How Social is Dutch Architecture?

First published on Archined.nl, December 6th 2013, translation March 9th 2014. This opinion piece is intended as a starting point to research solutions to the current laissez-faire direction of urban planning which the Dutch government has adopted…

 

A Vinex neighborhood, somewhere in the Netherlands. Photo: FaceMePLS

A Vinex neighborhood, somewhere in the Netherlands. Photo: FaceMePLS

In the recently published ‘Double Dutch – Dutch Architecture after 1985′ Bernard Hulsman[1] characterizes recent architecture in the Netherlands as a belated victory march of postmodernism. By predominantly interpreting this period in a fashionable and stylistic sense, Hulsman distracts, according to Thomas Wensing, from the truly worrisome and problematic development which has occurred since 1985: the blind following of neo-liberal doctrine. National urban planning directives, the healthy architecture climate and exemplary government patronage have all disappeared. Wensing calls on architects to take position and to actively develop a more social vision for architecture in the Netherlands.

“I think it is absolutely essential, and I think it is incomprehensible that this has not happened yet in any way, that there will be an ideological response to the sudden disappearance of socialism, which has been in almost all cases the latent nourishment and justification of our modern architecture, whether we are honest about it or not.”[2] – Rem Koolhaas

In 1990 Rem Koolhaas organized a symposium at Delft University centered on the question ‘How modern is Dutch architecture?’ The lecture is intellectually rich, intense, and emotional in the best sense of the word; it is testament to an internal struggle which is rare in current architectural discourse. The lecture marked the beginning of a blooming period in Dutch architecture, an era which has for the time being, through the credit crunch and drastic cuts in government subsidies to the cultural sector, came to a close. In the text Koolhaas explicitly points to a crisis of confidence within himself, a crisis caused by the falling away of socialism and the rise of neo-liberalism.

“In the mid-eighties socialist ideology also started to fall away, which in the case of the IJ Plein project was symbolized by a series of successive developments. Firstly, Amsterdam was split up in boroughs, and one of the first boroughs to be formed was Amsterdam-Noord. At that moment the paradoxical phenomenon occurred that the borough council, which was purportedly dedicated to socialist principle, was the first to grouse about the socialist point of departure, namely social housing at the waterfront, which had been realized by the central city government, and for which we had been the instrument. This council made a few absolutely laughable, but at the same time maddening trips to America, decked out with video-cameras and other modern equipment to see how things could be different, and this council discovered, especially in Baltimore and San Francisco, the vision which with respect to the IJ-plein should have been discovered, and should have been realized.”[3]

Kasbah Housing, Hengelo, Piet Blom. Photo: Archangel12

Kasbah Housing, Hengelo, Piet Blom. Photo: Archangel12

In his typically confronting manner Koolhaas accused Dutch modern architecture of a series of negative characteristics and failings. One of the reasons for the shortcomings of Dutch modernism was that it had never completely surrendered to the maelstrom of modernity. The figure of Van Eesteren was cited by Koolhaas as the ultimate, and negative example of the Dutch modernist as a busybody. Not the intense fire of the avant-garde was the true essence of Dutch modernism, but the will to lay down rules, the need to qualify and quantify, the will to plan.

Koolhaas’ lecture solicited different responses at the time, but no one at the symposium delivered a critical reflection on the stealthy erosion of the welfare state, nor did anyone ask whether the concomitant dismantling of the planning apparatus of the central government was such a great idea. Apart from Koolhaas it was Kenneth Frampton who, at the beginning of the nineties, sharply pinpointed the developments in the Netherlands:

If any European country has continued to maintain a reflective practice in architecture at both national and local levels it is certainly the Netherlands, and yet with exception of the Delft Structuralist School, a consistent culture of architecture and urbanism has also eluded Dutch practice since the 1970s, and private speculation and laissez-faire culture politics came to play much stronger roles in Dutch life as a whole.”[4]

Frampton acerbically added that the success of Koolhaas was due in large measure to these economic and political shifts and he expressed the hope that the state would again fulfill a more active role.

The neo-liberal dogma is here put forward as the reason for the loss of the Dutch planning and urbanist tradition, but it is not as if Frampton only points an accusing finger in the direction of government. The coinage of the term ‘reflective practice’ is meant to point towards the combination of enlightened patronage, quality education and exceptional architectural talent, which are all prerequisites for a healthy architectonic culture. This therefore implies political and critical consciousness across sectors.

ABKM, Maastricht (Wiel Arets). Foto JPMM

ABKM, Maastricht (Wiel Arets). Foto JPMM

The neo-liberal trend continued, however, and it was Bart Lootsma who in 2000, in his book SuperDutch, borrowed the term “Second Modernity” from the sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens to underscore mainly the positive aspects of the confluence of globalization, an open society, economic growth and the development of new networks and communication technology.

While the first phase of modernity was largely shaped by the industrial revolution and its consequences, the second phase is an outcome of the rise of electronics and communications technology. As a small trading nation and prosperous welfare state, the Netherlands is perhaps more susceptible to these developments than other countries and therefore forced to anticipate the developing situation, among other things at a political level. The unification of Europe has played an important part in this because of policies committed to developing open markets. The required process of deregulation has obliged the Dutch government to abolish, privatize or otherwise change countless public and semi-public agencies, subsidies and laws.”[5]

It follows from the quotations above that a field of tension undoubtedly exists between the foreign perception of Dutch social achievements and the appreciation in the Netherlands itself for what through centuries has been built up. Although Lootsma here and there drops a critical note, the contemporary reader does not get the impression that he was fully aware at the time of many of the negative aspects of globalization, privatization, or the opening up of markets. It is furthermore suggested that the Dutch state did not have any alternative options to the shedding of tasks and services and privatization . This is a gross misconception; it is not as if ‘Europe’ ever demanded of the Netherlands to decentralize urban planning. This was a political choice.

Railway station Zaanstad redevelopment (Sjoerd Soeters). Photo: Frits de Jong

Railway station Zaanstad redevelopment (Sjoerd Soeters). Photo: Frits de Jong

By putting Van Eesteren forward Koolhaas aimed to emphasize a suffocating aspect of the Dutch planning compulsion; this is too short-sighted and too negative, however. A characteristic of the Dutch organizational obsession is that on the basis of a wide consensus a balance is sought between economic and social interests[6]. Our long social tradition has since the Dutch Golden Age been driven by both social consciousness and economic motives.

That foreigners were regularly amazed by the attention, and resources, expended on creating an orderly, well-equipped, and smooth-functioning system of old-age and sick care, and poor relief, is undeniable. But charity and compassion, it should be noted, were not the sole motives which went into producing this result. In fact, the Dutch civic welfare system was a product of numerous social, economic, religious, and cultural goals and priorities and it is this broad background which made the Dutch system at once incomparable and inimitable.”[7]

The previously used anecdote of the socialist council member who visits America to get to know the ropes of neo-liberal urban planning is to me an apt illustration of the morbid Dutch passion to conform and to be a pet student[8]. Hulsman thus typifies in Double Dutch the period after 1985 as ‘the normalization of Dutch architecture[9], with which is not only inferred that the Netherlands are now finally in step with globalization, but also that postmodernism has become a fait accompli. With such a superficial and uncritical reading a new low has been reached in Dutch architectural discourse, and I would like, just as Koolhaas did years before to me, to make a call to architectural practice in the Netherlands to critically reflect on the golden years since 1985 and to formulate a vision on where to go from here.

With reflection I most certainly do not mean the superficial observation that postmodernism finally has arrived in the Netherlands, that we are finally free to build ‘modernism without dogma[10]’, or more nihilistic still, that now “anything goes[11]. I think that we need to rise above these shallow stylistic qualifications and establish that the construction fever was fed by a self-destructive economic model. In addition, I pose that architecture is a reflection of values which a society holds and that, by extension, architects have a public responsibility to question the prevailing status quo.

The 'Rotterdam', Rotterdam, OMA. Photo Raban Haaijk

The ‘Rotterdam’, Rotterdam, OMA. Photo Raban Haaijk

How can it be that leading economists such as Joseph Stiglitz convincingly argue that a well-functioning government is needed to stabilize ‘the market’[12], but that the Dutch government still eagerly relinquishes the means to exert any kind of control of the construction industry and housing production? I refer here naturally to the further weakening of social housing corporations with a ‘corporation tax’ of 1.7 billion Euros, the abolition of the ministry of urban planning and the environment (VROM), and the drastic cuts to education and cultural budgets. How can it be that meanwhile architects and critics lose themselves in fretting over ‘fusion’[13], neo-traditionalism and neo-modernism? Are there not more urgent matters which cry out for a solution?

To give but one example: the Netherlands have dropped from 31st to 49th place on the Climate Change Performance Index.[14] To put this in a larger context, this is slightly better than China (54) and a lot worse than Denmark (4) and Germany (8). It is therefore justified and hopeful that the Dutch state has recently been summoned  in court by a class action lawsuit, because it falls short of combating climate change.[15]

In 1990 Koolhaas called for a ‘revision of the Dutch concept’, and I argue that such a revision could consist of a rediscovery of ideas which have since long been part of the make-up of Dutch identity, and which have unrightfully, or too early been relegated to the dustbin. This revision will undoubtedly be painful as it entails sustained fighting against vested interests and dysfunctional economic dogma. I am convinced that activism and engagement of citizens needs to increase. It is worth to embark upon this uncertain adventure, not in the least since so many odds are at stake.

Utopias are not the real fantasy, but our current reality of private property, waste and inconspicuous consumption is. The 21st century will have to bear witness to unrestrained experimentation to formulate and achieve a new balance between humans and nature. Architects, roll up your sleeves!; make a start by writing angry letters, organizing petitions or starting a conversation with the (leftist) representative in your borough.


[1] Bernard Hulsman is the architectural critic of NRC Handelsblad, NRC Next, a right of center daily in the Netherlands.

[2] Rem Koolhaas,’Hoe modern is de Nederlandse architectuur?’, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 1990, p.18-19, translation by author.

[3] Ibid., p.12

[4] Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture – A Critical History, Thames & Hudson, London, Third edition, 1992, reprinted 2002, p.330

[5] Bart Lootsma, Superdutch – New Architecture in the Netherlands, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, p.21

[6] This is usually referred to as the ‘polder model’.

[7] Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic – Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995, paperback with corrections, 1998, p.355

[8] I refer here to the post-war tendency in Dutch politics to rarely ever challenge US imperialism and, in the European context, to be one of the staunchest advocates of fiscal austerity.

[9] Bernard Hulsman, Double Dutch – Nederlandse architectuur na 1985, Nai010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2013, p.188

[10] Modernism without dogma (Modernisme zonder dogma) refers to a book by Hans Ibelings, published in 1991 by Nai Publishers, in which the generation of emerging Dutch architects such as Mecanoo, MVRDV and Neutelings & Riedijk are typified as applying modernism without the ideological moral constraints of the heroic period.

[11] Bernard Hulsman, Double Dutch – Nederlandse architectuur na 1985, Nai010 Uitgevers, Rotterdam, 2013, p.188

[12] Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall – America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2010, p.201 “Economists have developed a short list of instances where markets fail – where social and private incentives are not well aligned – that account for a large fraction of the important failures.”

The creation of too many externalities, a word to describe the socialization of the costs of economic production and the privatization of its profits, is perceived by Stiglitz as a systemic failure of markets.

[13] Fusion is a term used by the Dutch architect Wilfried van Winden to avoid using the term postmodernism. The website of WAM architecten states (http://www.wam-architecten.nl/fusion/index.php, accessed March 09, 2014:

“FUSION is geen stijl maar een houding; een strategie van de open geest, die geen taboes aanvaardt”,  aldus architect Wilfried van Winden. De toenemende diversiteit van culturen en subculturen in de moderne samenleving vraagt om een nieuwe architectonische strategie. FUSION staat voor een inventieve wijze van mengen en verbinden van heden en verleden, van Oost en West, van traditie en vernieuwing, van high en low culture.”

“FUSION is not a style, but an attitude; strategy of an open mind, which does not accept any taboos”, according to Wilfried van Winden. The increasing diversity of cultures and subcultures in modern society requires a new architectonic strategy. FUSION means to mix and connect of the present and the past, of East and West, of tradition and innovation, of high and low culture.”

[14] <germanwatch.org/en/download/7158.pdf> accessed December 2013.

[15] <www.urgenda.nl/actueel/nieuws/> accessed December 2013

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About thomaswensing

Architect and Activist. Over the years I have become increasingly aware that I need to actively engage with the issues I care about. My passions and irritations are many and change often, but a red thread is always a deep concern over the fact that capitalism does not work as it is claimed it does, democracies only serve the needs of the few and environmental resource depletion and pressures continue to mount. I think it is time for citizen's activism to create pressure, to bang on the doors of established powers and interests until we get it right. As you will notice, if you continue to follow my blog over time, there are certain fetishes I have; modernism, social housing, the avant-garde. I propose to recuperate the Modern Project from the dustbin of history and re-establish the link between social engagement and architecture. Watch it all come down needs to be followed by let the good stuff blossom!

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