September 1, 2011
Canal House’s interiors strike up a conversation with a great painting tradition.
Concrete Architectural Associates
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For even the passing enthusiast, a mention of the Dutch masters sparks visions of lifelike portraiture, bountiful still lifes, and an exceptional interest in depicting the mundane. The realism of seventeenth-century Dutch painting is characteristic of the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, when the art of the new mercantile state was reinvented. This aesthetic still resonates today at Canal House in Amsterdam’s Jordaan district. The hotel’s staid exterior, comprised of narrow houses with archetypal gables, conceals an adaptive reuse that is both contemporary and evocative of the past.
Amsterdam is a rhizomatic city, the result of a series of adventitious outgrowths over time. Canal House reflects this process, albeit on a smaller scale. The city’s condensed urban fabric, interlaced with water and peppered with numerous bridges, puts a premium on usable space, a priority that continues to define Dutch design sensibilities. This efficiency is reflected in the closeness of the hotel’s corridors, and the interwoven spaces that at one time belonged to three separate seventeenth-century dwellings.
First adapted as hotel accommodations in the 1950s, the addresses eventually accumulated a collection of Dutch art and curios. Many of these pieces still decorate the newly renovated space, which reopened last spring. The owners, Peter and Jessica Frankopan, cooperated with the Amsterdam-based Concrete Architectural Associates on the interiors, and ensured that original structural features such as timber beams and ornate ceilings were preserved. Velvet and silk furnishings evoke the Golden Age. The insides of the large hemispherical lamps hanging in the hotel’s great room mimic molded plaster, while the cracked wood of upholstered chairs suggests a timeworn quality that the new leather contradicts. By emphasizing the connection between art and culture, Canal House plays with the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s notion that an image-based exchange between eras serves to illuminate history.
Although Vermeer and Rembrandt were the painterly ideal of the Low Countries, they were influenced by an earlier generation of Netherlandic painters—the Utrecht Caravaggisti. Through the dramatization of light and heightened chiaroscuro, the followers of the Italian master Caravaggio achieved an exaggerated naturalism in their depictions. Striving to transform the flat picture surface into a three-dimensional space, they used a higher tonal contrast than natural light allows.
For Canal House’s interiors, which are at once austere and modern, this strategy is crucial. The polished decor recollects 400 years of Dutch art and history. Purples echo the bruised clouds of Van Ruisdael’s landscapes, while the deep shadows and glowing yellows recall Van Honthorst’s brothel scenes. By varying the intensity of light and using a meticulously crafted array of color and material, the design channels—with a modern twist—the visual moods depicted by the old Dutch masters.