Friday, August 18, 2006

Symetrical Society

The Dutch are a very symetrical people. Ordered and organized. Planned and prepared. Trim and tidy. Meticulously engineered. Balanced to the utmost degree.

Of course, this social symetry is most obvious on the physical level -- particularly in neighborhoods such as mine, which were built in the first half of the 20th Century. I recently took a walk through the streets around my house -- taking pictures as I went -- and I was stunned by the degree of physical symetry all about me. The architecture, the schema of urban development (streets, sidewalks, sewers), and even the landscaping are composed in mirror images. The sheer scale of these "unimaginative" construction projects showcase astonishing creativity and craftsmanship.

On the one hand, this symetry can be perceived as boring and predictable. But on the other hand, it's fascinating...

The Dutch love for symetry extends well beyond the realm of city design and layout. Traveling through the countryside, one can see it in the layout of the roadway interchanges, the fields and canals. Upon careful examination of the "forests" and "wilderness" areas of the Netherlands, it becomes clear that the trees are planted in straight rows stretching to infinity. The dikes and bridges of this low-lying region of Europe are world-reknown for their ingenuity and efficiency -- making lake out of sea and land out of lake. "God created the heavens and the earth," so the saying goes, "but the Dutch created the Netherlands." And, quite apparently, they did it with a keen eye for balance, symetry, and quality control.

Even in matters of the abstract, the Dutch engage their universe with unparalleled, breathtaking, intertwined, complicated, symetrical systems. Government and politics (verzuiling), business and science (Antonie van Leeuwenhoek), morality and religion (Calvinisme) -- even art and aesthetics (M.C. Escher)... Dutch design is dominated by symetry, balance, and attention to detail.

At least that's the perspective of this American Amsterdammer. And I, for one, don't think it's a bad thing. Actually, it's kind of like any unique trait of a person or object -- the Dutch sense of symetry tends to be the thing that I most admire and the thing that I most despise about my adopted home culture, simultaneously.

I'd be curious to know if Nederlanders also observe this attribute of their own society (or if it's like trying to get a fish to explain water). And I'd be curious to find out if they pride themselves on this or feel embarrassed by it... Or if they think I'm totally off base.


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