Water and its management are topical issues for Amsterdam, as they have always been in the past. Over the centuries, a complex system of locks and dikes has been developed to manage the water level in the city. The functioning and importance of the Amsterdam water system, specifically at a time when rising water levels and the housing crisis pose a concrete challenge to the current and future ways of inhabiting the city, are at the core of a new pilot project, which was initiated in 2022 as a collaboration among several partners.

The project ‘Living with water in Amsterdam’ aims to collect, study, and visualize historical data on the relation of the city with water and to increase public awareness of the Amsterdam water system. The project is a collaboration between Arcam – Architecture center of Amsterdam; the Municipality of Amsterdam; the Waternet water board; the University of Amsterdam ATM team; the AdamNet foundation of Amsterdam libraries and heritage institutions; and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS).

A first, concrete result of this project is the exhibition ‘Fluid Matter – Designing with water in Amsterdam’, which opened at Arcam on July 8th and lasts until November 27th, 2022. The exhibition showcases several installations on the history and future of waterways in the Oosterdok/Kattenburg area of Amsterdam, created by AUAS students of the MA Digital Design in response to an ad-hoc design challenge. The task was to create a physical 3D map of Oosterdok/Kattenburg, which would visualize potential scenarios for future developments based on data of different nature. The resulting installations represent concrete instances of how historical data contributed by the ATM provides knowledge and inspiration to create awareness of contemporary challenges in urban planning and offer potential solutions to them.

To this end, the ATM has collected maps and historical data from the City Archive of Amsterdam (SAA). This information has been added to a thematic version of Amsterdam’s “digital twin”, created by the Municipality of Amsterdam, which, thanks to the addition of a time slider, allows users to visualize variations in water levels. As additional (2D) layers in this 3D environment, users can switch to other thematic views, such as the historical maps of the Amsterdam waterways from a birds-eye perspective, or the economic values of the waterways as reconstructed through a comparison of the taxation on houses in the canal belt in the 17th and 19th century.

Furthermore, thanks to a collaboration with colleagues from the UrbanHistory4D project in Jena and Dresden, the pilot has tested and made use of a workflow employing photogrammetry for the virtual recreation of historic buildings in 3D. Buildings in the Oosterdok that are no longer standing, such as the Marine Palace, which got demolished during the construction of the IJtunnel in the 1960s, were reconstructed as 3D models with historical photos as attire and shown on the map thanks to the addition of an interactive time slider.


Next steps. After the opening of the exhibition, more work remains to be done to fully exploit the potential of this pilot project as ‘proof of concept’ of the Amsterdam Time Machine. Firstly, the ‘digital twin’ of Amsterdam, with the addition of 3D models of historical buildings and 2D layers that visualize certain aspects of the city in the past (such as the water infrastructure, or the evolution of the costs of living near the waterways in Amsterdam), is a great exemplification of how the ATM, with its combination of spatial and temporal dimensions, can act as a platform to enable a (visual) exploration of historical data. Concretely, the models and data from this pilot will be used during a Data Sprint on historical 3D Amsterdam to exemplify the ATM workflow for the development and publication of historical 3D models in a way that supports their reuse in a historical ‘digital twin’ of the city.

Secondly, the collaboration with the UrbanHistory4D project offers a demonstration of how computational methods – in this case, the use of semi-automated modelling pipelines to generate visual reconstructions of historical buildings – allows to (partly) automate and scale up the reconstruction of historical cities in 3D. It also demonstrates the strength of the Time Machine Organization to facilitate the application of tools developed in one institution in use cases elsewhere in Europe.

Finally, this project is exemplary of a partnership in which ATM contributes historical data and knowledge which may be used by other partners in combination with digital interactive systems to inform and engage citizens with topical issues for the present and future of the city and its inhabitants. In this sense, the vocation of the ATM as a public research platform for sustainable future solutions for the city of Amsterdam is reaffirmed.