Transgressive practices. An outline of a globalized Dutch architectural practice

A similar trend can be found with some of the larger Dutch developers, like the Multi Development Corporation and MAB, which have become important players in the European market.

Conversely, a lot of foreign architects are being hired for big and prestigious projects in the Netherlands, like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Rotterdam Central Station. In addition, more and more foreign architects are setting up shop in the Netherlands. The Groepsportretten (Group Portraits) exhibition, featuring work by ad hoc collaborations between young architects, reveals an increase in the number of expatriate offices either based in Holland or collaborating with Dutch firms. The list of last year’s Europan winners also contained a remarkable number of foreigners.

Does this mean we can now talk about a globalized architectural practice? But even more important: is there a future for Dutch architecture within this globalized condition?

We think there is. Where some complain about the architect’s loss of control over the building process, others move on, adapting their range of competencies to a new kind of architectural practice. A practice that knows how to thrive on the uncertainties that, under influence of globalization, have become our new condition humaine.

From internationalization to globalization

As a result of international developments such as European integration, more and more Dutch practices work abroad nowadays. But this fact merely indicates the unilateral, one-way exchange characteristic of internationalization and represents only the first step in the globalization of Dutch architectural practice. With today’s technological advancements it is possible to reach a worldwide audience, so that even very localized actions can have a global impact. The best example is probably Glen Murcutt, the latest Pritzker Prize winner. Despite steadfastly declining every invitation to work outside Australia, his one-man architectural practice has won worldwide recognition.

The shift from internationalization to globalization has occurred in every aspect of socio-economic life. As Hardt and Negri describe in their book Empire, internationalization was an expansive movement of people, goods and information that was based on the sovereignty of the nation-state. But the essence of this expansion of trade, or more precisely capital, slowly undermined national sovereignty, replacing it with more complex relations between political and economic power structures. In a time when half of the world’s 100 largest economies are huge multinational corporations, it has become impossible to maintain the idea of national sovereignty. We now live in a global network-economy with shifting boundaries in which the unidirectional export logic of internationalization has been eclipsed by the multidirectional logic of globalization.

Globalization is a process of unprecedented uncertainty. Within the network logic of the Information Age everything is potentially connected to everything else. This leads to an explosion of possibilities, a reality that is consequently based on options and contingencies rather than on facts. It is what Ulrich Beck describes as the logic of the ‘risk society’: ‘In almost all realms of everyday existence, a theoretically determined consciousness of reality enters the stage of world history. Like the gaze of the exorcist, the gaze of the pollution-plagued contemporary is directed at something invisible. The risk society marks the dawning of a speculative age in everyday perception and thought.’ (Ulrich Beck, Risk Society, p. 73)

Defining Dutchness

Before focusing on Dutch architecture, it is interesting to look at the position of the Netherlands within this ongoing process of globalization. This intermediate level reveals a specific attitude towards the process of globalization that complements the account of Dutch architecture’s position. It helps define a certain Dutchness, a mentality that is not unique to architecture but seems to be embedded in a more general attitude to what is going on in the world. A recent study in The Economist, entitled ‘Model Makers’, shows this Dutchness as being defined by a pragmatic openness to daily life, where a unionized prostitute lives next door to a married gay person whose mother, who was recently legally euthanized, lived above a coffee shop where youngsters smoke a joint after participating in a car race on a former airstrip.

This Dutch mentality is embedded in the history of the Netherlands as a trading and distribution nation. The study by The Economist linked the country’s current world position to the heroic history of the United East India Company (VOC) during the age of discovery. ‘Its legacy lingers in two respects. The first is that the Dutch are still great merchants, traders and foreign investors. Rotterdam remains the world’s biggest port, measured by the tonnage of goods moving through it. The Dutch are disproportionately large foreign investors; in global terms they rank in the top five. …The second legacy from the VOC era is the large number of Dutch-based multinational companies. For a country of only 16m people (albeit with the world’s 14th-biggest economy), the roll-call is impressive.’ (The Economist, 4 May 2002)

The Economist concluded that rather than the much talked about ‘polder model’ (consensus-driven negotiations) it is the Dutch outward-looking openness to new ideas and consummate pragmatism that powered the country’s remarkable economic recovery from the ‘Dutch disease’ (‘welfare without work’), starting in the late 1980s.

Form follows anyway!

This same pragmatism, or ‘experimental survival instinct’ as Rients Dijkstra calls it, has also been shaping a particular group of Dutch practices. In a situation where architects were starting to lose ground, they detached themselves from a process of aesthetic form-making and repositioned themselves by developing competencies that allowed them once again to intervene in every aspect of the building process. This example of architectural Dutchness probably first surfaced in the 1995 exhibition ‘Reference: OMA’ at the NAi in Rotterdam. The exhibition showcased a group of architects, such as MVRDV, Rients Dijkstra (Maxwan), Christian Rapp, Mike Guyer (GigonandGuyer) and Matthias Sauerbruch (Sauerbruch Hutton), who had established their own firms after leaving OMA. It was a collection of very diverse practices. There was no formal resemblance between them, only a sense of pragmatic inventiveness and a willingness to experiment.

This attitude was first named as such by Michael Speaks some two years later in the essay he wrote to accompany another NAi exhibition, 9+1: ‘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.’ (Michael Speaks, ‘It’s just fresh, a new urban approach. Young Dutch architects’, Archis no. 11, 1997)

This particular mode of Dutch architecture, rather than exporting an image, strategically introduces a Dutch attitude to global networks of development power and capital. This version of Dutchness is not so much an identity as a mentality, an operation: ‘A Dutchness that is fixed neither by national or professional identity, nor ideology, but instead names a disposition towards an artificial urban milieu that today is the Netherlands but which is fast becoming the rest of the world.’ (Michael Speaks, ‘It’s out there …) In that respect Dutchness is similar to the idea of ‘Californication’ as presented by Reyner Banham in his book on Los Angeles and in the song of that name by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

As we mentioned before, Dutchness is a mentality that exists well beyond the confines of the architectural discipline. It is part of a more general design culture as is evident in a recent book about Droog Design. The book not only presents the results of its own collaborations with architects, like the Mandarina Duck flagship store in Paris, designed by NL architects, but also gives a broader range of architectural examples, like MVRDV’s VPRO building, that display the same kind of ‘Droog’ mentality. ‘For the developments taking place within Droog Design are part of a mentality that is shaping up in all design disciplines. A respectable number of young designers, architects and artists are distancing themselves from simply creating beautiful forms and objects. They take their inspiration from what is meaningless, anonymous, everyday, neutral. They let themselves be guided by natural processes, existing concepts, the unplanned and peripheral. They take things at face value. They accept or recycle the existing, even in its most random and ugly forms.’ (Renny Ramakers, Less + More)

Artificial, plastic and synthetic

To describe this Dutchness further we need to look more closely at the main driving force that is constantly challenging its reinvention. Dutchness describes a specific kind of creativity that stems from an outward-oriented focus on the context in which it operates. Rather than seeking to define the essence of architecture, it asks what architecture can signify within its context, the urban condition. The urban condition is seen as a field of possibilities, the space where people and ideas meet and create an urban buzz and where programmes merge or mutate under the pressure of high density. As Urban Affairs, a young Rotterdam-based office, states on its web site, these practices are concerned with ‘everything that initiates, activates and reanimates urban life’. Hence, these offices occupy a position from which it is possible, maybe even imperative, to transgress the traditional boundaries of the architectural discipline. These are collaborative and trangressive practices where historians-turned-designers work with artists-cum-urban planners on envisioning a future for what used to be the city. They combine a professional or specialist approach with an activist one of engagement.

The Dutch attitude to the artificial urban milieu unites creativity and urbanism in an intense love affair full of risk and excitement. An affair based on the chemistry of the Creative City: ‘A disposition to take intellectual risks, to approach problems afresh and to be willing to experiment; and crucially, the capacity to be reflexive and generate a cycle of learning that leads to creation and re-creation. This is a frame of mind which questions rather than criticizes. …Creativity challenges not just what is a problem, but many things which are now thought of as adequate or even good. …Creative people work at the edge of their competency not at the centre of it.’ (Charles Landry, The Creative City, p. 13) In a continuous feedback loop between these two processes, cities become plastic and malleable as creativity turns synthetic.

Designers are becoming more and more involved in the software and orgware of cities. The city is no longer a typology that is analysed from the outside, but is now an ecology of dense human interaction that architects and urbanists try to shape by participating in it. It brings to mind the description of the Soft City by Jonathan Raban: ‘Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them in our images: they, in their turn, shape us by resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them. In this sense, it seems to me that living in cities is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relationship between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living. The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.’ (Jonathan Raban, Soft City)

The urban condition therefore gives rise to a creativity that can best be described as synthetic. It is a form of creativity that is able to integrate different interests, understand and criticize underlying assumptions and create new organizational forms that are capable of regulating the commitment and potential of the different parties involved.

Four ecologies of Dutchness

Within this Dutch architectural practice we see an identification of urbanism with urban life itself. It is the interweaving of the professional approach of innovation and the activist approach of in(ter)ventions in order to embrace the richness of urban life, appropriating the destabilizing intensity of the urban condition to constantly renew itself. It addresses urbanism in its full potential, as an ecology of possible relationships.

This approach is close to the description of an ecological approach to business by the former head of Group Planning at Shell, Arie de Geus, in his book The Living Company. As a matter of fact, this book applies the same kind of outward-looking openness that is characteristic of Dutchness and relates this openness to the idea of ecology. Ecology here must be seen in its most basic sense as the study of the relationships between organisms and their environment, including other organisms. The Living Company describes a business model based on the idea that every large organization is a social and cognitive network that interacts with its environment in order to maintain itself as a continuously evolving community. What is appealing about this model is that it turns large, static institutions into dynamic social networks of relationships capable of interacting, learning and adapting.

These ecological models show how organizations can deal with great complexity and uncertainty. The built-in reflexivity of social networks and the sensitivity to things that are going on in the outside world make organizations more flexible and adaptable to their uncertain business environment. This is no different from architectural and urban practices working within the destabilizing urban condition. The ecological models are interesting because they show organizations, especially those heavily dependant on human capital, perform better when they are able to adapt to their surroundings. It explains why architectural practices are not only involved in the urban condition but are becoming more and more urban themselves. They’re flexible, multi-disciplinary and networked. To maintain this development, according to De Geus, they have to be goal-directed, self-conscious and outward-oriented.

Coming back to the characteristics of Dutchness we now have a better understanding of how it maintains itself. Therefore, part of the future success of Dutchness will be the ability to plug into the productive forces or ecologies of the new urban economy (money, media, power and knowledge). These productive forces are not only needed for the realization of designs but, more importantly, to keep the development of Dutchness going. Because it is an idea and ideas are perishable, Dutchness is in constant need of new input. It is therefore important to take a better look at these four ecologies.

1 Money – cultural entrepreneurship
The Dutch subsidy system is an important part of the globalization of Dutch practice. Its various bodies help fund research, stimulate the development of a distinct identity and promote Dutch architecture. These bodies are no mere passive facilitators but are also constantly setting out new avenues for continuing development of architectural practice. Recently, the Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture (Fonds BKVB) decided to pay special attention to grant applicants’ ‘cultural entrepreneurship’ (i.e. their ability to enter into collaborative alliances in order to realize the work and whether they engage in multidisciplinary collaborations with other designers).

2 Media – embrace the swarm
Crucial to the widespread distribution of ideas is a media network that keeps a critical eye on every step taken by architectural practices. The Netherlands has a well developed network that reaches far beyond its national borders. In addition, an incredible amount of attention is paid to young architects and to new developments. Archiprix, Prix de Rome, Europan, the Maaskant Prize for Young Architects and Group Portraits are just a few examples. Although the competition culture is not without its drawbacks and some people complain that the attention lavished on young architects has led to an inflation of terms like ‘young’ and ‘new’, it has undoubtedly generated a climate favourable to innovation and experiment.

3 Power – control freaks
The diffuse power relations of alliances between architectural practices and other disciplines are an important mechanism in a network society based on the exchange of knowledge. Specialist knowledge combined with an outward-looking focus and the comparatively small size of most offices, makes the architectural discipline particularly suited to taking advantage of these network effects. Moreover, the architectural discipline can play a key role when it is able to act as a link between professional and activist networks. One notable example is the way Crimson (Architectural Historians), as supervisor of the International Building Exhibition Rotterdam-Hoogvliet, decided to make itself as small as possible and to function mainly as a content provider within the large-scale operation of urban redevelopment. Their chosen role enables them to move with optimum flexibility through the complex field of interests, ambitions and intentions.

4 Knowledge – ideas rule!
Architecture and urbanism have now entered the era where knowledge is the most important resource in the production process. In yet another wave of pragmatic invention, some offices have decided to turn their way of working upside down and, instead of focusing on controlling the building process, to concentrate on the analysis of programmes and organizational schemes and on concept and strategy development. AMO, for instance, is focusing on what Koolhaas calls virtual architecture, which is to say the analysis of the relationship between human behaviour, built structures and the invisible networks of commerce and culture. One Architecture has set up a joint venture – TOACA – with the New York-based office Terraswarm. TOACA offers digital information management and media services that optimize urban and infrastructural planning projects. These examples are typical of a practice that is focusing more and more on the development and implementation of ideas.

Who knows whom in Dutch architecture

The network chart accompanying this article is an attempt to render the relations between architectural practices and the four ecologies. Although far from complete, the chart does provide some insight into the internal mechanisms of Dutch architecture. The main thing missing from the chart are the relationships between architects and developers, because these are the least clear. As a result, some large and influential practices like those of Cees Dam and Sjoerd Soeters, remain invisible while others like Kees Christiaanse and Benthem and Crouwel are only marginally present. But perhaps the most striking thing about this overview is the almost total absence of the BNA (Royal Institute of Dutch Architects), the body that is supposed to represent architects in political negotiations and to take a leading role in exploring future developments.

From activism to business and back again

Returning to the original thesis, we can conclude that the process of globalization and the related process of ongoing and even unprecedented urbanization, have resulted in a situation in which anything is possible. This means that uncertainty becomes an everyday fact of life for every architectural practice. To gain further insight into what lies ahead, we invited a number of strategically placed individuals to make a SWOT-analysis of architectural practice. This analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats sheds light on both the internal and external processes that may conceivably shape the architectural practice.

For instance, it is common knowledge that economic slowdowns have an adverse effect on the building industry. But it will affect different architectural practices differently. Its main impact will be on practices specializing in innovative, research-based and future-oriented studies and designs. Another example is the shift to a ‘right-of-centre’ political constellation that is currently taking place all over Europe. In the Netherlands, this has huge implications for spatial policy: the ten years of work that went into last year’s Fifth National Policy Document on Spatial Planning will probably have to be done over again while the public debate on the privatization of large-scale infrastructure such as Schiphol Airport, the national railways (NS) and the distribution of gas, water and electricity is almost certain to take a new turn. Greater encouragement of private housing will also of course have far-reaching consequences for both architectural practice and spatial policy.

The concept of privatization will also affect the role of the design process. Technological advancements combined with ongoing privatization will lead to a democratization of the design process. In order to meet customers’ demands it becomes necessary to set up what Matthijs Bouw and Donald van Dansik call ‘a conversational practice’, or what Kevin Kelly calls ‘prosuming’ – an early interaction between producers and consumers. Within this process architecture will increasingly become a sort of social tool for structuring this ‘conversational practice’. The design will become a form of ‘share-ware’ or relation technology, of ‘quick-and-dirty prototyping’, and will also become increasingly information-based.

But before this can happen, a lot is going to have to change. An important aspect is the communication of this changing role of architecture and the new competencies of architectural practices. What we have been describing up to now is based on the work of only a small group of practices. Apart from these select few there is still huge ignorance concerning these new developments. Not only in practice but in education as well. Without the BNA to lead the way, it is up to individual offices to reshape the public image of architectural practice.

By raising only a few of the uncertainties challenging the practice of architecture, we seek to demonstrate that the way people deal with uncertainty and complexity depends on their capacity to understand the underlying processes that are destined to shape the future. To paraphrase Pierre Wack, who was responsible for introducing scenario-development at Shell, architecture will be persuasive and pervasive when it is capable of ‘rediscovering the original entrepreneurial power of creative foresight in contexts of accelerated change, greater complexity and genuine uncertainty’.

Dennis Kaspori is an architect, founding member of the maze corporation ( and a partner in the office for tele(communication), historicity and mobility.
Jennifer Hurd is an architect and founding member of platform.


The Dutch model: a fortuyn-ate tale