It’s a familiar feeling: that affinity you sometimes develop for a country other than the Netherlands. Such affinity usually arises while you’re enjoying a sunny holiday a couple of days’ drive from home. You automatically start to compare things, and certain questions come to mind. Why don’t we have such nice parks, quiet squares and cheap wine in the Netherlands? But a sense of pragmatism quickly establishes itself once you’re back in your own country. You just reconcile yourself to the idea that your admiration was all down to the fact that local conditions, culture and climate for example, differ so much from those in the Netherlands. What is more, the euphoria of the holidays is in stark contrast to the reality of working life. Back to the order of the day.
A similar feeling creeps over me when I look through overviews of foreign architecture. The grass always seems so much greener elsewhere. As it is in the Flanders Architectural Yearbook 2010. Except… Flanders is right next door to the Netherlands, and this book is about my own profession.
For the past twelve years the Dutch-speaking part of our neighbouring country has been working diligently on its architecture. In 1998 Bob van Reeth was appointed the first Flemish Government Architect. His very first achievement was to ensure that public clients were successful in selecting architects on the strength of their portfolio through the so-called 'Open Oproep' (= Open Call). And his measures proved successful. Now private clients are applying the same procedure too. It is also very appealing to Dutch architects and has even survived the terror of the European regulations covering public tendering procedures. As a result, architecture is becoming increasingly embedded in the framework of Flemish policies. That is made all the more apparent from the fact that the Flemish Minister for the Environment, Nature and Culture wrote the foreword to the architecture yearbook.
The yearbook itself is impressively hefty, yet that is the only feature of it that imposes itself on the reader so ostentatiously. Between the covers the layout exudes a great sense of calm and control. Text sections alternate with drawings and serene photos. The matt paper complements the calm presentation of the contents.
Maarten Delbeke introduces the yearbook on behalf of the editorial board, which is made up of Gideon Boie, Dieter De Clercq, Ilse Degerickx, Janina Gosseye, Jan Mannaerts and Katrien Vandermarliere, as well as Kristiaan Borret, Maarten Delbeke, André Loeckx and Koen Van Synghel. These editors selected some one hundred projects, which were then visited by one or more of the team of editors. The definitive selection was then distilled.
The yearbook distinguishes itself from its Dutch equivalent through the short critical note that the editors write about each project. The reader is therefore able to discover, through the words of one of its members, what the editorial board values in the selected project and the context in which it should be viewed. They chose this structure in order to avoid discussing any big themes separately from the buildings they selected. The Flemish editors therefore deliberately opted for a bottom-up approach. Through architectural criticism, they hope to uncover the issues and questions that are topical at the moment. In the process, the editors show respect for the selected work, but they acknowledge that current themes — among them sustainability, the role of the Orde van Architecten (= Association of Belgian Architects), and the relation between architecture and infrastructure — are not necessarily addressed. This format avoids the usual dichotomy between topical issues and selected projects that the editors of the Dutch yearbooks invariably seem to struggle with.
The editorial approach to the projects is successful. The texts are a breadth of fresh air and survive the 'test of architectural criticism' mentioned by Delbeke in his introduction. There is, however, no effort to subject the images to the same critical reading, or to weave images and text together in any way. The effect is that the reader is more or less forced to read the text first and then to look at the supporting images. If you don’t read the text — something that the editors should always take into consideration — then the images offer you little to fall back on. This, to me, is a missed opportunity to take the less-informed architecture fan through a narrative that revolves around the idea that architecture matters in Flanders.
That it does matter becomes clear if you sit down and read the texts. A number of appeals are made between the lines. For example, an appeal for architecture in the healthcare sector, for architect-developers, and for better urban collective residential buildings. The last of these issues surfaces in the text about the project LABO VESPA, in which the Antwerp department of property and urban development very deliberately transforms poorly functioning buildings. In addition, the department must work with an ambitious housing programme and irregular sites. These projects are intended to act as catalysts. VESPA plays the role of exemplary client by opting to give young architects an opportunity and guiding them safely through the development process. Linking a younger generation of architects to complex urban puzzles has produced good results and is an example worth following at a time when progress has to be made the difficult way, not the easy way. A local authority that points the way and stimulates others is badly needed in this area.
Closing the yearbook, I wonder why we in the Netherlands have such difficulty compiling a sharply written yearbook. Why are we struggling with the burden of European regulations covering public tendering procedures? Why are young architects here scarcely helped to actually build? And why is the foreword to the architecture yearbook not written by a minister? Then I realise that Flanders in a foreign place. Of course, the picture of Flanders that the yearbook paints is surely romanticised, and it is surely in contrast with the reality in the Netherlands. And now back to the order of the day, or...?