Pas op: consensus! Crimson en de geschiedenis van de Nederlandse stedebouw / Beware! Consensus! Crimson and the history of urbanism in the Netherlands

On Friday 27 June, on the as yet unfinished concrete floor on the seventeenth storey of Cees Dam’s new tax office in Rotterdam, a modest ceremony took place. A few dozen guests seated on folding chairs witnessed the presentation of the slim volume Re-Urb. Nieuwe plannen voor oude steden.1)

The speakers had to summon all their rhetorical skills to compete with the visual lesson in urban design history, which the 360o vista unfolded for them: the ‘Kop van Zuid’ in the throes of development, the various stages of post-war reconstruction and core formation in the centre of Rotterdam, the sixties, seventies and eighties housing districts just visible on the horizon, and, let’s not forget, the ‘landscape mainstay’ visible from that height – the Nieuwe Maas river immediately below, and in the distance the vast docklands in the west and the Dutch marsh landscape to the northeast.
Before even the first copy of the book had been presented, all present were reminded of the fact that since the eleventh century the Dutch landscape has been a palimpsest. In this country, ‘Urb’ is by definition ‘Re-Urb’.
In eleven chapters Re-Urb discusses interventions and redevelopment proposals for existing urban settings. The settings vary greatly: historical central cities, post-war housing estates, and disused docklands and industrial sites. The case studies it presents are preceded by brief outlines of the succession of urban attitudes which have appeared, disappeared and sometimes been cautiously recycled in the Netherlands in the past twenty-five years.
Core formation, clearance-mania in the urban centres and, in the sixties, accelerated mass housing construction in the periphery – all these led to the emergence, prompted in part by revulsion, of a vision on the built (residential) environment. This vision empathized with an idealized local community, and was to provide us with the sorely needed ‘life-value’ and protect us from ‘sensory deprivation’. Finally, it was intended to express urban and neighbourhood life. Accordingly, an unrefuted awareness grew in the seventies that the existing city was good and wholesome, and that nothing was too good for its inhabitants.
Because of this often intuitive consensus, and, more especially, the disappointment with the first results of urban renewal, in which the quality of the process was more important than that of the product, revulsion reared its head again. This was around 1980, and the reactions it brought were various. In city councils and local bodies, politicians began clamouring for good architecture. Architectural colleges and faculties, especially that of the TU Delft, rang with cries of ‘let’s get scientific’. There they worked on building solid foundations for the ‘discipline’ of urbanism, and ‘paranoid critics’ like Jan de Graaf and Wim Nijenhuis unmasked, with a little help from Foucault, the hidden regulating mechanism within the practice of urban renewal. There was research galore done into city form and city history. The small-scale stitching of the torn urban fabric stemming from a neurotic horror vacui, was ditched in favour of clear figure–ground distinctions between building blocks and public space. The boom in typological and morphological studies testifies to this move, as does the ‘objective urbanism’ advanced by Carel Weeber.
Of course, we knew most of this already. But, contrary to what the foregoing might suggest, Re-Urb does not constitute a straightforward succession of simple, dialectical assessments. Crimson’s historical sketch is a family tree with a great many branches, or, in more elevated terms, a multilinear genealogical construct. Since Tafuri and Dal Co we know how it ought to be: historiography is not about essentialist ‘origins’ but about traceable ‘provenances’.
As it behoves contemporary historiography, Re-Urb not only contains the results of overdue research, but also the context in which the findings are placed. For example, Pjotr Gonggrijp’s psychological-anthropological-cartographical studies still serve as a link between Van Eyck’s Dogon stories and the upgrading of the landscape as a benchmark for differentiated urban plans, such as those of Frits Palmboom. It is a line which Crimson aptly terms ‘polder-contextualism’, one that can be carried through to Adriaan Geuze’s Randstad studies. Rein Geurtsen’s research into urban morphology is given the attention it deserves, if only because of its influence on countless students and professional urban designers. In the ‘family tree’, the roots not only reach down to studies on Oud and Berlage, but also to those of Team Ten members like Giancarlo de Carlo.
This overview has its omissions like any other. The exaggerated focus on developments at the TU Delft is somewhat disconcerting for the reader who is reasonably au fait with what has been going on at the Eindhoven faculty. Re-Urb does feature Jo Coenen’s plans for Vaillantlaan in The Hague, but not his project for the Sfinx-Céramique site in Maastricht. None of which can be explained without reference to Coenen’s family tree, in which the Krier brothers, James Stirling and his graduation project at Heerlen (1974) deserve mention. Similarly, it fails to address the origins of Pi de Bruijn, Sjoerd Soeters and Teun Koolhaas adequately, although their signature projects – Rotterdam’s Beursplein, Amsterdam’s Java island and the master plan for Kop van Zuid in Rotterdam – are made much of in Re-Urb’s project section.
I shall relegate Re-Urb’s historical inaccuracies and flagrant blunders to a footnote.2) The book’s value and the authors’ courage are evident enough from the descriptions of the main features, and from the polemic warning that this multilinear delta of active flows is now stagnating in the spongy swamp of the consensus culture. This deserves a reaction.
However contradictory and disparate the ideas and practices of the seventies may have been, and however varied the ideologies and stakeholders they produced, ‘professional and political circles’ have meanwhile succeeded in ‘resolving these differences in one large, all-embracing consensus model’, according to Crimson. It still contains traces of many of the achievements of recent decades, although in diluted form. Whether in little bottles or family packs, this homeopathic mixture can be found on the shelves of architectural and urban chemists’ shops, bearing labels like ‘quality’ and ‘culture’. And architectural policy documents and subsidy schemes actually encourage their use; ironically enough, the initiator for the writing of Re-Urb was the Netherland’s Architecture Fund. But in Crimson’s view, that magic potion has unpleasant side-effects for culturally-aware kindred spirits: the triumphalist culture industry suppresses all fundamental discussion on the current urban transformation processes, including the covert legislation it wishes to control (like the Nuisance Act) and the ‘black side’ which upsets the urbanists’ idylls (twilight zones, underclasses, crime).
This is a real phenomenon and we shouldn’t close our eyes to it. But, in my opinion, it is a bit too convenient for seasoned historians like Crimsons’ Wouter Vanstiphout and Michelle Provoost (and from Ed Taverne’s Groningen stable at that). Consensus does not strike me as an operational, historical concept, but as polemic projection. It lumps together everything that arouses disgust, and in so doing enables the rabbit of dialectic argumentation to be pulled out of the hat again and the profits of a multilinear, genealogical writing of history sacrificed to the genre of confrontational polemic accusation.
In his editorial accompanying this issue of Archis, the editor-in-chief Ole Bouman challenges the consensus diagnosis, suggesting that nowadays coalitions are formed between urban design offices held to embody different, even incompatible positions. That does not assume a consensus on design views, but a willingness or even a necessity to reach agreement within urban design practice. Vanstiphout and Provoost are familiar with that practice, since they are involved as consultants in developing the plans for the Vinex location of Leidsche Rijn. And so they know from experience that consensus is a sine qua non for the success of any urban plan. They will be better acquainted with horrible clichés like ‘creating a broad base’, ‘ongoing dialogue’, ‘joint commitment’, and worst of all, ‘getting everyone facing the same direction’ than the present author, who can only bear to put them in writing between inverted commas. Practising urbanists are, however, all the more successful if they manage to wield these clichés convincingly.
It is necessary to state the obvious in this respect, because the complaint concerning consensus at the close of Crimson’s essay relates to present-day practice. Prior to that, the main thrust was the views, theories or research of individuals, lecturers or social stakeholders. Each had its own author. Now implemented urban plans also have authors, but their success primarily depends on their process control skills and how they deal with the different parties involved. Ben van Berkel may, with his concept of ‘mobile forces’, seek to reply to the way contemporary architecture is practised, but urbanists have been familiar with the phenomenon for years.
However, Crimson does not refer to consensus formation during the planning process, but to the amalgam of ideas and practices which have all come about in the past twenty-five years. In that way the authors come fact to face with themselves. They claim to have tried in Re-Urb to separate this apparently uniform amalgam into individual components. Thus the conclusion of the essay proves to have been the initial premiss. The stratification they have exposed with their analysis all at once becomes the target of the polemical closing paragraphs.
The main thing that upsets the Crimson authors is that present-day practices, unlike those in the preceding period when the ground was prepared, are no longer activated directly by social forces, interests or players, but rather are suffocating under the blanket of the ‘culture industry’, which has annexed architecture and urbanism in the Netherlands. There is a self-censure within the culturalized and triumphalist profession which ensures that social oppositions, dilemmas and shifting force fields in urban society are hushed up. Given this point of view, the authors would seem inclined to take the line of the ‘paranoid critics’, one of the few which breaks off abruptly in their analysis. Like De Graaf’s and Nijenhuis’ work in the past, Re-Urb has a suggestion of paranoia and malice. Practices which fail to take account of changing social relations are automatically absorbed in the consensus. Crimson is well aware of the realism with which Rem Koolhaas analyses the ‘city without qualities’, but recriminates him for still believing in the viability of the central cities – one of the chief justifications for consensus. That is confirmed by the plans for Almere, IJ-plein and The Hague. According to Crimson, consensus is in fact a shift towards ‘a bizarre mix of urban renewal, listed buildings and Koolhaas’. New programmes, infrastructure, tram tunnels, mega-stores – everything has to be injected into the mix of protected townscapes and smallness of scale.
If consensus is shifting, it means that there is still movement, and this can only be explained by multiple design views and changing social forces. So evidently the ‘end of history’ has not arrived yet.
That a consensus culture has emerged is undeniably true and Crimson is not the first one to express discomfort about it. As in the early seventies, the breakthrough should not be expected to come from prevailing practice, but from innovative and dissident theories and design strategies. They are few and far between, but they really exist, as appears from two recent texts by Crimson author Wouter Vanstiphout.3) Obviously, there are two ways out. The first is called Koolhaas, the second Weeber. The first tries to understand reality by acknowledging the invisible tissue of knowledge, theory, concepts and ideas, to identify it and to work with it, in order to make physical substance that is really new. The second accepts reality, without burying its negative and marginal aspects in good intentions or political and aesthetic correctness, and wants simply to show it in the buildings. The first approach is that of the ‘paranoid-critical method’, the second that of ‘dirty realism’. The first bombards reality with interpretations, the second refrains from any interpretation. The first leads to buildings that embody ideas, the second only to ugly buildings. Which of those two ways of escape is to be preferred?
Vanstiphout condemns the consensus culture and the accompanying haute couture architecture in that it only conceals the doubts and dilemmas of politics, among others those of social-democracy which discovered the market. By making a show of friendliness, architecture as a credible discipline is wringing its own neck.
But it is one way or the other. By acknowledging and studying these doubts and dilemmas, architecture still can provide very precise, liberating and decisive arguments in the form of a design. Weeber’s approach just ignores those doubts and dilemmas. In both cases one has escaped from the consensus culture. But what is the result?
The question which Crimson also leaves unanswered is this: what can architecture and urban design still mean, aspire to and accomplish in what now amounts to a globally established political system: a reserved, neo-liberal nation-state, operating between the network of unstable global markets and social disintegration at home? Running down the cultural status of architecture, a status being cheered so loudly in the Netherlands, is not sufficient. For the answers we will have to look beyond our borders. After all, Crimson’s real target is Dutch consensus politics. A purely paranoid lament on consensus culture runs the risk of ending up in a dead-end street, just like the paranoid critics of the eighties that served Crimson as a role-model.

1. Crimson onderzoek kritiek theorie, Re-Urb. Nieuwe plannen in oude steden, Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, NLG 37.50, ISBN 90-6450-309-5.

2. Van Eyck never referred to Levy-Strauss when he described architecture as the counterform of life (p. 13); it was Bakema, not Van Eyck, who used the word architecturbanism (p. 22); Nicolaas Habraken never belonged to the Forum group (p. 28).

3. After the outlines of this piece were written, the present author became acquainted with two articles by Wouter Vanstiphout: ‘Consensus Terrorism’, Harvard Design Magazine, Summer 1997, pp. 8-13; and ‘Architectuur and Consensus’, De Gids, 1997 nr. 7/8, pp. 543-556. In both of them the polemical attack on the consensus culture could be undertaken fully, without historiographical obligations to a client.

Proeftuin voor interactiviteit. De Water-paviljoens van Lars Spuybroek en Kas Oosterhuis / A Testing Ground for interactivity. The Water Pavilions by