One rainy April night, Amsterdam-based jewelry designer Marlies Pinksterboer was surprised by a loud noise, almost a bang. “It looked like part of the building had collapsed,” he said. “A crazy thing.”
It was too dark to see what had happened, but when she opened the curtains in the morning, she saw that the street across the canal had been sealed off. A large crater had appeared and an ancient lamppost next to it fell into the hole, which also contained a caddy that had been engulfed by the open crater.
If this had happened during the day, Marlies said, “someone could easily have fallen in there.”
It was then that she began to worry about the house she lived in, built in the 17th century by the canal. “Is she going to collapse one day too?” She asked, half-seriously, standing on one of the old brick and mortar walls that line the canals of her neighborhood, Groenburgwal, one of Amsterdam’s oldest quarters.
The danger is certainly not exaggerated. With its magnificent canals flanked by picturesque 17th and 18th century buildings, Amsterdam, one of Europe’s top tourist destinations, is slowly collapsing.
Large craters have appeared in its narrow streets, and nearly half of the city’s 1,700 bridges are dilapidated and in need of repair, which is why trams can often only cross them at speed. ‘snail. A vast construction site begins to consolidate the walls of the canal, and the city takes on the air of a gigantic construction site.
The fundamental problem is the state of the walls: around 200 km of walls are so dilapidated that they risk collapsing into the canals, with the risk of dragging buildings and people with them.
Last year, a canal wall near the University of Amsterdam suddenly collapsed, leaving sewer pipes hanging in the air and disoriented fish leaping out of the water. Fortunately, no one was walking next to it at the time of the collapse, but one of the tourist boats that constantly ply the canals had just passed.
Like much of the Netherlands, Amsterdam is below sea level. Built on a marshy area and greatly enlarged in the 17th century, the city was built on millions of wooden stilts which serve as its foundations. The Royal Palace, for example, in Dam Square, was built on 13,659 wooden piles. Almost everything in central Amsterdam is supported by these issues.
Surprisingly perhaps, the piles are still in relatively good condition. But they were made for another time.
“These stakes were placed at the time to support the weight of horses and cars, not 40-ton cement trucks and other heavy equipment,” said city councilor Egbert de Vries, in charge of a construction project. reconstruction which promises to be colossal. As modern life transformed the city, many houses were fortified with cement and concrete. But the foundations of the streets and the walls of the canal were ignored.
Many wooden piles shifted, cracked, or fell under pressure, causing bridges and channel sidewalls to sag and crack. This allows water to infiltrate, which consumes the mortar, further emptying the infrastructure and causing craters to appear.
Add to all this the traffic that constantly passes through the network of canals built in the 17th century, around which, centuries before, Rembrandt went to his workshop and Espinoza debated religion.
SUVs park alongside the canals, and garbage trucks have taken the place of boats that collected garbage in the past. Before the pandemic, a small squad of tourist boats constantly roamed the canals, making steep curves that generated turbulence with the boat’s propellers, accentuating the erosion of the foundations.
Something had to be done, and soon. “If we had continued like this it would have ended in disaster,” said De Vries.
Reconstruction will take at least 20 years and cost 2 billion euros, or around 12 billion reais or more, according to experts. “These values are high and the work must be carried out in a very busy and densely populated area,” commented De Vries. “A lot of people live and work here, and we usually get a lot of tourists as well.”
Fifteen bridges are currently under repair in the center of Amsterdam in the district of Grachtengordel. Some of them are closed, like the iconic Bullebak Bridge, an essential part of Amsterdam’s infrastructure.
Engineers are working to prevent the collapse of the walls of the canal to which the bridge is connected. At the same time, they must unravel the tangle of power and internet cables, telephone lines and other utilities that cross the bridge.
“It’s a very complex intervention,” said construction contractor Dave Kaandorp, who works on the project. But he sees a bright side to the process, as the canals are suddenly reused for the purposes for which they were built. “We transport a lot of building materials by water,” he said.
Even so, many people mainly see the negative side of the works. To alleviate the pressure on the canal walls, the historic trees that lined several of the city’s most beautiful canals were cut down. Steel piles are used to prop up walls that appear to be in imminent danger of collapse. Divers and technicians using remote-controlled underwater cameras look for the most serious cracks.
“The city should have taken care of it first,” commented famous Dutch photographer Kadir van Lohuizen, whose work focuses on climate change. He lives on one of Amsterdam’s 2,500 residential boats. “Instead, he spent his entire budget on the new metro line.” The North-South metro line covers an 11 km stretch, cost more than 3 billion euros and took 15 years to build.
Van Lohuizen and the other 24 owners of residential boats moored in the Waalseilandsgracht canal were recently informed that in order to allow the canal walls to be repaired they will have to temporarily leave the place where they have been moored for decades.
“Some residential boats will be temporarily placed right in the middle of the canal,” he said. “For others, there is a danger that their boats will no longer fit once the wall support systems are in place. It’s all chaos. At the moment, they are building at the rate of two kilometers per year, and 200 kilometers need to be repaired. This work could take a century.