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Dutch diversity

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Living in the Lowlands: The Dutch Domestic Scene 1850-2004 NAI Publishers, 2004. 240pp. £26

With memorable exceptions, what we take to be the core of Dutch architecture is domestic, an environment which the editors of this volume describe as 'the collective lived reality inhabited every day by its residents'. Just how varied the forms that this environment can take could hardly be better presented than by this selection of housing projects drawn from the archives of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam.

In telling the story, NAI Director Aaron Betsky and Head of Collections Mariet Willinge have selected 15 characteristic schemes which demonstrate this diversity, ranging from WM Dudok's seemly municipal housing in Hilversum to the wilder extremes of design in the Ypenburg neighbourhood near the Hague, where West 8 and MVRDV among others have been at work.

Visionary ideas sit alongside the practical world of well-wrought housing schemes.

Uniquely among European nations, the Netherlands has been under perennial pressure to make best use of limited space: hence, urban visions at the grandest of scales are well represented here, including OMA's provocative proposals for settlement of the agro-industry zones and the megastructure accommodating 350,000 people envisaged by the Bakema and Klopma Pampus expansion plan for Amsterdam of 1964-65.

In contrast to such a hard-edged hypothesis, we are shown the scraps of butter paper on which Aldo van Eyck and Theo Bosch pencilled their first thoughts on the basic design principles for the regeneration of Amsterdam's Nieumarkt Quarter, where Bosch designed the Pentagon residential complex (1975-83), a building he described as having a 'distinctive, but smiling face'.

A side benefit of this approach is that it points up the telling adjacencies and contrasts encountered everywhere in Dutch domestic architecture. Those used to the familiar images of the stripped, streamlined forms of J J P Oud's Kiefhoek housing in Rotterdam (1925-1930) will be surprised by the contemporary aerial view showing the scheme in its context, with pitched-roofed public housing from earlier in the century as its neighbour.

Conceived by the architect as the building equivalent of a mass production car, Kiefhoek can now be seen as an ingenious and skilful solution to creating a civilised neighbourhood of some 300 homes at no more than two storeys, with the sketches published here revealing Oud's great interest in cresting an urban composition with welldefined private space which also achieved village-like intimacy.

In the examples presented, what is notable is a process of evolution from the post-war reconstruction models of urbanism, in which new neighbourhoods were routinely assembled by repetition of standard modules or clusters of mixed-rise housing - such as the Pendrecht district of Rotterdam or Delft's Voorhof - through to a more responsive approach, where the masterplan celebrates the specific features and geometry of the existing landscape but combines it with bold interventions. This is exemplified by the work of landscape architect Riek Bakker at Prinsenland near Rotterdam, within which Mecanoo Architects then fragmented and recomposed standard housing types.

One of the most fascinating aspects to readers on this side of the Channel is the account of the evolution of the two new cities of the Flevopolder, Lelystad (begun in 1959) and Almere (from 1978). While the former has followed a conventional zoned structure, Almere has flourished under a more flexible and open-ended masterplan offering a wide choice of lifestyles and evolving into what NAI curator JaapJan Berg describes as the leading laboratory for Dutch domestic architecture in the past 25 years; notably with a series of experimental neighbourhoods, including live-work homes by Hertzberger and 'multiphase' houses by Koolhaas.

And there are echoes of the glory days of Milton Keynes, perhaps, in the Projectbureau Almere, the young planning team who set the framework for the new city.

Neil Parkyn is an architect, town planner and director of Huntingdon Associates

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