The Dutch model: a fortuyn-ate tale

Emerging from a proliferation of local ‘liveable’ parties that argued for less development (but more roads) and direct control, Fortuyn’s party wanted to keep the Netherlands Dutch in the same sort of vague way that Bush wants to keep the United States American and the New Urbanists want to resurrect a 1920s American small town that never existed.

Yet Fortuyn was no mere knee-jerk reactionary. His appeal also came out of the same sort of resistance to globalizing capital as the anarchist protesters of Genoa and Seattle tapped into, but now with a Dutch slant: international capital was OK, as long as it, like foreigners, integrated into the Dutch way of doing things. That would include, according to Fortuyn, renationalizing the train and electricity companies. What mattered most was the sense of local control over assets and situations. Fortuyn’s xenophobia was protective of what he saw as the essential freedoms of the Netherlands, which were, paradoxically, toleration and openness. Only through security and local control could such values be protected. Fortuyn preached a strange hybrid of global freedom and local control.

Two themes emerge from a reading of his last book, The Ruins of Eight Years of Purple (purple being the blended colour of the then-ruling government coalition). The first is that of the importance of bounded, controlled and inhabitable space. Neighbourhoods, the whole country, but also personal space had to be defended against internationalization by both the EU and foreigners. It was a lesson Fortuyn gained from being a catholic youngster in what was then still a country divided between Protestants and Catholics. The second was narrative: the schoolteacher, the politician and the citizen should be able to construct, tell and hear coherent stories about their lives. He had fallen in love with good stories as a boy, and had made his fortune by telling them as a freelance consultant. Out of protection and narrative comes a particular community, which Fortuyn defined as the essence of the Netherlands. It was an autobiographical construct, as is the book. Fortuyn felt that, as a gay man, he had to construct a community by making up a story about himself (a tactic that is central to the modern gay experience, as I tried to explain in my book Queer Space). It was one that relied on the making of a bounded space, a kind of extension of the closet, from where he could invent a history and a future in which he could play a central part.

The appeal of this message was especially strong to the Dutch because they have always been interested in the erection of interior spaces within their tightly packed land. These became spaces in which everything could be arranged, known, measured and used with absolute certainty. What Fortuyn added was the importance of telling a good story exactly about the glories of that inward-turned, but externally-fed (by trade and investment and, of course, the influx of ‘guest workers’) country. It was the history of a country that had continually to define itself because it otherwise barely existed as anything other than the delta of the Rhine, a stopping point between Germany, France and England. Fortuyn preached an essential and yet, as he himself admitted, artificial ‘Dutchness’. Foreigners had to buy into this mode of being, just as he, at times quite painfully, had done.

For Fortuyn, therefore, the ‘makeability’ of the Dutch landscape, of which its planners speak with great regularity, extended to the personal realm. Instead of dams, dikes and polders, this sphere uses stories, myths, anecdotes and analogies to build up a civilized country. It is both fortunate that Fortuyn never finished telling his story, because it was beginning to sound just a bit too much like extreme nationalist and romantic notions of nationhood to be comfortable, and unfortunate that his murder made him into a martyr around which such stories can be spun.

The whole election story also foretold the end of a particular time in Dutch architecture that has seen the work produced in this small country have enormous influence beyond its borders. The great storyteller Rem Koolhaas who, unlike Fortuyn, is not even sure he is Dutch but is sure his work is engaged, critical and even anti-capitalist, has served as the heroic figure around whom the outside world has constructed an image of great Dutch architects. The designers themselves resist all such groupings, and most of them even refuse to work in other countries. Some, like Willem-Jan Neutelings, claim the whole hype about the excellence of Dutch architecture is ill founded. They point out that the same conditions that give many young architects a chance to do things that from the outside look innovative are severely constrained by planning procedures, cost models and engineering decisions that leach creativity and vision from projects.

Yet the Dutch hype has not been entirely hollow. Perhaps Rem Koolhaas was, like (but oh so unlike) Fortuyn, just a good personality to hang a story on, and was aided by the success of the Dutch economic model in creating a sense that something was going on in the Netherlands. On the other hand, the Dutch government has invested a great deal of money in improving the architecture scene through subsidies to travel, exhibit, and publish work, and by thus trying to increase public awareness of good architecture. Its efforts may not have fully succeeded, but it has brought into focus certain lessons that were always inherent in Dutch architecture, but that have become obvious through this confluence of forces.

The potential

What then can we learn from the Netherlands? What stories are implicit in recent Dutch architectural history? The importance of a hybrid landscape, the uses of infrastructure for the making of a common identity, the artificiality of all space, the importance of reuse as a creative tool, and the value of open space. Through a variety of historical developments, this country has developed highly specific tools for answering the spatial challenges thrown up by an infinitely flexible and grindingly efficient global capitalism. These range from specific techniques of standardization, through the management of space in an integrated manner, to the ability to value conceptual thinking within a productive framework. The Dutch are making some pretty good architecture right now, but it is not the buildings that matter. It is the social, political and cultural processes out of which the delectables of OMA, UN Studio, MVRDV or Mecanoo come.

The most obvious source of these lessons being taught by the Netherlands is the artificial landscape. Though this topic has been the subject of many discussions and has even furnished the title for Hans Ibelings’ excellent book on current trends in architecture, it remains central to the Dutch way of making space. Since one-third of the land is either polder or has in some other way been reclaimed, and since a continual effort is required to keep this land dry, usable and visible, all space is seen as a potential resource, not as something outside of the human realm. In the most densely populated country in the world, the continual allocation, re-allocation and reclamation of space is one of the central tasks of society. It is therefore no coincidence that there is a Ministry for Social Housing, Physical Planning and the Environment (VROM), which combines concepts for living, spatial use and ecology in one super-agency.

The picturing, representation and mapping of this landscape have long been an essential part of Dutch culture. If this happened in the seventeenth century through the meticulous depiction of the land, its bounty and its inhabitants using the latest techniques of perspective and devices such as the camera obscura, today the Dutch collect drier data. They are obsessive collectors of statistics, and have even created a new national bureau of Spatial Statistics, to stand alongside the bureaus for Social and Scientific Statistics. Some architects, such as MVRDV, purport to make their designs completely out of such data. But the Dutch also continue the tradition of realism, both in documentation and in design. Drawing on older sources, such as the work of Ed van der Elsken, and newer ones, such as the photographs of Rieneke Dijkstra, a new generation of photographers, often commissioned by the state, is creating a highly refined and often computer-manipulated mirror of the Netherlands. The much-noted ‘pragmatism’ of Dutch architects often derives from this tradition. Whether it is Ben van Berkel positing his work as the orchestration of data, Rem Koolhaas embedding his work in a research effort, or Willem-Jan Neutelings calling for a kind of heroic realism, they are all trying to trace the contours of the artificial landscape to make form.
This works best when the work concerns itself with the everyday. Dutch architecture has never been very good at making monuments. Even such famous examples as Berlage’s Stock Exchange or Cuypers’ Rijksmuseum are misshapen monoliths that sit rather uncomfortably in their settings. Give Berlage the chance to use housing to shape a city, however, and he creates a set of neighbourhoods that are as carefully balanced between monumental cityscapes and picturesque urban agglomerations as one can find anywhere in the world. The Dutch don’t do palaces, they do houses. They don’t do parks, but meadows left over between housing. Not only that, they do housing and meadows in a standardized and mechanized manner. Building houses up out of bricks and dividing meadows with irrigation ditches, they create rhythm. In the early 1950s, the Dutch adopted a French concrete panel technique to make social housing. Unlike the more visionary and grand applications of such techniques in the banlieue of Paris or the plattenbau of East Germany, they used it to make modest, two-storey row houses. The system turned out to be infinitely flexible, and its application gives developers the freedom to hire young architects without experience, as they can experiment with the system without breaking it.

The result is a landscape that is carefully calibrated between demands for housing, the environment and open space. There are few grand moments in Dutch architecture because they are statistically unnatural, which is to say that the mean and the norm rule. An obsession with pseudo-scientific methodology of planning and building, combined with the intense demands on the small amount of space and the flatness of the land mean that every square metre is fully developed and utilized in some manner. Each small neighbourhood, meadow and copse of trees is demarcated, defined and built out (the Dutch are even building small new forests). The result is a hybrid landscape of everyday scenes, instead of monumental factories, housing estates or palaces.

The one element that escapes from this systemized approach to collecting data and building is the making of infrastructure. The Dutch nation is the result of a giant, collaborative and accretionary infrastructural project: the use and containment of water, both riverine and marine. Infrastructure here is not the making of giant highways that tower over their surroundings, but the painful threading of such highways, new train lines and other connection devices through a tightly packed landscape. Canals have to go over highways, and the high-speed railroad will have to spend five miles underground to preserve the meadows in the country’s heartland. The unfolding of such landscapes into solid objects is what has given the Dutch the few true monuments they have, from the Delta Works that protect the province of Zeeland from the North Sea to the Erasmus Bridge.

The density of this landscape also means that there is a tremendous premium on reuse in the Netherlands. All building sites involve demolition, and the Dutch have no compunction about re-developing even recent urban projects. The new city heart of Utrecht and the core of the new town of Almere, the first not quite thirty, the second barely twenty, years old, are already being torn up and redeveloped. Since the landscape is artificial, it is malleable and can and must be remade. This attitude now also pervades the realms of industrial design and related fields, where the work of the designer is seen not so much as one of invention, as of creative and conceptual reuse of existing materials, forms and ideas.

As a result, the concept has an almost holy status in Dutch design. Since the spatial and material bounds are given by what already exists, and the recombination of elements must produce a tightly justified object or use of space, the strength of the idea is essential. If the point of a French chateau or a skyscraper can be the vista disappearing down the central axis or up into the sky, in the Netherlands the point remains in itself. It is therefore no coincidence that more and more Dutch buildings wrap in on themselves, producing convolutions of form as they pursue ever more arcane forms of self-invention and criticism. For the Dutch architect and designer has to believe that she is contributing something to culture, even if the work appears as a rearrangement.

The agenda

What drives all of this activity is the naked desire for more personal space. In a country where the land is largely artificial, the highest good is safe, protected and well-arranged space. Brokering the desire of each of the sixteen million inhabitants for ever more space is one of the central tasks of the government. The debate over whether there is enough space and who is allowed to use it, is one of the driving forces of all political discussions. What is especially interesting to an outsider is that the Dutch don’t assume that there is a sacred quality to open space, nature or the national boundaries. The recent wave of xenophobia had more to do with the fact that foreigners were seen as unwilling to integrate their culture into the Dutch fabric and thus engage in the complex give-and-take over space, than it did with sheer numbers. Fortuyn’s two complaints about foreigners (beyond their supposed illiberalism towards women and gays such as himself) were that they isolated themselves in ghettos and that they made public space unsafe. The Dutch always think that they can find and use more space, either by poldering in the sea or by using what there is in more efficient ways. To do so, however, all participants must engage in collective effort and negotiation – a system that has come to be known as the ‘polder model.’

The result of all these conditions is a landscape that is indeed hybrid. The Dutch heartland (the triangle formed by the cities of Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and The Hague) offers a vision of intensive spatial use, experimentation with building patterns and methods, spatial research and inhabitation of space that can stand as a model for the problems created by sprawl. Instead of traditional city cores surrounded by exurbs connected by expensive infrastructure, the Dutch model is one of a carpet of disparate uses, from residential to agricultural to industrial, that are very closely interspersed. There is little sense of separation, and every inch of land can potentially be used for something else. The infrastructure is so fine-grained as to allow for multiple uses.

This is not a static ideal or utopia, but a messy landscape of negotiation that is continually in dispute. The Dutch model will work only if certain steps are taken. Central to its success or ultimate failure is a conscious government policy, directed both by VROM and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCandW), that traces, tracks and furthers that debate. I would argue that the Dutch can learn much from their current situation, and can and should communicate their findings to others. What is necessary is the following:
1. The cultural legacy of the Netherlands as it is present in the built and unbuilt landscape must continue to be the subject of intense study and discussion, so that an awareness of what the Dutch have already made can guide the production or reproduction of new spaces. This knowledge should be exported.
2. The Dutch have developed a standard of architecture that depends not on monumentality, indestructibility and eternal value, but on inhabitation, changeability, reuse and accommodation. This architecture should be studied and theorized. It will provide the basis for an alternative theory of design.
3. Dutch infrastructure is embedded in daily life and must be even more so. Current efforts to redesign roads, railroads and other large projects so that they are natural extensions of the landscape promise to become models for global development, and should be encouraged. At the same time, the unfolding of such landscapes into recognizable nodes of collective activity should be used to create collective identity.
4. The call within Dutch culture to adopt Anglo-Saxon models of development, and most particularly the split between ‘free’ individual dwellings and collective space, should be rejected. The ability to make collective space out of individual dwelling units should instead be posed as an avenue of spatial development worth exploring, especially if more intensive land use can increase the sheer amount of space available for everybody.
5. The notions of reuse and representation should be further developed as conceptual tools with their own logic and built-in room for invention.
6. The hybridity of space should be further examined and developed as an answer to sprawl.
7. The value of empty space – unbuilt, unusable, and yet open to experience – should be posited as the greatest luxury we can have as a society.

If these tendencies in Dutch architecture are encouraged and developed, the contributions this country can make to how we can create identity, inhabitation and community in a fast-changing global economy will have only have just started. Ironically, Fortuyn’s heirs might frustrate these developments in their shortsighted concentration on reversing the past government’s policies. One can only hope, however fearfully, that they will remember at least some of Fortuyn’s tales.

Aaron Betsky is director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam.


Dutch freak show (editorial)