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Dutch treats?

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review - False Flat By Aaron Betsky. Phaidon, 2004. £39.95

All of a sudden, it seems, the Dutch are in town, thankfully not supported by the fire ships which they once brought up the Thames, but as collaborators with our own practices in almost any significant new community or urban-design project. Dutch products find a ready market in Milan, New York and Tokyo, while recent Dutch architecture shows no signs of losing its verve, energy and in-your-face quirkiness. But what is distinctive and special about the breed?

Answers a-plenty are offered in this volume, with Aaron Betsky, director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, as our guide. Part-polemic, part-commentary on the culture and the mindset of the Dutch, and part-chronicle of designers and their patrons, Betsky's presentation is artfully wrought.

He sets the scene by describing his daily cycle ride from his home outside Rotterdam, across three polders and through successive bands of urbanisation to his office in the city centre, all to introduce his central argument that the visual arts allow the Dutch to create a strong sense of who they are. Create is the operative word, since everything in view is part of the man-made spatial continuum that, according to Betsky, is Holland.

The book is a canter through the history of design in the Netherlands, embracing architecture, landscape, graphic and industrial design, the whole background to life on what Betsky dubs the False Flat - because it is actually gently sloping - of the Dutch landscape. Well known figures and design groups such as OMA, MVRDV and Droog (= 'Dry') Design make their expected appearances, while UK readers can also brief themselves on the vibrant goings-on in such less familiar fields as Dutch typography.

Dynamic and vital it all undoubtedly is, served up on modish pages designed by Irma Boom.

One of the most compelling explanations presented here for the high profile of design in Dutch life is that it flourishes thanks to carefully targeted benefits and subsidies, which not only underwrite public housing programmes and infrastructure but also support young designers from graduation onwards, with stipends and subsidies to help set them up in practice. They compete for a cluster of awards and prizes, from the Prix de Rome to the Rotterdam Design Prize, but most notably the young 'uns are being commissioned to design real buildings, thanks in part to the buoyant market in homes for smaller households. Are we envious - or what?

Betsky makes much of what he calls the 'polder model' as the underpinning of Dutch society, the painstaking process of consensus under which all interests are traded and no participant leaves the negotiating table until they are. While this may explain the genesis of such artefacts as Rotterdam's Blaak skateboard park, designed by 75B and a model of carefully balanced boarding parameters and community inputs, or the brisk and bright products and stores of the Hema chain, there is much on the Dutch architectural scene which appears self-indulgent or downright wayward.

Of course, there are some stunning examples here of top-drawer contextual architecture, such as the Delft Technical University's central library by Mecanoo, but elsewhere rather too many one-shot ideas that would be palatable as transient, small-scale graphics, yet are merely quirky as full-size, permanent buildings, with splits, shifts and distortions of standard types aimed to catch the eye.

Rotterdam, the undoubted design capital of Holland, is fast adding to its collection of wilful waterfront wonders with in-your-face high-rise projects which seem to demand a 'why not?' response. Good design or merely attention-seeking - The jury is still out.

Neil Parkyn is a London-based architect and director of Huntingdon Associates

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