De Nederlandse delta. Off-shore discussie over Nederlandse architectuur / Dutch Delta. Off-shore discussion on Dutch architecture

The question whether Dutch architecture is in good health or not is not one of infinite, ontological validity. It is of recent date and is based on two assumptions. Both contain a paradox. Both stem from specifically historical circumstances.

The first is that ‘the’ Dutch architecture is assumed to be an entity, a body, the temperature of which can be taken to assess the degree of sickness or health. But in the mid?eighties, when a whole new generation of young architects was starting out and getting opportunities galore in housing and urban renewal, a stimulating cocktail of medication was prescribed with political support at government level. Dutch architecture policy took shape when ‘the’ Dutch architecture appeared to have rallied a little.
The second assumption behind the question actually lies in its interrogative form. It betrays a certain Unbehagen in der Kultur. The paradox being that this architecture, much of which is being swept forward by the fair political wind (which, for years, the profession had been calling for) is accused by some of being ‘depoliticized’, that its emancipation as a socially accepted and appreciated expression of culture is encouraging it to boot.
Dutch publications and events featuring national architecture are so extensive that it is impossible to keep up with them all. That information overload also reaches foreign organizers. They pounce upon the Netherlands as an interesting subject, but need to be selective. They often solve the problem by asking a Dutch critic to advise them, make suggestions, write introductory essays or even programme or organize an entire event.


The consequences are remarkable. One being that, as a result of foreign undertakings, Dutch architecture is being debated, chiefly by Dutch critics, but nevertheless largely in foreign publications. Yet it is not a Dutch?inspired contribution to the international architecture debate, but polemics on ‘the’ Dutch architecture conducted on foreign soil.
1997 proves to be a peak year in that respect. Journals such as archithese and AandV have had special issues on Dutch architecture. Bart Lootsma, who, as a guest editor, compiled a Netherlands edition of l’architecture d’aujoud’hui last year, organized the ‘Poldergeist’ symposium in April at the Cooper Union in New York. A Netherlands edition of the New York magazine Any entitled ‘Moral modernism’ failed to materialize, but Walter Vanstiphout, the driving force behind that undertaking, made himself heard elsewhere. Roemer van Toorn launched the term ‘fresh conservatism’ during the Poldergeist symposium and published various versions of an article with the same title, the most complete of which was featured in the above?mentioned issue of archithese. The Netherlands Architecture Institute, where ten of the youngest generation of architectural practices had the opportunity to introduce themselves as part of this year’s ‘Nine + One’ exhibition series, compiled from those displays the Dutch entry for the Biennale de Sao Paulo which will be opened this November. An accompanying publication contained essays by Christoph Grafe and Michael Speaks. And that’s not all. Lootsma has been invited by the Netherlands Consulate in New York to examine whether there are other possibilities elsewhere in the United States for his programmes with or about Dutch architects.
It is clear from all these off?shore activities that ‘the’ Dutch architecture is appreciated abroad. But we should pay more attention on the home front to the discussion which surrounds it. Three things in the debate strike you. Firstly, the difference in tone, varying from mild self?aggrandizement to strong repugnance, a difference which is also evident in the polemical cross?border interchanges. Secondly, the interesting difference of opinion concerning differentiation versus consensus, individuality versus normality, florescence versus neutrality. In that discussion the metaphor of the landscape is used to a striking degree by both camps. Thirdly, this debate specifically avoids a number of issues, perhaps because of historical blind spots or rhetorical opportunism.

Triumph and discomfort

In the edition of l’architecture d’aujourd’hui which he compiled, as well as in his introduction to the Poldergeist symposium, Bart Lootsma takes the line of a conscientious and amiable ambassador.1) He wants to show the individual achievements of varying Dutch architects to best advantage, and sums up, in a sound, didactic fashion, the chief social and cultural backgrounds and conditions for their florescence. The title Poldergeist was a clever play on words, but did not have, to my way of thinking, an explosive polemic charge. Lootsma has not managed to avoid generalizations, but these are cautiously formulated. For him innovation and differentiation are the foremost hidden motifs dominating Dutch architecture as a whole. Dutch architecture is ‘characterized by a lively discourse in which practical, social, political and esthetic (sic) arguments are intertwined’. He remarks that ‘the history of Dutch architecture is characterized by a tradition of innovation’. He mentions in neutral terms the ‘urge to create difference’, with reference to Almere and the Kattenbroek district in Amersfoort, remarking, however, that it ‘sometimes seems to become an end in itself’.
Lootsma seems not particularly weighed down with cares, that’s for sure. In direct contrast, Wouter Vanstiphout’s articles resound with discomfort.2) Lootsma’s activities even form a direct target for him: he criticizes them as ‘Holland Promotion’. He claims that, because they emphasize the unique, typically Dutch conditions and thus present the country as a island of luxury, they serve to stifle any discussion on the content of its architecture. Consequently, Dutch experiences can never serve as an example in an international discussion. I have already commented elsewhere on his attack on Dutch ‘consensus terrorism’, the theory that Dutch architecture is sinking in a swamp of consensus.3) But Vanstiphout fails to make clear whose fault it is. Neomodernism, which characterized the generation of architects emerging in the eighties, was the theme of the Dutch entry to the Venetian Biennale in 1991; it was entitled ‘Modernism without dogma’.4) Like a naughty child Vanstiphout rants against the ‘state historians of the NAi’ (meaning the compiler of the entry, Hans Ibelings) for creating a ‘smokescreen around the content of this architecture’. He sees this early manifestation of the ‘Holland Promotion’ as the start of an embargo on openness, which so irritates him. This is blaming the messenger for the bad news. But the architects themselves are also at fault: In the Netherlands, where architects are still only expected to be a source of good intentions, fun and moral correctness, that has led to insipid, effete architecture. With his skilful rhetoric Vanstiphout formulates his objections to contemporary Dutch architecture: the lack of discussion and theoretical reflection, the mindless but profuse writings of architectural historians, the fact that everyone knows everyone else, and the self?glorifying hype about an architecture cherished as culture.
The point is not that this negative opinion is directly opposed to Lootsma’s mild optimism, but that the observations on which the two viewpoints are based are so irreconcilable. Even the architects who have worked at Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, Vanstiphout fulminates, are starting their own offices at an early age and ‘use the ammunition they have stored away solely to produce architecture that is nicely different’. The flowering of such Dutch architecture, acclaimed as it is as ‘culture’, causes to suppress an empirical attitude to the social phenomena that form the seamy side of late?capitalism. For example: tolerated prostitution, advancing social segregation, new underclasses ‘in the make’. He advocates an ‘architecture which really dares to look into the abyss of its circumstances’, prophesying: ‘we have no guide to take us there’.

Fresh conservatism

Roemer van Toorn’s criticism which he has vented under the heading of ‘Fresh conservatism’ is similar in tenor.5) Yet it is more penetrating. The young generation of Dutch architects, he maintains, is fascinated by ‘the second modernity’. It is a supermodernity, determined by internationalization, a global economy and rapidly developing information technology. That recent guise of modernity ? or rather modernization ? defines our daily life. Nevertheless it succeeds, with hypnotic skill, in passing over our consciousness. Young architects boldly seek to recognize this supermodernity. They are on the look?out for new liberties, in the hope of finding them in the margins, cracks and crevices of everyday reality.
To me that empirical attitude, which Vanstiphout so lacks, seems precisely the factor which many young Dutch architects (who may or may not be influenced by Rem Koolhaas, though invariably they are) have in common. Even Lootsma counts West 8 (Adriaan Geuze), MVRDV, Van Berkel and Bos and NL Architects among those who plunge into the world as it is with ‘a kind of masochistic pleasure’. ‘They analyse it rationally and without prejudice and try to find the hidden potentials behind the ruling system’. For Van Toorn, this empirical mentality, this obsessive attention to everyday social reality, is the sophisticated trap into which they fall with their eyes open. But what does he mean by that?
What Van Toorn expects from Dutch architecture and what he doesn’t find in contemporary successes, is a critical capacity that the philosopher Ernst Bloch attributes to some ‘cultural practices’ (art, architecture). This relates to the ability to ‘give people a critical power of subjective hope’, because only that ‘can be the motor of future developments for change’. When Van Toorn seeks to illustrate this engagé argument with concrete examples, he becomes ambiguous. MVRDV is an office which excels in the realistic analysis of restrictive regulations, harsh social realities, and even exhibits creative ideas on alternative strategies for the future wave of urbanization in the Netherlands. Van Toorn doffs his hat to the housing for the elderly built by MVRDV in Amsterdam?Osdorp. He appreciates it for its radical architecture, which looks really ‘fresh’. Yet, in his opinion, little remains after the visual shock. Nothing innovative takes place behind the facades.
But Van Toorn doubts, with hat still in hand. He assesses the villa?cum?offices of the VPRO broadcasting company (also designed by MVRDV) as a building which does indeed give its users a form of individual or collective hope, as found in Bloch’s writings. Quote: ‘The situationist tendency which attempts to undermine and radicalize the prevailing consumer culture is crossed with the flexible indeterminacy of our ‘second modernity’, in such a ‘cheerful’ way that it produces, individually and collectively, a freer discharge of work’. So the Villa VPRO is a building that offers perspectives for ‘liberation from alienating work’.
When I read these comments, my first thoughts were of Hertzberger’s offices for the Centraal Beheer insurance company, built in 1974 in Apeldoorn. But in the next paragraph Van Toorn hastened to rid me of that idea. He considers Hertzberger’s building to be ‘patriarchal’, whereas in the Villa VPRO the occupants are actively invited to ‘organize themselves interactively and in all directions in the folded landscape’. MVRDV’s ‘broadcasting house’ in Hilversum is a ‘synthesis of natural surroundings and the hectic landscape of global information technology’.

Architecture as landscape

The foregoing is closely connected with the second subject under discussion: the metaphor of the landscape. Lootsma’s ‘Poldergeist’ event had the subtitle ‘Landscape of the artificial’. Van Toorn refers to ‘landscapes of normality’, meaning the artificial urban landscapes which are typical of the ‘second modernity’. Both remind us that the Dutch landscape has been a domain of artificiality for centuries, and is more likely to be determined by homo faber than by Mother Nature’s free hand.
The Netherlands is the very place where the landscape, as a metaphor, can play a part in the architecture debate, not as an idyllic compensation for artificial modernity ? the first or the second ? but as its embodiment.
Use of that metaphor resurrects the above?mentioned dilemmas, twice over. Firstly in the critical debate, secondly in the practice of architectural design. So far the term ‘landscape’ has been wielded in the debate to indicate architectural diversity and differentiation. So it generally has positive undertones. Landscape means liberty.
However, Van Toorn refers to Dutch architecture as an oppressive ‘landscape of normality’. In this way he promotes landscape into a supermetaphor, in order to expose a general tendency towards equalization.
In the past all the acquired values of a culture could still be summarized in the metaphor of the ‘city’. These days the spatial impact of civilization can better be compared with a landscape which neutralizes all the differences of the past into a horizontal expanse. Van Toorn criticizes young architects in the Netherlands who raise that ‘familiar landscape of normality’ to ‘feverish heights of alienating ecstasy’. It resembles an eloquent paraphrase of the theories of the Russian Formalists, who turned the mechanism of alienation and the break with reality, which is experienced as ‘normal’, into the basic principle of aesthetic experience.
The metaphor of landscape is also appearing in architecture. In particular in the form of the single surface strategy of continuous, folded floor slabs. The VPRO villa, designed by MVRDV, is the first ‘real?life’ example. It is a Koolhaas invention, with which he found an answer to the ‘vertical schism’ he observed in the programmes of New York skyscrapers which vary from one storey to the next. Le Corbusier’s diagram of the Maison Domino is its modernist icon. This ‘post?dialectic’ innovation was intended to put an end to the architect’s need to take a stand in conflicts on ‘programmatic instability’, instead flexibly accommodating it in ‘architectural specificity’. That is the final farewell to the modernist dogma of ‘form follows function’: programme and architectural form are strictly divided, assuming the form of an artificial landscape. It is an architecture that absorbs ‘social reality’ and liberates the designer from the dilemma between critical and non-critical. This dilemma divides Vanstiphout and Van Toorn. The former fulminates against a lack of empirical curiosity and critical attitude, the latter interprets the excessive empiricism vis-à-vis social reality as a form of unintended uncritical willingness to please, which is all the more camouflaged as buildings acquire a ‘fresher’ appearance. However, his ultimate appreciation of the VPRO villa puts Van Toorn on the wrong track. Once more, in the history of architecture, the architect’s creativity has confounded the critic’s criteria.

What they forgot

The ‘Nine + One’ series of exhibitions, which is currently being presented in Sao Paulo, expressly does not have the pretension of representing a new ‘school’ or ‘trend’.6) As is confirmed by the title selected by its compiler Kristin Feiress. One of the ten participating practices is always at odds with the rest. The point of departure is differentiation ? a bone of contention for Vanstiphout and Van Toorn which they turn around in an odd way in their diagnoses of ‘consensus’ and ‘landscapes of normality’. Unlike with the ‘Modernism without dogma’ presentation, the introductory texts by Christoph Grafe and Michael Speaks (see elswhere in this issue for a revised version of Speaks’s text) make absolutely no attempt to iron out the ‘landscape’ of the young generation of Dutch architects in a sweeping generalization.
In his article in the ‘Nine + One’ catalogue, Grafe aptly cites two events which formed watersheds in the Dutch architectural discourse. The acknowledgement and presentation of typical Dutch ‘(neo)-modernism without dogma’ during the Venice Biennale of 1991; and the symposium ‘How modern is Dutch architecture’, with which Rem Koolhaas put a powerful circular saw into the supports of that neomodernism. The former undertaking was cartographic in intent, the latter polemic. The former only legitimized the neomodernism of the eighties in presenting it to an international audience. Koolhaas even distanced himself from his own IJ?plein housing project in the north of Amsterdam, in that it constituted a development he felt to be stagnating.
It is these events, which took place some eight years ago
now, that have meanwhile radically altered the myriad flows into the delta of Dutch architecture. Bernard Colenbrander’s attempt to outline the first contours of a new map of that Delta landscape in his ‘Reference: OMA’ exhibition has not yet made sufficient impact on the critics I spoke of earlier. Evidently they are more attached to their late Marxist discomfort than to the prospect of new freedoms.

Voorbij het Fris Conservatisme. Tweede Moderniteit / Fresh Conservatism and beyond.