Archis 1999 #9

Objectiveren of objectiseren / Objectify or objectize

— by


The simple composition of volumes, the uncomplicated structure of planks – with here and there an opening by way of window – was at once basic and monumental. Monumental because of its presence, not because of any costly materials, references to ‘great architecture’ or decorative programme. Poetic because of the way it managed to unite great precision with a suggestion of indeterminacy or latitude, a margin that allowed the structure to realize its power and singularity again and again, at different times and in different places. Poetic, too, because the building was, in the way it gathered people around a performance, a spectacle, a distillation of the history of the theatre.
This temporary addition to the city in the context of the Biennale was not simply the elaboration of one part of the programme, not merely a signboard for the architectural component of this international art exhibition, but a metaphor. The world is a stage, the city a theatre, the building an urban artefact with a role to play. Architecture is an art [feat] of memory, perhaps every bit as much as public speaking.

This was a far cry from the total amnesia of modern architecture, this was a quite different mental world from that of living, working, traffic and recreation. Here architecture was understood as fundamentally historical, here architecture was defined as a balance between memoria and inventio, as a reformulation of what in essence is already given. With the construction in a shipyard, the journey through the laguna and the tying up at Punta del Dogana, architecture in the form of the Teatro del Mondo came home, so it seemed. But in fact Rossi’s ‘world theatre’ would have been at home anywhere.

The Netherlands was just then in the throes of home zones and urban renewal, building for the neighbourhood and hospitable new-build. For a moment Rossi’s return to architecture gave people the feeling that another denominator had been found, a link to a substratum capable of nurturing different practices and a wide range of issues. The architect was no longer reduced to implementing planning proposals, designing models and programmes furnished by sociology, filling in the gaps dictated by urban design, no, the architect was the guardian of a specific type of knowledge which, expressed in buildings, could be considered indispensable to a European-style urbanity.

Yet the Netherlands, too, had known such a moment of euphoria. No one leafing through the 1950s volumes of Bouwkundig Weekblad, Forum or Bouw can fail to be moved by what is documented there. The clarity of the light and the openness of the sky are matched by an architecture that is equally clear, uncomplicated and open. The photographs and buildings radiate an optimism that may strike us as naive today, but which is no less powerful for that. They embody a belief in and a longing for a future that would be materially superior, visually more attractive and socially fairer. A belief, too, in the power of architecture, which with brick, glass, steel and concrete would create a new order, a new, direct relationship between man and space. Bakema could still declare optimistically in 1956: ‘A building will become less and less a pyramid and more and more a spatial composition of elements that stand in an autonomous relationship to the total space’, adding that this ‘is an expression of new social relationships that appeal to the personality of each individual.’ (Forum, p. 229)

The first turned out to be all too true. It was not long before architecture consisted of nothing but relationships: social, economic and technological; the relationship with the individual in all this was chiefly quantitative, his personality no more than a statistical average. Architecture literally lost sight of its object, the object that Rossi so gloriously conjured up again.

But was it really so glorious? We all know how it went. Connections and developments are logical and clear in retrospect. There was more grief inherent in Rossi’s mental world than Dutch architecture was prepared to accept. More slowness too, and more memory. It was not the laborious search for new foundations, for an objectification of architectural know-how, that held sway here, but the solution of practical problems. The pragmatism of discovering by doing and working with the means at one’s disposal. But also of individual experimentation, something that was already firmly entrenched in the Netherlands. Not long after WW II the Dutch government had provided scope for architectural innovation and experiment alongside the increasingly rigid structure of rules and norms in architecture, town planning and housing. Now it seemed that under changing production conditions, what had originally been available to the modernist mainstream as an additional and at the same time nurturing factor could become the very core of architecture.

Whereas the Dutch government was caught somewhat unawares by the effects of the self-created leeway for ‘the market’, and the urban planning discipline proved equally unprepared, architecture was fairly raring to satisfy the demand for variation. With the disappearance of the socio-political basis for the practice of the profession, architecture could do little else but concentrate on the object and this it proceeded to do with total dedication.

And so the Dutch landscape is awash with a growing number of objects in which, thanks to the comprehensive spatial planning system (including aesthetic control), there is even a semblance of order. On the basis of their thorough knowledge of production typology and production technology, Dutch architects supply above all variation.

There is little point in invoking an autumnal concept like ‘sunset effect’ to describe this situation, as the architectural critic Peter Buchanan does*. The wild flurry of formal experiments may be fairly redundant, but it is surely more rewarding and also more plausible to see it as an expression of the energy and vitality of Dutch architecture than as a last brief fling before total darkness descends. The fact is that Dutch architecture has shown itself to be pretty adaptable and competitive, both at home and abroad.

In the meantime it is clear that architects do not have much to gain by concentrating on the building as ‘significant’ object. The unprecedented prosperity has put paid to every system of signification. There is no longer any backdrop against which the exceptional can shine.

Architecture exists by the virtue of concentration and how is that conceivable with mass production? The whole postmodernist idea of architecture as a stratified system of signification that addresses itself simultaneously to different cultural strata of society, is completely outmoded. The odd station architect may still be in thrall to it but for the rest the notion plays no role in Dutch architecture. We celebrate the playfulness of the object, the typological variation, the implementation of spatial programmes that have their origins in elitist architecture but are now within the reach of large sections of the population. At home and at work, indoors and outdoors. A phenomenon that has been evident for some time now in the field of top design, namely that in next to no time the most exclusive designs are available in department store or supermarket, is now starting to make itself felt in architecture.

This being so, the Master and Pupil system of knowledge transfer within the confines of a discipline is as good as dead. The inspiration and know-how needed by architecture and architect are spread over a wide range of areas of knowledge. Instead of being a supplier of exclusivity, of cultural connotation and unicity, the role of the architect is shifting to that of product developer, director of spatial programmes, process supervisor. The roles are not really new, simply more sharply defined.