When I saw the Dutch pavilion I was pleasantly surprised to see it featured the word 'Fresh' in its exhibition title. It reminded me of my article 'Fresh Conservatism', in which I expressed reservations about the seemingly progressive zest of many Dutch designs. I thought it a good choice of title of course, since in the Netherlands we draw inspiration from facts and we do it in a 'fresh' manner. In his opening speech Aaron Betsky rightly pointed out that Dutch design talent is certainly not on the wane, despite what many foreign observers claim. Betsky went on to say that Dutch architecture, unlike that in many other countries, has a strong social tradition. Form is not treated in isolation but in terms of social experience, as the ongoing involvement in housing illustrates, said Betsky. And he's right, but I still had the impression that the relation between form and experience remained unexplored in this otherwise wonderful exhibition. Everything about it is so professional and perfect and so smoothly presented that the beauty of the architecture captures all the attention. This is an exhibition about good taste; what design activates comes off a poor second.
A first reading of the Mondrian quotes from 1929 - chosen by Hertzberger, Betsky and Rudi Fuchs and projected onto large screens in the exhibition - might seem to contradict my view. 'Not to be concerned with form and colours-as-form - this is the new plastic in art. Not to be overdominated by the natural-physical - this is the new mentality. To focus exclusively on relationships by creating them and be searching for their equilibrium in art and in life - this is the great work of our time: to prepare the future.' True, architecture is about the relations it establishes with life (certainly in the Dutch tradition). But if we don't stop and ask what type of equilibrium is being pursued, what particular relations a (Dutch) design seeks to establish with reality, then we soon end up churning out all the usual superficial conclusions. The consequence is that talented design ends up hogging the limelight while we lose sight of the complex and critical relations that a design establishes with the social world. Never before were Mondrian, Rietveld, Hertzberger, MVRDV, René van Zuuk, VMX, NL Architects and Korteknie Stuhlmacher so wholeheartedly in agreement with one another. We won the Golden Lion of course, but I still expected a Dutch submission with a little more guts.
'A fresh feeling that lasts', like the slogan on my 'Colgate Fresh Confidence' toothpaste, can do Dutch architecture no harm at all. But I wonder whether an exhibition cannot deal with more substantial matters in world where content is increasingly pushed to one side by the force of design. What is noteworthy about the work on display in the pavilion - in five showcases designed by Herman Hertzberger - is that the architects show the schemes in their context. Each of the five contributing firms created a tableau vivant in a Hertzberger showcase. Turn a handle on Van Zuuk's case and you can see how motion inspires his models. MVRDV's scheme in Ypenburg is presented through photographs of everyday life. VMX uses video footage to show how a cyclist can play in the bike shed at Central Station in Amsterdam. We watch Jan de Bouvrie sing the praises of the Mandarina Duck interior in Paris by NL Architects in a wonderful clip from Dutch TV station RTL. And Korteknie Stuhlmacher architects show their green parasite in a landscape of rough wood. The Dutch pavilion presents not only the finished works but also the contexts that inspired the designers. But that's not all. Hertzberger's exhibition design complements Gerrit Rietveld's pavilion perfectly. The pavilion has been splendidly restored; and five diagonally placed showcases, a display case with Dutch publications, metres-high screens featuring quotes from Mondrian and a replica of his Victory Boogie Woogie complete the exhibition. Hertzberger and Betsky show you can harness young and old talent to skilfully promote the Netherlands. Only one thing puzzles me: Why does Hertzberger place the work of the five young architects in splendid showcases? 'Like those in a confectioner's shop', as photographer Jeroen Musch observed. Exactly, architecture displayed like fancy cakes. Is this Hertzberger's silent criticism of the young generation, while Mondrian and Rietveld look on?Fantastic that the Dutch pavilion received a Golden Lion, a prize that's badly needed given the prevailing conservative political climate in the country. For an Oscar makes a bigger splash than a good film. West 8 came close once, but that exhibition on suburban housing proved too controversial in the end. During the battle of the stars at the Biennial both Hertzberger and Betsky wanted to claim the award. Who was the real winner of this Fresh Facts exhibition, the designer or curator? Hertzberger for one felt that, as designer, he was entitled to the prize. So he and Betsky quickly swapped places for the cameras. A day earlier, at the opening of the pavilion, Herman Hertzberger was heard saying: 'Most people think that Rietveld was a modest person, but that's not true. He was, like most architects here at the Biennial, an arrogant man.'