Gezicht op Delft door Hendrick Corneliszoon Vroom 1615-34
View of Delft from the north; painting by Hendrick Corneliszoon Vroom, 1615-1634 (Museum Prinsenhof Delft). In the foreground the most conspicuous element is the canal, for centuries Delft’s main artery linking it to the Vliet. Within the town a series of buildings can be recognized: from right to left the Oude Kerk, the tower of the town hall, and the Nieuwe Kerk.


History of Delft Reinout Rutte

The town of Delft originated at an unusual location: not a junction of trade routes, but in the middle of a vast peat bog. The bog was reclaimed in the course of the 11th and 12th centuries. Parallel ditches were dug at more or less regular intervals, resulting in narrow, elongated agricultural fields. Around AD1050 the river Schie, a tributary of the Meuse, was canalized and extended to the north-west to improve the drainage situation. This canal was the predecessor of the Oude Delft; it was the town’s main drainage canal and the axis from which the reclamations proceeded. The drainage ditches were dug perpendicular to Oude Delft and Delftse Schie, producing the regular, comb-shaped field pattern that has defined the urban structure to the present day.

In the late 12th century a tuff stone church stood at the site of what is today the Oude Kerk. South of this small church an agrarian settlement straddled the banks of the Oude Delft. A manor of the Counts of Holland, from where the area was administered, almost certainly stood nearby, probably close to the site of the later town hall. Around AD1200 the Nieuwe Delft was dug, parallel to the Oude Delft. The settlement expanded eastward and in the first half of the 13th century developed into a regional market centre. In the same period the Oude Delft was extended northward and connected to the Vliet; Delft consequently found itself now part of an important trade route. The old reclamation and drainage canal became a shipping route and harbour zone.

No sooner was Delft was connected to the regional transport network in the Holland region or the town was booming. In 1246 its residents purchased privileges including a toll exemption from Count William II of Holland for his entire domain, an event which roughly coincided with the laying out of a large market square on a rectangular former field, corresponding to the modern Markt and adjoining the town hall in the west. The establishment of the market square signifies Delft’s emergence as a centre of trade and industry, but it also illustrates the twofold spatial pattern that characterizes the town centre; on the one hand from north-east to south-west the canals Oude and Nieuwe Delft, and on the other, perpendicular to that pattern, the streets and canals which follow the layout of the peat reclamation landscape.

In the second half of the 13th century, and in particular in the course of the 14th century, Delft flourished because of its cattle and dairy trade, breweries and cloth industry. Delft expanded to the north and to the south along both main canals, but its largest extension was in the east. Here, former peat reclamation ditches were either widened to serve as canals or filled in to become streets. The canal that diagonally cuts across this pattern, the Vrouwenregt-Oosteinde, probably follows the course of an old river. In the late 14th and 15th century the Nieuwe Kerk was built on the east side of the Markt while the Oude Kerk was altered and enlarged.

Around 1400 Delft was encircled by brick fortifications and a moat. In less than 200 years it had grown from an insignificant agricultural settlement to one of the largest and most powerful towns in the Holland region. In its situation on a peat subsoil – necessitating constant drainage – and the comb-shaped structure of its reclamation landscape it epitomizes the typical Dutch canal town with its regular, orthogonal plan.


The map clearly shows the two factors that profoundly influenced Delft’s spatial development: the infrastructural axes of the canals, and at right angles to them, the field patterns of the peat reclamation landscape (green lines). Not only the layout of the town centre (blue shading, with canals) but also the main outlines of Delft’s 20th-century extensions can be traced back to those two structuring elements. Housing estates dating from the late 19th century up to the early post-WWII years (grey shading) are all situated within walking or cycling distance from the train station, while later developments (red shading) mainly cluster in the south and are linked to newly constructed roads for motorized traffic. Interestingly, the three successive main infrastructural elements of water, railway and motor ways all run parallel to each other.


For the next 500 years Delft remained confined within its boundaries. The fortifications were renewed several times and building density increased, especially during the Dutch Golden Age, when Delft experienced another era of prosperity. In the 18th and 19th century, however, the town went through a recession. Shortly before 1850 the railway line from The Hague to Rotterdam was constructed; although it touched upon Delft in the west, the opening of Delft station initially contributed little to the town’s recovery. After a while, however, a group of progressive industrialists discovered the sleepy old town as an excellent business location because of its good connections and cheap labour force. In 1894 the old route by water through the Holland region was improved by diverting the course of the Rijn-Schiekanaal, east and south of Delft. Industries such as a yeast and methylated spirits factory, or the Dutch Cable Factory were set up between the canal and the railway, north and south of the town. West of the station, on both sides of the canal to Den Hoorn and Schipluiden, developers and contractors built a few working-class neighbourhoods. The fortifications were levelled and transformed into public gardens surrounding large town houses and villas.

Delft’s growth accelerated shortly after 1900 and between WWI and WWII. Neighbouring municipalities were incorporated and a ring of new housing estates based on municipal extension plans materialized around the existing town. In addition to industry, which mainly extended south along the canal, the Polytechnic (today’s University of Technology) greatly stimulated the process of urban expansion. The Polytechnic soon outgrew its accommodations between the Oude Delft and the Westvest, and around 1900 its board of trustees decided to establish a number of new faculty buildings along the Rijn-Schiekanaal. Around it appeared neat housing estates for civil servants. The east (the Wippolder) was earmarked for working-class housing estates, in part garden cities commissioned by housing associations, and the rest other forms initiated by project developers. To the north and especially the west (Hof van Delft) came middle-class estates featuring typical 1920s-30s architecture.

After WWII Delft’s growth proceeded with vigour, again involving industries as well as the Polytechnic and related institutions such as Dutch Organisation for Applied Scientific Research TNO as the main catalysts. A number of smaller, typically modernist districts (Bomenwijk and Kuyperwijk) were created east, north, and west of the old centre alongside the pre-war estates. This phase was followed in the south by further expansion on an exceptional scale. From 1950 onwards an extensive university campus was built on grounds adjoining the existing Polytechnic area, while west of the railway huge housing estates appeared that were commissioned by the Council and designed by urbanist S.J. van Embden. These high-rise estates, Poptahof, Voorhof and Buitenhof, are textbook examples of sweeping modernist urban planning. Around 1970 plans for similar modernist estates were ditched. The subsequently built Tanthof, the southernmost estate, was modest in scale, featuring brick terraced houses in a wide range of styles and sizes.

The realization of the extensions south of Delft went hand in hand with the layout of a new motorway infrastructure (the A13 skirting the eastern limits, the A4 in the west), provincial roads, and exits leading to the housing estates. It is one of Delft’s striking features that even these roads, like the old infrastructure, follow the two orientations that dominated the old landscape. Thus, medieval reclamation patterns tenaciously resurface even in late-20th-century housing estates.

Delft 2005 IMG00058_edited-1
 Delft from the east, 2005 (photo Paul Paris/Les Images). Both the medieval core with the Nieuwe Kerk at the centre and the late-19th and early-20th-century developments (respectively top and bottom of the photo) illustrate the decisive influence of the regular, 11th and 12th-century peat reclamation patterns.


Further reading

– C. Boekraad et al., Architectuurgids Delft, Utrecht, 2009.

– C. de Bont, Delfts water. Tweeduizend jaar bewoning door waterbeheer in het Delftse, Delft, 2000.

– E.J. Bult, ‘Origin and development of Delft’, in: E.J. Bult et al., IHE Delft prospers on a cesspit. Archaeological research between Oude Delft and Westvest, Delft, 1992, 5-18.

– K. Mans & W. van Winden, Architectuurgids van Delft, Delft, 1992.

– J.J. Raue, De stad Delft. Vorming en ruimtelijke ontwikkeling in de late middeleeuwen. Interpretatie van 25 jaar binnenstadsonderzoek, Delft, 1983.