people rushing shoulder-to-shoulder turns streets into a sort of soup of colour and behaviour. Yet…suddenly…you’re on those three main horseshoe-shaped canals that make up the historical centre, built in a sweep of innovation described as being like a giant windscreen wiper of construction (Geert Mak) in a time when architects had a clear vision of order and place, and all that variety is no more than a stream of energy; a rainbow of colours, a symphony of sound. The shouts and hooting of endless hen and stag parties on boats and pedalows sailing by merges with the chatter of children, tourists, shoppers, of cafés and music, bicycles, trams and church bells, houseboats sprouting verdant hairdos of green foliage and flowers. In fact trees and flowers are everywhere, alongside fruit stalls, galleries, high-end stores and hippy shops, families and vagrants, a “working girl” glimpsed through the window of a domestic house, the splash of tangled wisteria growing up the sides of monochrome buildings drawn with a ruler…and everywhere, avenues of elm trees lining the water’s edge, haphazardly snowing clouds of sail-like seed pods onto pavements and water; a sepia confetti for the marriage of the left and right hemispheres expressed as a place.
The bricks of these unfeasibly tall, neat buildings are tiny and pristine, mostly painted in workaday blacks, greys and mochas trimmed with white and yet coloured signs embedded into their fascias hint at a system, an arrangement, when merchants lived in one place, aristocracy in another, working-classes in yet another again. Their highest storeys bear the reminders of when merchants hoisted their wares down to the water below, dangled on pulley ropes over the windows of their increasingly elegant living quarters – you could say, the original home-businesses, both work and pleasure, were accommodated here. These days, they have been replaced with start-ups; in fact, more start-ups per capita than anywhere else in northern Europe, so I read, and you get the feeling of youthful enterprise and fledgling ventures everywhere you go. Those same people, the ideas people that you sense are helping to meld our future, spill out into cafés and bars, sit drinking coffee on flights of steps leading up to doorways or hanging out of open windows; there is such a feel of neighbourliness, congeniality and goodwill, but certainly not pressure or rush, wherever you go. Parks, bikes, English spoken everywhere…its all easy flow in Amsterdam and it seems to move along the narrow streets like a stream (this feeling of wellbeing that is laid back, unstructured and hard to define as the buildings are neatly arranged). Almost like a bee hive, externally fairly pristine with such a sense of busy-ness going on yet overflowing with some sort of softness, a nectar, this vibe that feeds everyone that happens to be there. Is this something of what it looks and feels like, this balanced “place” of hemispherical softening we are heading towards evolutionarily speaking now we are in the ninth wave; not chaotic so much as expressing a sort of eclectic, artistic sense of order that serves everyone in both their independence and in their community? I really hope so.
You can see the full eclectic set of photos from this trip in my set Amsterdam II
Related post: Glass Butterflies