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Amsterdam by Design

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Photo: Paul Bellaart

Right before I set off for the Netherlands' fine and aqueous and legendarily tolerant capital, friends who know Amsterdam well informed me that rumors of a city wreathed in a marijuana nimbus were, if not altogether untrue, misleading and unfair.

Sure, they said, one finds "coffee shops" devoted to the sale of marijuana and hashish and space cakes and bongs and seeds and hookahs, and also a score of cheery establishments that offer magic mushrooms in settings as bright and consumer-friendly as a Ben & Jerry's store. Yet keep in mind, my friends added, how, under pressure from the United States and her anxious neighbors in the European Union, Holland has lately deployed the might of its narcotics, tax, licensing, and social welfare bureaus to restore what it could of the old windmills-and-wooden shoes aura to an urban landscape that had come to seem as if it had been hijacked by the spawn of Cheech & Chong.

The number of Amsterdam's coffee shops, my friends were quick to point out, has dwindled radically over the past 15 years. Whereas in 1990 there were 480 of them, now only 200 or so remain. And yet I cannot have been dreaming that the city in which I arrived on a fantastically hot and drowsy July afternoon—a day of milk-blue cloudless skies during the longest sustained heat spell the country had known since records were first kept in the 18th century—was also experiencing a parallel weather front, this one composed of a sweet marijuana fog.

It was pointless to try to ignore it. The odor insinuated itself everywhere. Drifting along the street where I ate dinner on my first night at a canal-side restaurant, it blanketed the robust taste of the wild salmon I had ordered and killed the delicate aroma of a plateful of river shrimp, each hardly larger than a comma.

It crept through the vent of a high-end store where I went to peruse rarities by great Dutch designers like Gerrit Rietveld. It snaked through the shutters at another restaurant like the vaporous genie in comics, the kind that alters shape to form a beckoning hand.

Let me state promptly, in the interest of full disclosure, that I have inhaled. This, however, was many decades ago. My vices now run almost exclusively to intoxicants produced by grape fermentation, so Amsterdam's reputation as a Valhalla for lovers of cannabis turned out to hold no appeal. I could say the stuff was a nuisance, but that would make me sound like a party pooper and a grump. And it would be pointless, too, since the hotel where I was lodged was adjacent to the Red Light District in the oldest part of town.

Once a convent, then a city hall, and now a fancy hostelry, the Grand is where Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands chose to celebrate her civic wedding many years ago; though billed as a pleasantly stuffy five-star, and not a louche rock-star, hotel, it happened that the place was packed with musicians during my stay, many of them inked all over with the Technicolor graffiti characteristic of the tribe. Somehow I found all the tattooed rockers in the lobby reassuring, since their presence took a little pressure off my brief.

I had come to Amsterdam to look into the notion that the city had stealthily turned into a capital of style, an idea that, when I remarked on it to some Dutch fashion designers of my acquaintance, gave them to look at me as if I were stoned.

"Actually, the reason we remain here is the absence of style," said Rolf Snoeren, who, in partnership with Viktor Horsting, makes up the gifted design team of Viktor & Rolf. "There's so little stimulus, it helps us concentrate."

Snoeren had a point, as I soon came to learn. Despite being home to more good-looking locals than almost any European destination I can think of, Amsterdam can only be called a fashionable place if one's concept of chic runs to cargo shorts and Birkenstocks.

True, the city itself is a meticulously rendered work of engineering genius and brute labor (the canals were dug by hand). True, it is a city of seductively shifting moods, crooked beauty, and eccentric architectural poetics. True, it is a Calvinist Venice whose narrow waterways mirror the city back to itself not with the luminous pomp of the Grand Canal but in a series of chaste and intimate miniatures. True, it is a homely city where hollyhocks seem to bloom wherever there is a crack in the pavement. And it is also the European capital most responsible these days for producing a generation of furniture and product designers who seem increasingly destined to swipe the limelight from a fashion world so overexposed that even its more celebrated practitioners can't wait to get out.


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