Archis 2004 #5

From European city to Vinex fortress. New traditionalism in the Netherlands

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Throughout the world, the Netherlands is still seen as an unprecedentedly modern country. However, while a few Dutch architects are scoring triumphs with dazzling images of their work and high-flown analyses, it seems that what still remains of Dutch public housing and urbanism is exhibiting increasingly traditional features. This current traditionalism is even more problematic than previous phenomena covered by this term. It appears to invent traditions rather than refer to any tradition. This impression is further reinforced by the fact that foreign architects feature prominently in this new traditionalism. The following quotation from the prolific architect Rob Krier is characteristic: ‘We are on such lonely guard duty with the defense of traditional urban design that I find it is a wonder that in the Netherlands of all places, one of the most progressive and modern countries in Europe, this theme is not only openly and seriously discussed, but also put to the test.(2)


The testing does indeed take place, but it is highly questionable whether an open and serious debate about traditionalism really is being conducted here. It is the case rather that in the stream of subsidized or sponsored publications, increasing attention is being given to ‘New Traditionalists’ working in the Netherlands. It’s OK to build it, it’s OK to show it, it is in a certain sense ‘the done thing’, while with the exception of market and ideological arguments, few words are wasted on it. High time then that we examine the results of recent years and look for assessment criteria for the buildings and districts shortly to be completed. To what extent, for example, do clients and designers seriously try to tie in with traditions in architecture as a designing discipline? Or do they rather try to associate more generally with the characteristics of a built environment which has evolved slowly over time?

 

Tradition in urban design

More and more urban design schemes are being produced which at any rate seek to give the impression that they fit in with a premodern tradition in Europe, in the Netherlands or even in a region of the Netherlands. In addition, a curious phenomenon can be observed: the images seem to be more traditional and even more regional the less tradition there is in the landscape and in the building task for direct association.

This development can be seen in three projects by Rob Krier, in an inner-city setting, a restructuring area and a new suburb. The Resident (1998-2002) in the centre of The Hague is full of startling new urban forms – at any rate for the Netherlands. The buildings designed by various architects under Krier’s supervision in this new area of the city do tie in with tried and tested solutions elsewhere in the world, but precisely because of the seemingly familiar forms they succeed in introducing a well-nigh totally new size and scale for The Hague.

The Meander Project (1995-2004) in Amsterdam involved the restructuring of a former industrial site into a residential area surrounded by existing residential areas. In the plan of the city, the scheme appears to be no more than a variant of the perimeter blocks in the immediate vicinity. In the vertical elevation, however, the housing blocks turn out to be considerably higher. The aim of the scheme is compelling. With their tower forms, the inverted, meandering façade frontages on the water have a picturesque monumentality, which as regards scale and effect put Sitte, much admired by Krier, in the shade. On the city side, the superstructure is imposing and classical and seems to seek to link up rather with Behrendt’s ‘einheitliche Blockfront’ and perhaps even with Berlagian blocks.(3) However, this has all worked out differently in the final result. There is no more than a suggestion of the arcades in the original design. In terms of traditional compositional theory, the façade sections are incomprehensible and unbalanced. The entrances to the dwellings are hidden away under the rhythm of the façade elements rather than forming the basis of the composition.

Krier goes a step further in his plan for Brandevoort (1996-), Helmond’s newest urban extension, which he himself emphatically presents as a ‘New Town’. The plan seeks to follow the development lines of the previous Report on Spatial Planning, in which it was suggested that with regard to the province of Brabant, urban centres should be provided with a periphery of districts with their own identity – a development pattern which was standard practice well into the 1950s. In effect, Krier has situated a simulation of such a growth pattern of a small urban centre among the existing urban centres. The scheme comprises what he himself calls a Brabant ‘fortified town’, bolted onto which are a number of ‘expansion districts’. It is striking that this attempt to design stratification which usually evolves over time has scarcely been mentioned in the critical evaluations of Brandevoort. Critics have written primarily about the possibility and desirability of offering the housing consumer ‘canal houses’ as a product. A previous innovation, the new-build in ‘thirties style’ (in reality garden village types in pseudo-Wrightian guise) now ubiquitous for many years, has been virtually ignored by the critics but has been incorporated into estate agents’ jargon. Critics of urban and landscape development have always been explicitly negative about what they call ‘farmettes’, detached houses with thatched or tiled roofs and equipped with both mullion and panorama windows, which create the illusion of a renovated farmhouse. They suddenly appeared on the market when there were no longer enough farmhouses and farm workers’ cottages to satisfy the demand of city-dwellers who wished to move to the country. In Helmond, Krier unblushingly includes this type as a pseudo-time layer around his pseudo-fortified town. However, anyone who pays attention to details or looks behind the façade sees how thin the layer of convention is and that in reality this is modern housing, entirely in conformity with the Vinex.

 

Typological tradition

What is striking is that the new traditionalism is definitely not averse to typological innovations. Floor plans and cross-sections are often highly inventive, and voids and open staircases are not eschewed in family dwellings. In the blocks, too, the design is often imaginative and certainly does not hark back to historical examples. For example, traffic flow and parking are sometimes cleverly dealt with. In addition, forms are employed which appear familiar but which are scarcely found in large European cities, let alone in the small Dutch towns which the projects pretend to conform to.

The lack of interest in tieing in with a tradition of the Dutch interior can perhaps be explained by the fact that many of the designers involved maintain that they are seeking to create an interior of the city with the façade frontages. Can mass housing be reconciled with the urban by means of an aesthetically and socially acceptable public space? Just as in the first half of the last century, architects who seek to add on and ‘reconstruct’ appear to be answering this question in the affirmative once again.

Architects are thus unconsciously linking up with the modern tradition in Dutch urbanism and even with the patriarch Berlage. Berlage deployed the same strategy and tactics as new traditionalism in two ways – in particular in the South Plan (Nieuw Zuid), which Krier sees as one of the last successful attempts to retain the size of the European city while at the same time meeting the requirements of the new age.(4) In Nieuw Zuid, Berlage could scarcely do more than model the open spaces and control the façade composition, at any rate on the street side. In order to preserve a measure of unity in the image of Amsterdam, he had to make a counterform of the existing city the principal form. Linking up with the street plan of semi-concentric canals would literally have stretched the plan too far.(5) Control of the material and scale in the detailing of the façades was evidently enough to prevent the plan being seen as a break with the tradition of the ‘Dutch city’.(6) This makes the fact all the more striking that towards the end of the last century attempts were made to safeguard a tradition of a ‘European city’ by placing architects under the strict supervision of the city plan. Presumably this was because there was no consensus at the level of typology, nor in the deployment of devices to articulate the façade. And the situation is still the same today.

 

Region and ego

It is not the case that only foreigners are seeking to engage with a possible tradition of the nineteenth-century European city. With his plan for the Céramique site (masterplan 1991) in Maastricht, Jo Coenen, who at the time emphatically presented himself as ‘not born in Holland’, resolutely sought to link up with this tradition. Long sight lines and large perimeter blocks characterized the original plan. Coenen modernized his plan considerably over time. This was partly due to the contribution of the participating, mainly foreign, architects, who were then called ‘neo-rationalists’ and ‘critical regionalists’, to the officials involved and the clients, but also to the personal development of Coenen and his office. Lastly, requirements with regard to sunlighting, the search for a successful combination of saleable and rentable spaces and an adequate traffic flow resulted in the opening up of the blocks, and the central boulevard became less unambiguous partly as a consequence. Coenen opted for a different strategy in The Hague, where for Vaillantlaan (1989) he literally designed a construction kit, which meant that a uniformity of architectural devices would be employed in the façade designs. It was an attempt at composing an alphabet which was intended as a regional variant of the traditional visual idiom.(7)

Less ambitious and at first sight far more reassuring for local residents were the proposals Charles Vandenhove made round about the same time in Maastricht (1988-1999) and The Hague (1987-1998), and later in Amsterdam (1996-1999). But the strong and weak sides of his visual idiom can be seen most clearly in the Law Courts/Palais de Justice in Den Bosch (1992-1998). Because of its size, this building is more reminiscent of a small classical city than a ‘palais’. All of the elements from Vandenhove’s earlier work are present and are draped like a cloth over the complex programme in an almost whimsical way, including rustication on the ground floor and the curious personal variant of the Ionic order. As with most of Vandenhove’s projects, the exterior is restrained and more effective than the fiercely competing façades by more contemporary architects. Here too, the most fascinating feature is the large inner court, with the rather contrived division by two pavilions and the remarkable gesture of classical theatre forms which form light hollows for the basement.

Clearly, Rob Krier is seeking on the one hand to avoid the competition of unique solutions, but on the other hand he does not wish to retreat behind an almost anonymous exterior. Beginning with the Resident in The Hague, he seeks to arrive at rules of play whereby the various participating architects show each other to better advantage. The ingenious covering which is folded over the meagre core of the Dutch building market makes it clear that here a total composition has been sought, whereby art and architecture are integrated in the Gesamtkunstwerk.

The office Soeters Van Eldonk and Ponec has changed considerably as a result of working under Krier. Following The Hague experience, they have shown, both in Amsterdam and in Den Bosch, that a Dutch office is also adept at sketching main lines and can achieve variation and recognition through rules of play. Only the invented context is somewhat thinner and lighter, and the masterplans appear to invite the participating architects to strike a false note now and then. The urban design scheme for Java Island (1989-2000) clearly refers to Amsterdam’s canals and, by sprinkling a number of standard designs along the small canals there, seeks to achieve a comparable variation and recognizable similarities in the layout of the façade. The remnants of the lost world of shipping and trade with its grand scale and its drabness, the original development of storage and transhipment warehouses, have thus been effectively erased. Soeters’s plan in Den Bosch, Haverlij (1995-2008), with its series of castle forms as an alternative to the endless terraced housing, has already been discussed in the Archis magazine.(8) Then, the infilling of the largest isolated pseudo-historical area – so-called ‘Haverleij Castle’ – by Krier (now under Soeters’s supervision) had yet to begin.

 

Lifestyle

What is interesting about the Haverleij Project is that it involves not only artificial, isolated neighbourhoods with their own form and possibly even their own character – this was introduced much earlier, with great success with the public at large, in Kattenbroek near Amersfoort. By explicitly referring to castles in the floor plans while allowing the architects considerable freedom in working up the designs in the third dimension, we sometimes see a tension which suggests that the fourth dimension – time – also plays a role. Krier goes furthest in this in his sub-plan. He creates pseudo-medieval street frontages, towers and gateways on the model of a slightly disturbed Roman castellum and even surrounds it with pseudo-seventeenth-century ramparts and bulwarks. In addition, in several places iron structures have expressly been left in view. As a result, we see that the work is unintentionally beginning to acquire a different character. After Haverleij, the surprising combination of different architectures from different periods is featuring increasingly prominently in places where identity has to be created out of nothing.

Batavia Harbour near Lelystad is the most recent and extreme example, but Vleuterweide (2000-) is more interesting. It seems that – via Graves? – the EuroDisney strategy has been chosen. Unlike in California, Florida or Japan, in Europe, with the châteaux of the Loire and Ludwig II’s castles just round the corner, a rather exaggerated collage of copies would not do. Disney’s Paris castle is a hybrid of archetypes and theories of the ‘gothic’ organic, from Viollet-le-Duc to Gaudi, gone berserk. In a similar way, in Vleuterweide, between medieval Utrecht and the pseudo-medieval castle and village of Haarzuilens (designed in the late nineteenth century by P.J.H. Cuypers), Krier had to be more creative than his theory proclaimed. In addition, an abundance of water and an express bus route were factors preventing a standard solution for this sub-centre in the largest Vinex development in the Netherlands. An octopus in the water eventually became the basic form, bolted onto which is the whole gamut of sombre and imposing buildings and urban spaces. What already appeared to be beginning in the Resident is even more pronounced here: the décor buildings are now so suggestive that it is as if we have to take part in a cartoon by Casterman or in a dystopic science fiction film.

After such associations, the aforementioned Brandevoort presents itself as a fairytale for all ages. This is emphasized by a curious film which serves as an introduction to the cd-rom with information for the housing market. It begins with a nineteenth-century costume piece for the first houses, which are vaguely reminiscent of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tradition, to be completed in the ‘fortress’. The nineteenth-century figures then disappear, and more and more standard Vinex residents appear in view. Is that then all there is? The danger for neo-traditionalism is that its ideals (or at any rate preoccupations) are seen by clients and users merely as a pretext for a décor alongside many other possible décors for the many lifestyles from which we can choose. Then what is attractive about the ostensibly old is that it is new without being disquieting.

 

Alternatives to superficiality

This development no longer has anything to do with the old traditionalism of the Delft School, or with the aim of an exhibition such as ‘Holland Builds in Brick’ of 1941. These were manifestations of a resistance to mass building production which seemed to be limitless. At the same time, it was a quest for an individual identity without lapsing into imitation of a past that was gone forever.(9) Today, too, most traditionalists and even most rationalists still see mass production as the ‘enemy’ – or at any rate they would like to make the scale of the production ‘invisible’. With the current superficial view of history, these issues will not be solved. However, inspiration could be drawn from a more profound understanding of the relevant traditions. Most traditional-looking districts still lack a more than arbitrary beginning and end. Reflection on the current arbitrary forms is needed. At the time, the clearest wish of the ‘users of the new architecture’ could be described as follows: to build in such a way that a line from the past to the future can be discerned, so that people can still feel at home in the present. There are signs that, for example, through education, tentative steps are being taken towards a reappraisal of this body of thought. Thus, the publication Honderd jaar Nederlandse architectuur (One Hundred Years of Dutch Architecture) begins with a chapter on traditionalism with ‘serious examples from home and abroad’, but as alternative movements, the two authors, Delft professors, also name expressionism, functionalism, rationalism and postmodernism.(10) All too often, however, arbitrary ambiences from the ‘vernacular’ which has still not been included in history, such as pseudo-American suburbs or Provençal towns, are being sold as traditionalism – as, for example, in parts of Ypenburg.

In order to get out of this blind alley, more knowledge and information about the traditions of ‘traditionalism’ are needed. In addition, research into Granpré Molière, which places emphasis on his theory and practice as an evolutionary modernist and less on his position as an opponent of revolutionary modernization, is desirable. The aim of this architecture, urbanism and even landscape design was radical modernization, without cutting the ties with the past. Also of great importance, it seems, is research into the question as to the extent to which the Delft School was followed by the Bossche School. In some way, the late theoretical work of Dom. Hans van der Laan forms a separate problem. On the one hand, this continuity appears attractive because there is certainly a sense of affinity with a group of architects now practising (there is even, through a brother of Van der Laan’s, a family connection with an office involved in the Brandevoort project). On the other hand, Richard Padovan, one of Van der Laan’s biographers, warned against a standardised application of the architect’s theory. Van der Laan was himself searching for the eternal and placeless, but he was also convinced that his theory was not yet complete. Accordingly, in every design he modified the theory further.(11) In so doing, he placed the tradition of the architect with only God above him against the search for solace in the regional, the everyday (vernacular) and the familiar.

This research into historical and regional continuity, not as a brake on development, but as an engine for the acceptance of progress and the search for the ‘eternal values of all human architecture’, represents possibly two sides of the same coin. Words such as tradition and topicality of the historic city are doing well in the sales brochures and bring in subsidies. However, it is too often superficial and fashionable in an arbitrary way. In a country where the polemical modernism of Koolhaas is strongest, the sound opposition to it ought to have opportunities. Or is the Netherlands leaving that to the foreigners?

 

Rob Dettingmeijer is associate professor of history and theory of architecture and town planning, Utrecht University.

 

  • 1. ‘Op voormalige zeebodem een vinexvesting, met zo natuurlijk mogelijk bos omgeven, recreatiepaden, en met kunstwerk binnenkort’ Vinex refers to the national government’s policy of building concentrated new settlements.

  • 2. Rob Krier, Town Spaces. Contemporary Interpretations in Traditional Urbanism. Krier Kohl Architects, Basel/Berlin/Boston (Birkhäuser) 2003, p.17.

  • 3. The first major publication by Rob Krier, Stadtraum in Theorie und Praxis, Stuttgart (Karl Krämer) 1975, is Camillo Sitte ‘Zum gedächtnis’. In this connection, it is relevant that Berlage, too, was initially highly impressed with Sitte but later attached more value to (neo)baroque urban design schemes and frequently quoted Walter Curt Behrendt, who as early as 1911 had stated: ‘Nicht die Baukörper also, sondern die von ihnen eingeschlossenen Räume sind gemäss dieser Auffassung das künstlerischen Wesentliche.’ Quoted in: Manfred Bock, Anfänge einer neuen Architektur. Berlages Beitrag zur architektonischen Kultur der Niederlande in ausgehenden 19. Jahrhundert. The Hague/Wiesbaden (Staatsuitgeverij) 1983, p. 170.

  • 4. Krier, see note 1. p.8: ‘Through the conservation of local and regional traditions in Helsinki, Amsterdam, Vienna and Budapest, entire urban districts with their own distinct identities came into being; as the buildings were in a natural way embedded in their respective existing milieux, they were not interchangeable.’

  • 5. Jean Castex, Jean Christian Depaule, Philippe Panerai, Formes urbaines: de l’îlot à la barre, Paris 1977/Marseille 1997, trans. Urban Forms: Death and Life of the Urban Block, Oxford (UP) 2004.

  • 6. Egbert J. Hoogenberk considers this continuity in urbanistic culture to be safeguarded up to and including the prewar plans by Witteveen. See his Het idee van de Hollandse stad. Stedebouw in Nederland 1900-1930 met de internationale voorgeschiedenis. Delft (Delftse Universitaire Pers) 1980. This standpoint also forms the basis of the catalogue Nederland bouwt in baksteen 1800-1940, which was published in 1941 to coincide with the exhibition of the same name in Museum Boijmans van Beuningen.

  • 7. H. Coenen (ed.), De sfinx ontrafeld. Planbeschrijving Sfinx-Céramique-terrein, Maastricht/Eindhoven 1988; Jo Coenen et al., Schetsen Noordknoop Céramique, Maastricht/Roughs Noordknoop Céramique, Maastricht, Rotterdam (NAi Publishers) 2001. For Vaillantlaan: A. Ravesteijn, D. van der Harst (eds.), Een nieuwe laan voor Schilderswijk. Stedebouwkundig-architechtonisch Plan Vaillantlaan Den Haag, The Hague (Grondzaken) 1989. Revised and extended: Albert Ravesteijn (ed.), Jo Coenen en de Vaillantlaan: een nieuwe visie op stedebouw en stadsvernieuwing. Rotterdam (NAi Uitgevers) 1996.

  • 8. Tom Reynders, ‘Taking a lot and giving little, the Haverleij Project in ‘s-Hertogenbosch’; Gijs Nouwens, ‘Utopia. On the utility of public space’; Werner Evers, ‘Living like a lord in a network society?’, in Archis no. 4, 2003, pp. 72-89.

  • 9. Leen van Duin, ‘Traditionalisme’, in: S. Umberto Barbieri, Leen van Duin (ed.) Honderd jaar Nederlandse architectuur 1901-2000. Tendensen Hoogtepunten, Nijmegen (SUN) 1999, pp. 15-24.

  • 10. Barbieri, Van Duin, Honderd jaar Nederlandse architectuur (see note 8).

  • 11. Richard Padovan, ‘After Van der Laan’, in: Paul Bradley (ed.), The line under the spell of its measure, from a conference held at the Stadhal Heerlen on 26 October 2001, etc., s.l., s.a. [2002], pp. 42-76. It is also the case that quite different architects relate in different ways to Dom. van der Laan’s theory. See for example: Theo Malschaert, ‘The House and The Human’ and Wiel Arets, ‘Life-Building’, in Paul Bradley (ed.), Living and Correspondences from a conference held at the Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht, on 17 and 18 November 2000 in consideration of the work of Dom Hans van der Laan, s.l., s.a. [2001], pp. 74-85; pp. 86-96.