Archis 2002 #4

Dutch freak show (editorial)

— by

History does not stand still. The Netherlands, famous for its social cohesiveness and tolerance, has changed. Or rather, is in the process of rediscovering another typical trait. Moralizing finger wagging. There’s no shortage of targets at the present moment. Suddenly there are countless examples of moral decline for people to get worked up about: politicians who cling tenaciously to office even while penning confidential memos to the effect that they don’t believe in their own policy, company directors who reward themselves with extended share options and golden handshakes or even perpetrate a fraud so huge that it bankrupts their company. Construction companies that form covert monopolies so that they can charge whatever they like – and do so, with stagnation as the result. A new currency that is misused here and there to push up prices. A government that only resigns when it no longer matters. And, of course, The Murder in the name of nothing, but committed, so we are constantly reminded, by an environmental activist. The country is turning into a freak show presented in and by countless media. The standard injunction to ‘act your normal crazy self’ has lost its punch. There’s no limit to the craziness nowadays. Corruption, incompetence, short-sightedness, greed, nepotism, take your pick. Every day on every page of every newspaper. No sense of standards, no notion of public duty and no self-criticism. It conjures up farcical visions of more and more investigative committees with more and more scandals to investigate. One thing’s for certain, if things go on like this, we’re going to run out of committee members.

The freak show’s ground plan is called The New Map of the Netherlands. This map shows what all this means in terms of demands on space. It is becoming increasingly clear that the so-called polder model of recent years, the consensus-seeking game in which all parties could at least have their say, was merely a smokescreen for what was really going on. The emphasis on procedures obscured our view of reality. For years people have been talking about the content, reach and implementation of a Fifth National Policy Document on Spatial Planning. All the big guns were rolled out to say their piece on the subject. And just at the very moment when a decision was to have been taken, the electorate made a very different decision. Voters punished the foot-dragging and may in turn themselves be punished before very long when it becomes apparent just how much scope for private initiatives the present interregnum has spawned. Then that map really will be the Full-up Map of the Netherlands.

The task for the coming years is huge. That is to say, there is an awful lot to be done, and an awful lot to be left undone. The latter requires if possible even more effort, insight and design ingenuity. The polder model generated an explosion of innovative concepts, ingenious studies, large-scale plans and a great deal of debate. In architecture it also led to a wealth of forms with which a new generation has been able to prove itself. But in responding to the task on the scale at which it must be formulated, everything is still up for grabs. The only problem is that this task has yet to be named.

The architectural dimension of culture
When the contours of a national architectural policy were being drawn up ten years ago, there was a concept that was served up as a panacea for the over-rationalized building industry: the cultural dimension of architecture. It had made its first appearance during the urban renewal campaign of the 1970s and from there went on to star in an unprecedented architectural policy, resulting in a cultural infrastructure the successes of which are now consumed worldwide. Architecture was culture and was vigorously propagated as such. It became an essential part of the cultural sector, with all the publicity that entails. Architects, their buildings and their books; institutes, their conferences and their exhibitions; an endless stream of activities, overfull diaries and bulging portfolios and trophy-cabinets. The world looked on in amazement and then hesitantly followed suit. Now the success of Dutch architecture has resulted in a genuine brand name: Superdutch. A number of architects were presented as official representatives of this brand and their work is now, as behoves genuine brands, being shamelessly plagiarized and marketed as the real thing: Dutch regulars. There are even architectural practices where you can get all the regulars at the same time.

The social relevance of architecture in the Netherlands during the last ten years has consisted in catering to a desire for diversity and individuality (under the guise or motto of the dissemination of culture) in a society that had persistently denied and suppressed this desire. As a result, architecture was highly visible and omnipresent. Many Dutch architects responded to the new market situation by drastically revising their approach, office organization, concepts and products. But did their problem-solving prowess also extend to the identification of problems, given that the old architectural ambition to intervene directly in society has been mothballed these many decades? Scarcely. The big debates about the tasks confronting this country, this region and this world – migration, mobility, ageing, congestion, new lifestyles, depletion of natural resources, digitalization, biotechnology and the like – even though they all have serious spatial implications, have had to make do without much input from architecture. Which is why architecture has been largely oblivious to the growing dissatisfaction in Dutch society. Architecture did not act as an interpreter for all those who responded to the big ‘State of the Nation’ survey (carried out by the associated press service, GPD, at the end of 2001) with a litany of complaints about safety, education, transport, health care and other public sectors. On the contrary, if it represented anyone, it tended to be those who had been insufficiently receptive to the growing disgruntlement.

In other words, architecture is pretty good at borrowing from culture, but has so far not done much in return. For a country that has scored so many successes by virtue of its design, that is a paradoxical, and in the long run unsatisfactory, state of affairs.