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Getting to grips with thequestion of Dutchness

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Three uk conferences in eight days felt, for this observer, like a languorous three-course meal of Dutch architectural culture. Firstly, Aberdeen played host to this year's rias Scottish conference on 'The Dutch Experience'. This gave the rostrum to some of Holland's architectural celebrities; four days later the Architectural Association saw Charles Jencks, Ole Bouman and Caroline Bos respond to the question 'Is there a Dutchness in the State of Architecture?' This was an attempt to explore the relevance of forces that go beyond the scope of nationality and territory. With little more than time to come up for air, four days later the sweltering heat once again enveloped the lecture hall of the Architectural Association as the Dutch proclaimed their citizenship as 'Burghers of Suburbia'. This conference touched upon the comparable governmental plans for new house building to those of Britain, bearing in mind the uniqueness of the Dutch situation. It particularly looked at how the influence and employment of a larger number of architects and planners has an unprecedented impact on the future of suburbia.

In Aberdeen, Rudolph Brouwers, director of the Netherlands Architectural Fund, explained that continual restructuring of the Dutch environment necessitated a coherent architectural policy. Introduced in the early 1980s, this was set up to safeguard architectural quality and involves strong central governmental participation (to the tune of £2 million pa). There is a variety of grants and funds that facilitate promotion of architecture through tv, festivals, publication of books, exhibitions and the encouragement of young practices. There are also 30 centres of architecture that are 'subsidised to subsidise'.

Noud de Vreeze, director of the National Foundation of Architecture, explained the importance of the creation of a 'new map of the Netherlands'. The mapping of all planned development has visualised the Netherlands as one big architectural project. 'The future is not a fiction.' This was an example of the Dutch pragmatism that has engineered a productive culture of inclusivity; architects are only one small part of a very large team. Ole Bouman stated that the role of the profession is continuously having to redefine itself. Ben van Berkel concurred; in order to deal with the scale and complexity of processes, diagrams, complex forces and potentialities of programme, new practices were needed. This was not to be seen as calamitous but as a way to open up possibilities. The architect, as sole master of exception, has become the architect as the master of balance. Space directing has replaced space designing.

Bouman thinks the scale of development has seen a weakening of form, not, as Jencks postulates, as a formalistic 'aaness' or 'Remness', but as a condition where the formal image is postponed as long as possible in order to maintain many possible futures. This is achieved, as Peter Wilson told us, through the technique of 'scenario thinking'. The primary role of the architect in the conception of form has had its day! The new monuments of this golden age are not 'domes' but are 'homes' of 'flexiblesystems and other complex forms of organisation'.

One major point of difference is how the British see their country in contrast to the Dutch. The British have always had a fear of the countryside and a desire for city living, it was suggested, which is at the heart of the greenfield/brownfield debate. The Dutch see opportunity and potential in a new condition of 'an urban field where everything takes place'. According to Arnold Rijndorp, architect and urban sociologist, the new citizens of this urban field are 'hunters and gatherers' who assemble fragments of lifestyles to create their own individual relationship to the city rather than to the traditional neighbourhood. The market responds to this by facilitating social differentiation. The mobility of the population forces developers to provide variety, which requires more experimentation. This new social mix is a product of a 'new collect process'; in Holland the subsequent diversity is seen as positive. In England this diversity is defined as (bad) fragmentation.

'Dutchness', then, is not about identity or nationality but, as Bouman suggested, more a condition. 'Never has architecture in Holland been so broad, the mandate so big and the need so great for this new condition to be navigated.' The Dutch are not just talking about it, they are doing it. The next question: Is there Britishness?

The Dutch experiment goes on . . . FreshH2O eXPO is an interactive freshwater pavilion by Lars Spuybroek of avant-garde Rotterdam practice nox. Designed for the big Dutch public-works ministry as an environment dedicated to the experience of water, its interior is a 70m-long windowless environment with swooping, often wet, undulating floors, a frozen glacier tunnel, springs spraying mist and water, stroboscopically lit rain which falls upwards and a great well containing 120,000 litres of water.

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