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The Career of Hans Donkerzijde, and His Amsterdam Portal

One of the great what-ifs of Amsterdam “Golden Age” architecture was Hans Donkerzijde’s never-completed portal for the east side of the city. Donkerzijde (1613 - 1678) intended his portal as both the acme of all previous golden-age Dutch architecture, and also a radical break with known styles. Donkerzijde designed his portal (poort) as a monument to his own genius. His manic drive to build the greatest portal in Amsterdam sprang from his lifelong drive for recognition.

He had risen far considering his apprenticeship as a bricklayer from the age of 14, his long hours of labor, and his social inadequacies. Descriptions of him by contemporary architects leave a picture of a man whose emotional range ran only from fear to arrogance. “I find his gaze rather unsettling. His beady eyes dart around me, as if searching me for weak points,” wrote Daan Goudsmit, his long-time assistant.

It’s unclear exactly what turned around Donkerzijde’s fortunes, but some time between 1635 and 1637, Donkerzijde found the time and resources to travel to Rome, and upon his return he set up his own office, and received some commissions. Scholars have unearthed documents establishing that Donkerzijde joined a secret society around 1635, which might explain his sudden ascent in the world. Donkerzijde was in fact a member of the Geheim Donker Genootschap (GDG) (“secret dark brotherhood”), whose history and goals remain unclear to historians. This has sparked wild speculation and conspiracy theory.[1]

The GDG reputedly met in an anonymous room in a warehouse near the Driehoeck, the corner of the Brouwersgracht (Brewer’s Canal) and Lijnbaansgracht. This intersection formed a large triangle on the city grid. The grid formed a series of progressively larger triangles, a configuration that fascinated Donkerzijde throughout his life.

In 1647 he had submitted a design for the new Amsterdam town hall, though it had rightly been rejected in favor of Jacob van Campen’s masterpiece. Donkerzijde’s design, a rather obvious derivation of the Pantheon in Rome, used alternating bell and step gables to cradle the massive sphere. It had been the joke of the year, good for a laugh in certain pubs even years afterward. Noted art historian Joep van den Pan argues that the blueprint of “the so-called Dutch Pantheon” was in fact a primitive attempt at Dadaism:

[his] audacity to include even the oculus [the all-weather hole in the roof] was clearly not the work of a man who intended to secure a contract. Donkerzijde could not have been serious; he was satirizing the nepotism of the city’s elites, knowing the futility of his winning the bid (van den Pan, 13).

His grand interior called for a massive fresco inspired by Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. He creates a conceit of civic pride by showing Amsterdam floating up to heaven, higher even than the great cities of antiquity, such as Jerusalem, Babylon, Athens, and Rome. God Himself can be seen smiling upon Amsterdam's fortunes and pointing at the city with special favor (the Lord is clearly not bothered by the city’s trade in slaves, women, tobacco and beer). The design also describes a marble in-lay floor depicting a giant map of Europe with Amsterdam as its center—right under the oculus. When van Campen’s own marble hemisphere floors were unveiled years later, Donkerzijde cried foul, and remained bitter for the rest of his days.

By 1671, aged 58, Donkerzijde still had no architectural legacy of note. He was convinced by a land speculator, Joost van Os, that the east side of Amsterdam would soon experience a great financial boom, rivaling even the tulip mania of 1621, which Donkerzijde remembered from his boyhood. In expectation, Donkerzijde invested some of his life savings in some swampy land near what in the Plantage (Planatation) side of town. He envisaged the Muiderpoort as the gateway to the east, and to the great city’s future. Although relatively little traffic came through the Muiderpoort in those days, Donkerzijde convinced the city fathers that a small tax on loads entering through it could win back building costs—which he promised to hold under tight control.

Donkerzijde’s audacious design for the Muiderpoort called for three grand triangular arches made largely in brick, gables on the interior side facing inward, surrounded by seven meter high sculptures of the great heroes of the young Dutch Republic’s history: William I, Maurice, De Ruyter, Vondel, and others. The south, outer walls were to feature immense gryphon, much like those that later to grace the gates to the City of London.

There were, however, a few irksome problems to be solved before construction could begin. First, there already was a functional city-gate in place on Donkerzijde’s chosen site, completed only in 1663, a mere eight years prior. True, it had been rather hastily constructed during the frenzied push to expand the canal belt (grachtengordel) in the 1620’s, but no one was complaining about it. Amsterdammers had pride enough in their new town hall, great churches and canal houses. So yet another new city gate, near the least settled part of town, had not even been considered.

In order to maintain the operation of the current Muiderpoort, Donkerzijde planned to construct his own massive portal over it, and then perhaps knock down the old one when he was finished building. Construction began in 1671 with the strengthening of the foundation (necessary for holding up the planned portal), via the time-honored method of driving wooden piles into the soft clay and peat.

Donkerzijde’s longtime lieutenant, Daan Goudsmit calculated that not nearly enough piles had been driven to safely support the structure long term. He found the design so outrageous that he resigned in protest, writing with barely concealed contempt that:

…your design, sir, violates core principles both of architecture and of natural philosophy. Can this watery foundation really support both the current portal and your new colossus? And why is it strictly necessary to build three massive entrances, sir, for such a quiet part of town? (Letters of Daan Goudsmit and Hans Donkerzijde, pp. 622-23).

No matter for Donkerzijde. He brushed off the resignation of his assistant of twenty years’ standing without remorse, and pressed on.

Workmen were often baffled by what it was exactly Donkerzijde intended to build. One workman thought the blueprint was only a hasty sketch, and ate his lunch off of it. Donkerzijde sorely lacked a draftsman who could translate his grandiose vision of triangular arches, gables, gryphon, and pentagrams into hard specifications. Morale was low, and as the boss was often off-site, laborers often deserted their tasks for their casks of beer or pipes. Speculation about Donkerzijde’s sanity was the chief topic of conversation (van den Pan, 172).

Even after building began, Donkerzijde was not averse to changing his mind or adding features. Last minute design changes inevitably led to cost overruns, and soon the budget of forty thousand guilders had been reached, without a single brick having been laid. Donkerzijde’s explanations to the city fathers now fell on death ears. But with the Muiderpoort area now a disturbing aggregation of building materials, makeshift housing for laborers, and other bric a brac, building continued apace.

Working on draining the foundation was nearly complete when he decided that the perimeter must be pentagonal, much like the Vatican’s fortress, the Castle St. Angelo. In any event, the digging of the pentagonal canal led to a breach. Water flowed into the soft land threatening the whole site, even the existing portal. Pumps were brought in, and a team of laborers (flippantly dubbed the first pumping brigade (“Eerste Pomp Divisie”) by Donkerzijde) were given the famous order to “Pump or drown.”

In 1672, the trade network of the Dutch Republic was still the envy of Europe. Louis XIV intended to humiliate the United Provinces, and Colbert wanted to take over the Dutch trade. The unusual alliance of France, England, and the bishoprics of Münster and Cologne temporarily deranged the European balance of power, and led to invasion of the Dutch Republic on three sides. The extreme measure of flooding the country was taken to stop the rapid inroads of the French army onto Dutch soil.

To some people the debacle seemed like God’s punishment for Holland’s material extravagance. Perhaps building projects like Donkerzijde’s Muiderpoort were just what was wrong with society. The project was cancelled and Donkerzijde was financially liable for removing the material that still lay there. The Plantage’s grand future was unmasked as an illusion.

Donkerzijde was shattered by the monumental failure to build his portal, but through his connections he remained able to secure work until his death in 1678. He remained convinced that future generations would recognize his genius, and finally build his masterpiece. He was only partly right. In 1769, the original Muiderpoort began to sink on its own accord, and the decision was taken to rebuild. Work began on the second Muiderpoort, the one that exists to this day. While the architects neglected to use Donkerzijde’s design, a jewel of Amsterdam architecture was finally achieved there.

Sources

Francois Boulanger, Secret Societies in Amsterdam: 1641-1666.

Wim de Groot (trans.), Letters of Daan Goudsmit and Hans Donkerzijde.

Fritz van den Pan (ed.), Encyclopedia of Lesser Dutch Architects.

Herman Utrecht, The Rise of International Banking in the Dutch Golden Age.

Photographs

(See Life of Donkerzijde slide show)

Portrait of Donkerzijde

Town Hall

Dutch Pantheon (with The Heavenly Host)

Driehoeck, 1660s.

Muiderpoort, 1663.

Map of Plantage.

Blue print of Muiderpoort (including old portal)

Muiderpoort today



[1] Historians including even Francois Boulanger have seen the Geheim Donker Genootschap (GDG) as a kind of Free-Masonry-lite, lacking their illustrious history and depth, and revering only a mere triangle, (as opposed to the Masons’ three-dimensional pyramid). Others have rejected this explanation, and see the GDG as a coterie of Catholic businessmen, meeting secretly out of sheer paranoia. Herman Utrecht conceives something far more sinister, based on anecdotal evidence that William III himself was an ultra-secret member of the GDG (level 13 out of 13). Utrecht argues that they were really a conspiracy of Protestant international bankers, hiding behind a Catholic secret society. In this scenario, Donkerzijde was only a dupe, and had no knowledge of their long-term plot to control the world’s money supply, first by establishing the first stock exchanges and the Bank of England (established by William, as King of England, in 1694).