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Archis 2001 #4

Coming soon. Blind spots in the design factory

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In a large hall on the ground floor of the building were the entries for Archiprix, Archiprix International, the Prix de Rome Architecture, and the Prix de Rome Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, as well as those for the Europan sites in the Netherlands.

Assembled thus in a single space was an enormous quantity of work by young architects: Archiprix is the annual competition for graduation projects by students attending Dutch design courses, Archiprix International is a new global version of Archiprix, the Prix de Rome prizes are awarded to designers no older than 35 and the age limit for participation in Europan is 40. So for two months the Van Nelle Factory – itself blessed with eternal youth, only the surrounding world has aged considerably – served as a youth centre for architecture, a platform for design talent and a showcase for architectural education.

Archiprix

This year the Archiprix jury received twenty-six schemes from the six design courses in the Netherlands. Twenty of these projects were by architecture students, one was a graduation design by a landscape architect, the other five schemes were by students on urban design or urban design and architecture courses. For all the blurring of the boundaries between these disciplines, this imbalance can hardly be called satisfactory. Evidently, the participating institutions were themselves of the opinion that their study programmes for urban design and landscape architecture had produced few arresting results. What is gratifying, however, is that many of the schemes submitted addressed socially relevant subjects for which innovative practical solutions have been sought. Various designs focused on the re-use of existing buildings and many proposals explored new dwelling typologies in order, among other things, to answer the growing need to combine living and working under a single roof. A striking number of projects were concerned, directly or indirectly, with the consolidation and intensification of urban areas.

The jury awarded three honourable mentions and a first and a second prize. First prize went to the design ‘Maison fleximum’ by Angie Abbink, a graduate of the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture. It consists of two highly flexible housing designs geared to the individualization and changeability of contemporary living. The capricious biographies of twenty-first century city dwellers are answered in this design with interim modifications to the floor plan and cross-section of the dwelling. In Abbink’s ‘lift dwelling’ this has been made possible by means of a system of adjustable floors which move along vertical rails.

Second prize was awarded to the design ‘Silo’ by the Delft architecture student Marten de Jong. He produced a startling scheme in which a silo in Rotterdam’s Rijnhaven has been given a new use as a multi-functional centre for the city’s Chinese community. The essence of this scheme is the deceptively simple fact that its author had an eye for the wealth of spatial effects present in the old silo. Honourable mentions went to ‘Sixteen Volumes of Reflection’ by the Delft students Hanneke van Wel and Gert Anninga, to ‘V-Low Track’ by the Amsterdam Academy student Eddy Verbeek and to ‘MS2G’ by the Tilburg students Hans van Loon and Marco Visser. ‘Sixteen Volumes’ is a proposal, inspired by Hejduk, for the construction of sixteen houses, each of which thematizes a different aspect of living. The houses, including a sleeping house, an observation house and a relationship house, are strung out across the centre of Rotterdam according to a grid pattern and are intended to astonish passers-by and to prompt them to ask questions. ‘V-Low Track’ is a reclining bicycle and skeeler complex projected in the Spaarnwoude recreational area and consists of two open-air circuits of different length and a plectrum-shaped building housing two indoor tracks and facilities.

What strikes one about the jury’s preference is that with this allocation of prizes it not only expressed its appreciation of flawless, skilful and beautifully detailed spatial designs such as this last proposal. Of course, the jury was looking for such qualities, but it was also, thankfully, interested in more exploratory, experimental and adventurous schemes. The fact that the jury can afford to do this would seem to say something about architectural education in the Netherlands. The latter is evidently such that a competition for graduation projects can be more than a straightforward evaluation in which the feasibility of the schemes and the extent to which graduates are ready to function in their profession is examined. To judge by this edition of Archiprix, one can say that Dutch architecture courses nurture talented designers who, ideally, address socially relevant subjects, ask good questions, carry out thorough research and produce startling, innovative solutions, which are then given form in a way which attests to considerable design talent. This goes a long way towards giving the country’s architectural education a clean bill of health.

The work on show for Archiprix International, the first edition of a competition for which design institutions around the world were invited to submit graduation projects, was so diverse that it could not possibly result in a comparable evaluation. Among the hundreds of entries submitted, it was the schemes that were obviously from non-Western European design cultures which stood out the most. These included striking proposals with which the designers seemed to be concerned primarily with attracting a wealthy client, perhaps out of concern for their own career prospects. Glossy emerald green sketches for a luxury marina in South-East Asia or, from the former Soviet republics, plans for pompous centres for technology, for the young, or for both, failed to rise above the level of flashy property development projects. Another category was the schemes which, in an honourable but sometimes naive way, tried to deal with intractable local problems; for example, ‘Casa Gaia’ by the Mexican Edith Gallardo del Angel. This by no means innovatory proposal for ecologically sound, small-scale housing for the poorest of the urban poor showed at a glance the enormous gulf that exists between the design cultures and tasks in different parts of the world.

Prix de Rome

Because Archiprix is connected with graduation this competition always has a rather innocuous and festive character. The Prix de Rome, by contrast, is a highly serious affair. Following the French example, this prestigious prize for architecture and the visual arts was established in the Netherlands in 1817. Since 1985 it has been organized by the State Academy for the Visual Arts in Amsterdam. The trajectory of Prix de Rome consists of a preliminary and a final round. Those who reach the final round receive a cash prize, acquire fame and embark upon what generally stands every chance of becoming a brilliant career.

In the case of the current entrants for the Prix de Rome Architecture, however, that chance would seem to be smaller than usual from the outset. At least, that is what one can infer from the unmistakable minor key of the jury’s report for this category. Because of the enormous pressure of work in architectural firms, there were fewer entries for the preliminary round than five years ago – although the decrease was not as dramatic as in the category Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, where the number of entries decreased by as much as fifty per cent. The jury also voiced their disappointment about the general level of the entries and noted that design skills and conceptual quality rarely went together in the proposals, which is why they expressed their concern about the quality of architectural education. It was only after some hesitation that a first prize was awarded in this category. One of the jury members expressed the qualified enthusiasm thus: ‘The winner is an excellent representative of the architecture of today. Only, we had hoped to discover the architecture of tomorrow in one of the designs’.

In the final round, participants were asked to produce a design for the site of the former CSM sugar factory in Halfweg. The programme for this transformation comprised a pop music centre, a multi-modal interchange and an entrance complex for the neighbouring recreational area, De Houtrak. Several monumental buildings on the site were to be retained and the proposal had to be embedded in a strategic development plan for the entire area between Amsterdam and Haarlem. The task was clearly not lacking in landscape and urban design aspects, a sensible decision in a competition which still maintains the increasingly precarious dividing line between the various spatial design disciplines. So it was most unfortunate that the jury, having evaluated the results, were forced to observe that the spatial vision at a higher level of scale was mostly lacking.

Provided the designers presented convincing arguments, they were allowed to ignore functions in the programme or to add new ones. In a programmatic sense, thus, the door had been left open, as the jury duly discovered. Although few, if any, arguments were in fact supplied, the four participants submitted proposals in which large-scale entertainment functions predominate. Gianni Cito designed the winning scheme ‘Superbowl’, an enormous amusement centrifuge comprising a large building composed of spiral-shapes surrounded by a series of round and oval basin-shaped spaces in the open air. The bowls contain areas for sports and cultural events, the building houses theatres and facilities. On the west side, the building’s spiral structure opens out into a colossal stacking of balconies, which can be equipped as stages and which overlook the site below.

The design ‘Urban Affairs Diorama’ by Theo Hauben, which won second prize, opts for a less unambiguous spatial articulation than Cito’s plan but, if possible, bears an even closer resemblance to a theme park – Hauben himself describes it as an ‘Amusement park of parking garages’. In this proposal the requested multi-modal interchange takes the form of a series of parking garages from where visitors can transfer directly to bikes, skeelers, boats or horses. The journey to and from the parking space has been designed as an attraction designated by the term ‘fun riding’. The ground level has the character of a wasteland where what the designer calls ‘noise recreation’ takes place.

In the preliminary round, the international jury of the Prix de Rome Urban Design and Landscape Architecture asked designers to improve the social ambience of a filling station on the A 44 near Sassenheim and to transform this isolated stopping place into a new type of public space. In the final round, the jury asked the four designers to devise a development strategy for Westland, a market gardening area near The Hague. They were asked to choose between a future for Westland as a revamped market gardening area or as a multifunctional area with space for housing and recreation.

In the preliminary round, Paul Toornend produced a design in which individual self-service units have been positioned close to each other within a neutral interface. The minimal collectivity which results from this random assemblage is thematized in an alienating way by means of an aesthetic manipulation using reflective surfaces. In his proposal ‘Allocated Grounds’ for the final round, the redisposition of land ownership is the pivot of Westland’s transformation. By focusing on the ownership question, Toornend seems to be underlining the fact that the organization of space is a political issue – something which is easily overlooked today.

In his proposals, Jago van Bergen, last year a participant in Archiprix, introduces a symbiosis of landscape and market gardening industry by, among other things, placing the glasshouses inside small power stations which use crops from the surrounding fields as fuel. This gives rise to an exciting production ecology in which the balance between economy and landscape improves and, last but not least, there is ‘ample space for recreation’. The jury awarded second prize to this scheme.

First prize in this category went to John Lonsdale. In the preliminary round he submitted a scheme with minimal modifications to the landscape in the form of almost reluctant suggestions for a recreational colonization by mud waders, motocross riders and ultralight pilots. The project ‘Shifting Horizons’, with which Lonsdale won the final round, seeks to bring to life the landscape which lies hidden beneath the concrete floors of the glasshouse area. In this respect it is remarkably reminiscent of the May 1968 slogan ‘Sous la pavée la plage’ and the long gone hope that through the rehabilitation of landscape horizons and forces of nature some form of alienation can be counteracted. If this is the echo of a revolutionary inspiration then it is all the more remarkable that in this design it must finally result in what Lonsdale describes as ‘the emergence of a new recreational horizon’. The timeworn remnants of the major stories of a bygone age are deployed in order to increase the experiential value of the landscape.

All four finalists in this category submitted audacious, highly imaginative and intelligent proposals. Unfortunately, Toornend is the only one who has anything interesting to say about the problem of collectivity and the meaning of public space in a society of individualized consumers. His design for the preliminary round confronts us with the sad aporia that dominates this issue with an absurd theatre of the post-social, fragmented society. The other participants produced designs which, with all their scope for recreational amusement, remarkably often tend towards carefree fun landscapes whose own emptiness is not open to discussion.

Europan

Also on show in Rotterdam were the prize-winning entries for the Dutch locations in the sixth Europan competition. The theme of this pan-European housing competition, which gives the winners a real opportunity to realize their designs, was the ‘hybridization of the city’. Some of the Dutch sites already had a very varied and ambiguous character. For the others, the aim was to improve them through ‘hybridizing’ interventions. Once again, the Dutch projects were very popular: 243 entries were submitted for the five sites in Groningen, Apeldoorn, Lelystad, Amsterdam North and Hoogvliet. Nine of the schemes were eventually awarded a prize. A first and a second prize went to all of the locations apart from Lelystad. After much humming and hawing, the jury did finally award a first prize, but did not consider any of the proposals to be worthy of a second prize.

The prize-winning Europan entries illustrate the extent to which dwelling has become a lifestyle phenomenon in the Netherlands. If we take these designs as a reflection of reality, then housing construction in the Netherlands today is building for a critical housing consumer who can only be seduced with symbols of luxury, comfort and refined modish styling. The winning proposal by Judith Kurpershoek and Jan-Richard Kikkert for the site in Amsterdam North looks like a trendy, but programmatically very cleverly elaborated MVRDV clone. The living space in this building, which also houses offices, a drive-in cinema, a panorama restaurant and a motel, divides into nine compartments each of which caters to a different lifestyle. In Hoogvliet, second prize was awarded to the project ‘Best of both’ in which each apartment, which covers an entire floor in a slender residential tower, has its own summer house in the surrounding green space. With the aid of a catalogue the apartments can be tailored to individual requirements. The winning scheme for Groningen by Elena Casanova and Jesus Hernandez laces together luxury dwellings with a glazed void over three storeys to form a horizontal series of billboards which advertise the lives of residents like exclusive brands.

As well as providing enormous inspiration, the combined harvest of all these design competitions also gives rise to the lament that it seems as if certain social developments are scarcely being questioned by young architects and other spatial designers. Only the very best designers do that; a much larger group thinks that the work is finished the moment a creative spatial solution has been found for today’s practical problems. Theoretical problems that do not so much require a solution as a spatial articulation as problem, await examination and thematization in vain. Designers are blithely embracing the leisure time and amusement culture and no questions are asked about architecture’s mandate in this expanding force field. The same applies to the transformation of the collective lifestyle under the influence of increased prosperity, consumerism and the conception of life as life-style, as it does to the problem of the public or collective space in an individualized consumer society. It is certainly not the case that young designers and those within architectural education do not reflect and theorize, but there are painful gaps in this activity. A glance inside the Van Nelle Factory, which this summer was the showcase of architectural education, reveals that Dutch design culture has numerous blind spots. It is up to the design courses to widen the theoretical horizon of young designers so that architecture can provide society not only with clever and attractive solutions, but also with critical questions and comments.

The following websites feature material from the competitions discussed:
www.archined.nl/news/endex.html
www.archined.nl/archiprix/frontpage.html
www.archiprix.org
www.archined.nl/europan-nl/europan_e.html
www.prixderome.nl/eindex.html