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LETTER FROM THE NETHERLANDS

Every year the summer season brings not only Wimbledon but also the arrival of the Netherland's Architectural Year Book. This year, one is increasingly aware that concrete is, more than ever, being hidden behind the more complex, aesthetically baroque, compositions of contemporary architecture's dramatised skins. The Netherlands is, surprisingly, learning to show off. Are we seeing the return of ornament; a new kind of narcissism? Sensational design is the new paradigm. The lamentable conditions of the construction market are masked behind the beguiling and mediagenic design aesthetic.

If concrete is fashionable, then where is it? We hear of concrete benches, coffee tables, record players, bookshelves, sinks, planters, baths, lamps, stools, chairs, bowls and jewellery. Even space-shuttle technology has found its way into the home in the form of ceramat. Used on the underside of the shuttle for re-entry, it can also harness the heat-resistant qualities of concrete to create a new fireplace for the home. Evidently, concrete has become a product of aspiration and yet the Netherlands is seemingly ambivalent about these trends.

As other countries revel in the luxurious possibilities of concrete, the Netherlands resists, apparently entrenched in utility. Street pavers, waterways, bridges, sleepers, slip form, tunnel construction, dams, piles and foundations; its ubiquity shapes the landscape. If we are to believe that the Netherlands is going through one of its biggest transformations, then the new shape of the country will have been set in place by concrete. The country floats like a concrete raft anchored to continental Europe, both physically and economically. Concrete makes people rich, holds back the water, suppresses tides, redirects the surge, props up infrastructure on perfect grey sticks, deftly flies over the ground and gently lies upon the fragile carapace of the earth. The Netherlands is a thin skin of alchemy laid over sand and water. Concrete remains embedded in the country's economies of scales; a place where 90,000 slip-form concrete boxes are scattered across our 'Deltametropolis'every single year.

It really is a material for the classless and Calvinistic mass. And that is simultaneously its banality and its beauty. It is not hidden away in the oiled and bush-hammered environments of lofts, but held up as a true and heroic infrastructure; it is there for all to see. It remains at the scale of the country and not the home. But take care, otherwise its economy will become its enemy. With the amalgamation of the construction industry towards a single entity, with its rallying battle cry of 'Honour through cheapness!', the utility of concrete has become its straitjacket, especially evident when architects, who want to pursue concrete's mysteries, are forced to border-hop. Can concrete reinvent itself in this country? We look forward to the summers to come.

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