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Dutch young guns

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SuperDutch: New Architecture in the Netherlands By Bart Lootsma. Thames & Hudson, 2000. 264pp. £24.95

In his new book, Bart Lootsma presents the work of 12 highly-lauded Dutch practices. His main proposition is that these young(-ish) practices form a single strand of second-generation Dutch Modernism. He contends that, after the contrasts of de Klerk and Oud or of Duiker and Rietveld, a post-war consensus was established which emphasised schematic planning rather than form, and that the currently active generation is united in rejecting that consensus.

Lootsma sets out his case in an introduction which suggests a broad range of formative influences in Dutch design. On to the themes of Calvinist unquiet in the sixteenth-century republic and the political imperative behind the country's land reclamation projects - taken, with full acknowledgement, from Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches - Lootsma grafts a convincing argument about the cultural importance of the country's welfare state.

If it were to tie into the body of the book at all, rather than being more than usually diverting academic ballast, the culmination of such an introduction would normally be that the current style is formed by, and somehow consistent with, Dutch history. But that is not the conclusion and if it were it would be difficult to defend: contrast the thrifty sobriety of Amsterdam's bourgeois townhouses, or the modesty of de Hooch's housemaids, with the engineering extravagance of MVRDV's WoZoCo or the stripey-trousered student radicalism of Atelier van Lieshout.

The presiding saint of Dutch architecture and the accepted reason for its high profile just now is Rem Koolhaas, or, more specifically, the exhibitionist, showmanly side of his work. Koolhaas is quoted in this book as saying: 'There is a purely sensual side of architecture that is almost tragically overestimated'; which can be read as a sideswipe at his Dutch competitors, or as a plea for further examination of his theoretical work.

Years of cosmopolitan theorising, in which he has shifted the ground of architectural discussion, have gained Koolhaas less attention than a few buildings with holes cut out sitting on spillikins. It is the latter part of his output which has attracted imitation at home and abroad and which has spawned several of the other practices illustrated here; to such an extent that the book sometimes feels like an episode of Stars in Their Eyes where 12 practices compete as OMA, and OMA comes third.

Alongside OMA, the international superstar practice par excellence, the practices showcased range from the well-known, such as Mecanoo or West 8, to the relatively obscure, such as Koen van Velseno r NOX. All 12 have brilliant projects to contribute and they are, for the most part, laid out with good photographs and admirably clear drawings. The book's designer has added a transparent red line to some pages, apparently in an inexplicable attempt to introduce symmetry to the pictures, but apart from that, and a tricksy over-run of images from one page to the next, the design is restrained, rigorous and, well, Dutch. Throughout, text is used intelligently; unusually for an architectural picture book, writing is used only to provide information not perfectly obvious in the photographs.

The concluding essay suggests that there is a generation of Dutch architects, even younger than those presented here, on the verge of carrying out major works as radical in their theory, and particularly urban theory, as were the current generation's formal innovations. This contains a hint of disapproval, of disappointment that Koolhaas' employment of unfashionable angles has been adopted by his acolytes rather than his interest in building with minimal resources, or his insistence on constant self-questioning. This side of the North Sea we can only envy a state where one can still expect successful architects to do something other than create exciting and innovative shapes.

Gerry McLean is an architect in London

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