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Rethinking the role of countryside


The current interest in Dutch architecture extended to fa Cup Final Day, when a decent-sized audience attended an aa conference on Dutch housing design. Like us, the Dutch have what sounds like an enormous number of homes to build over the next dozen years; like us, the analysis shows that it won't require any significant increase in production compared with recent years. Other parallels include the move towards what they call 'individualisation' in housing provision (we use the more sinister word 'fragmentation'), devolved planning control, a major role for housing associations, and a market-led housebuilding sector.

The differences are significant: a willingness to experiment; greater design control; sophisticated use of prefabricated concrete frames; and perhaps most significant, a different view about land. As Martin Richardson remarked (he has built in the Netherlands), the concept of countryside is different there. If land is no longer suitable for growing crops, then why not build on it? This may explain why it is still cheap to build houses in rural surroundings; certainly Mark Twain's dictum about land being valuable 'because they are not making any more of it' is disproved by the willingness of the Dutch to create new 'bluefield' space by building into water. The Archipelago lives.

An intriguing proposal by one of the Dutch speakers, Nathalie de Vries, showed how an attitude to rural development might overcome the usual doubts about the permanent transformation from country to suburb. Her low-density urbanism ('lite urbanism') is based on the idea that buildings should be appropriately temporary, and that the heavy infrastructure which causes irreversible change should be avoided: tracks instead of roads, telematics instead of cabled systems, and so on. A useful corrective to the idea that our new housing will conform to one of two simple models depending on location. As ever, a more pluralist analysis has much to offer: total architecture, rather like that other Dutch concept, total football.

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