Whatever happened to urbanism? Following closely the movements of a reality the contours of which render the urban and urbanism almost indistinguishable, everything concerned with urban life has become urbanism, making way for a swarm of fugitive urbanisms-in-transit which have rushed to fill the void left by the professionals of the city. This new urban disposition defines what is fresh and exciting about an emergent generation of Dutch architects, and distinguishes them from their North American and European counterparts. In what follows, I refer to several of these architects in an attempt to describe two features of this new disposition. My analysis, however, is meant to be speculative and therefore does not provide an overview of this new approach, nor does it purport to account for who belongs and who does not.
Because the point of contact between urbanism and the urban is now difficult if not impossible to locate, this new generation of architects has shifted its attention from the development of forms and shapes to the analysis and manipulation of material and immaterial processes such as those recognized by the 1996 Rotterdam?Maaskant Prize jury. In a courageous move, this jury broke with precedent, and instead of nominating an architect, nominated the harbour of Rotterdam as the prize winner: ‘Rotterdam harbour is a particularly instructive and inspiring example of a ‘modern’ environment, of a space whose organization is not so much dictated by traditional planning and urban design concepts as by the rapid and creative management and steering of trends, movements and forces in the field of transport and communication.’1) The jury’s recognition of strategic planning, profiling, scenarizing, and the immense array of urban ‘shaping forces’ in fact defines the first feature of this fresh new urban disposition.
This approach guided the Rotterdam?based MAX office in their urban plan for Leidsche Rijn, a development of over 30,000 houses near the city of Utrecht which is to be completed by the year 2015. In collaboration with Crimson, an office of architectural historians also based in Rotterdam, MAX focused on what they called the ‘orgware’, or organizational ware, a term borrowed from economics that refers to administrative and other policy?related factors which organize the implementation of ideas (software) and the deployment of physical elements (hardware). Analyzing and making use of orgware, they argue, is the only way to steer and direct a plan of such immense size and duration, and one 70% of which ultimately will be controlled not by the state but by the market. 21,000 of the 30,000 houses must be privately developed. MAX’s interest in a more dynamic, fluid urbanism, is thus not driven by a set of political or philosophical directives, but by a market economy dominated by the concern for quantity, the great new force of urbanism from Utrecht to Singapore.2)
Having discovered the orgware of Vinex (Fourth Report [Extra] on Spatial Planning in the Netherlands), MAX and Crimson developed their own in the form of indices (building regulations, boundaries, person?space index, mixture, distribution, programme and ux) and corresponding maps. For MAX, however, density, and other traditional urbanistic concerns have been reformulated and reentered into a new calculus dictated more by opportunity than by obligation: ‘Density is defined as the number of square metres a single individual has at his disposal, that is, the number of square metres divided by the number of people, rather than the surface area divided by the built floor area.3) Here, as elsewhere in the plan, and in the other projects of MAX, individual choice and freedom are not attached to or confined by architecture.
Like MAX, the Rotterdam-based Buro Schie is fascinated by the logics of commerce, especially those that shape our view of the city. They focus on what Fredric Jameson calls ‘cognitive maps’, those everyday images of the city we carry around in our heads, its borders, overlaps, points of intensity, opportunity, etc. Though they are now at work on some of their first architectural design projects, Schie is best known for a series of maps, including the monumental New Map of the Netherlands, a gargantuan cartographic undertaking which attempts to visually portray the ‘orgware’ of the entire nation. Perhaps their most provocative cartographical project, however, is one in which each of the major cities of the Randstad, with their own historical identities to protect, is reduced to a subway stop on a large metropolitan?Randstad subway system. Commenting on the new urban?world?global city phenomena portrayed by this map, Schie’s Lucas Verweij observes, ‘A city used to be a place which had been granted a city charter, but that concept no longer works. Now one thinks more in terms of size, population figures and commerce’. As with MAX, quantity has taken on a new importance in the work of Schie. Schie is now researching urban flow phenomena such as traffic jams, which they argue offer new opportunities for rethinking how we may more profitably and enjoyably spend leisure time in our cars and on the motorways. All of their projects are serious urban interventions, but, as this latter example suggests, they are also playful, even a bit cheeky. The ‘Schie Power’ advertising flyer which simulates supermarket flyers, for example, offers wonderful and inventive ecological solutions to urban design problems without being moralistic and heavy?handed. Part of the flyer produced for Schie by NL Architects features a haltingly clever solution for housing on a series of ‘wandering islands’ which, because of erosion and other natural forces, actually move about in the ocean. A typical solution might try and stop the erosion of the island, before abandoning it altogether. Instead, Schie and NL proposed that rows of nomadic houses be built on a grid system; as the island loses land mass on one side, the row of houses situated there are leap?frogged over the other houses by truck to the other side, thus forming the leading edge of housing as it follows wherever the land leads. Not only are the natural movements of the island and ocean undisturbed, but sooner or later everyone will have beach front property. Ecology and the market are both satisfied.
Taking a page from Reyner Banham, NL Architects has expanded the ecological to include the automobile as an important form of urban life. NL has developed a series of striking projects many of which feature the automobile as the prime player in an ongoing attempt to rethink density and urban infrastructure. Rather than banish the car to suburbia, NL takes it as a given of urbanism itself, as its lifeblood. This is literally the case in their Parkhouse/Carstadt project where infrastructure (a kilometre?long extension of a public road) is folded in on itself to create a remarkably dense, though quite beautiful structure that yields 19,000 m2 of parking and 35,000 m2 of floor space for shopping, offices, hotel, flats and congress facilities. NL’s argument seems to be that density presents problems that only more density can solve. But the qualifier is density with accessibility, which they increase dramatically by lacing the entire parking route with escalators and valuable display frontage. Public and private, auto and pedestrian are mixed and remixed as you wind in and through this simple but ingenious building which derives its form and aesthetic from what Kamiel Klaasse calls the ‘intrinsic beauty of parking spaces’. Thus, rather than relieving the city of its auto stress, NL intensifies and refocuses that stress, transforming a liability into an asset. They argue that without the movement provided by the automobile the inner city would become a theme park and cease to exist as a vibrant commercial district. NL has drawn on the beauty of automobile and pavement in other projects such as a parking scheme where instead of paying you are paid to park in a configuration that from above (flying in to Schiphol) spells ‘M’ ‘A’ ‘Z’ ‘D’ ‘A’. Like many of these new offices, NL Architects attempt to turn adversity into opportunity; they accept what is there and try to transform it, often by making what they find more intense. This occurs not only with their intense affection for the automobile, but in their large?scale urban proposals such as Pixel?City for Wateringse Veld, where rather than cleansing the landscape of the surreal blanket of glass nursery houses, they choose instead to intensify this artificial condition by floating a series of huge buildings on this sea of glass. A weird mixture of urban density (7,000 new residences) and suburban freedom is thus achieved by relying on the glass landscape to create the condition for a new visuality that is neither urban nor suburban in the traditional sense.
Just there modernism
NL’s interest in quantity, commerce and infrastructure is shared by many young Dutch offices today; they are allergic to ideology, and to the self?consciously critical, resistant or theoretical architectural stances taken by Dutch architects, especially those from the generation that immediately precedes them. Indeed, it is this post?avant-garde attitude towards urban life itself that defines a hybrid, ‘just there modernism’, which names the second feature of the new urban disposition mentioned earlier.4) Unfortunately, this new approach has been confused by some critics with an older version of the new, with the utopian ambitions of the avant?garde, against which it can only appear as an example of what Roemer van Toorn calls ‘fresh conservatism’.5) Its aim is to caution us against an emergent architecture which, in the name of innovation, or the ‘fresh’, actually upholds the status quo, the conservative. Van Toorn’s assessment of the fresh itself is quite positive. In fact, he supports many of the possibilities it offers for developing new approaches to art, architecture and urbanism. What he fears, however, is that freshness often conceals an agenda which is in fact the opposite of fresh. It is, in fact, the ‘other’ of fresh which is ultimately at stake here, an other that van Toorn identifies as conservative, but which I would rather call unfresh. For van Toorn, fresh appears to be the dialectical opposite of conservative, a contemporary expression of the early 20th century avant?garde’s desire for the new. But this seems counterintuitive, for what one would have thought was ‘newly new’ about the fresh is that it very precisely names an approach which has surpassed the old dialectical categories of progressivist?avant?garde and bourgeois?conservative. Indeed, the fresh features van Toorn identifies – optimism, lust for life, open? mindedness, ‘doing it cool’, as Travolta would have it in Pulp Fiction, interest in the banal – are neither conservative nor progressive. They are instead features of a fresh, ‘new new’ that transforms what is ‘just there’, namely the commercial reality of late twentieth century metropolitan culture, into something vibrant, unexpected and decidedly life?like. Creating the ‘new’ thus becomes less about constructing brave new utopian cities and more about engendering and sustaining urban life in all its splendid variety.
In his analysis of the danger posed by ‘fresh conservatism’, van Toorn singles out MVRDV as a possible offender, though he could have just as easily cited the Amsterdam?based office Bosch Haslett. What van Toorn is especially uneasy about is the lack of political commitment exhibited by this new architecture. MVRDV, the most published and recognizable of the many exciting young offices, is certainly to be counted among the lead practitioners of this fresh urban disposition I am calling ‘just there’ modernism. In fact, their reputed ability to work within the suffocating restraints of Dutch building regulations to create delightful and unexpected results sets a kind of ‘just there’ standard. Moreover, their recently completed Villa VPRO is one of the most striking new buildings produced by this generation, and, despite, or rather because of its pastoral setting, it offers a good example of MVRDV’s urban approach. Theirs is a kind of hippie freshness of Campingland, as they call one of their urban strategies of mixing density with pastoral landscapes. This hippie freshness, however, occasionally borders on old?fashioned back?to?the?land, sixties moralism, on political correctness, and when it does so, exudes a distinct unfreshness.
Bosch Haslett, on the other hand, displays a kind of smart, well?scrubbed freshness so common these days in the architecture found on Madison Avenue in New York City. It is this urbane, ‘CK’ freshness, with its ‘let them eat cake’ attitude, which likewise threatens to render them politically incorrect, and therefore extremely unfresh. Indeed, it is precisely the beautiful anodyne visuality of their presentations, models and booklets that seem to give us pause, their stunningly beautiful ‘Light Objects’ project for London being just one example. In the presentation material for their well?heeled new office building in Rotterdam, ‘City Building’, they sum up their urbane approach: ‘All the excitement of New York without all the problems of dirt, crime, drugs and beggars’. They call their approach urbane as opposed to urban, denoting ‘the polite, sophisticated or well?mannered’. This, they argue, is where cities in the nineties are leading, and so they are following. Now while this might make van Toorn nervous, it is precisely their polished, faux?political edge (which they no doubt see as just good marketing), that makes them fresh and therefore a?political. If anything, it is their tendency (put down to a kind of insensitivity to certain market segments) to appear too polished and therefore politically incorrect, that threatens their freshness. There is a fine line between freshness and the (faux)political, a line which can be manipulated, but which once crossed leads down the road to a very unfresh decline.
Whether ‘undesigned’ hippie urbanism or ‘overdesigned’, designer urbanism, the fresh absorbs all that was once political, ideological, and yes, utopian, and renders them part of a fluid, eco?commercial reality. Ultimately, the fresh remains vibrant only so long as it does not succumb to the old new, to conservative or progressive political directives. The danger with the fresh, then, is not its politics, but that it can become stale, unfresh, and an inhibitor rather than producer of new urban life. Roemer van Toorn is right, however, to call for a new political understanding of our supermodernity, but this will only come when we better understand the relationship between politics and the market. In the meantime it would be better if we focused on the fresh aspects of these new practices, on the degree to which they are ‘newly new’ rather than pulling them back into the sinkhole of avant?gardism.
This is a revised and adbridged version of the text Michael Speaks wrote for the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Nine + One’, Rotterdam (NAi Publishers) 1997
1. Cited from abridged version of Jury Report, Archis 12, 1996, pp. 8-9.
2. Ed Taverne’s and Rem Koolhaas’s insistence that we recognize the importance of quantity should be noted as a historical precedent for all of these offices.
4. ‘It’s just there’ refers to a technique developed by Joost Meuwissen and Matthijs Bouw of One Architecture, whereas I am referring to ‘just there’ as an approach or feature of a new urban disposition. One’s definition does not differ significantly from the way I am using it here but they would disagree with my use of it to describe the work of the offices in the catalogue and exhibition.
5. See Roemer van Toorn’s contribution elsewhere in this issue.