The Giant Gets Ready

After the earlier press offensives ‘The Giant Awakens’ and ‘The Giant Stands Up’ (the Giant in question being the Haarlemmermeer), on May 17 it was the turn of ‘The Giant Gets Ready’. On the basis of a cool 1000 dwelling units at a density of 30-35 units per hectare and The Ten Commandments for Vinex-Free Building, the architecture firms – Soeters Van Eldonk Ponec, MVRDV, Erick van Egeraat Associates and Steven Holl – were given two months to come up with designs for the Toolenburg South area. Fedde Reeskamp attended the presentation.

All five City-Scrapers had half an hour to present their vision for the plan area, which was followed by a tough third degree interrogation by the Inspector Columbo of building, Gerrit Middelkoop. The aim: to realise something akin to a world exposition of 21st-century forms of housing for the lowlands.

Volhwater – Soeters Van Eldonk Ponec architecten

The identity of the polder is central to the project. Not as a rigid aspect, but one inspired by Alexander Pope's strophe 'Consult the Genius of the Place in all, that tells the Waters, or to rise and fall.' The project creates a symbiosis in the age-old watercourse between Leeghwaters and Volhwaters ('Low Waters and High Waters'). More prosaically, three plus one thematic strips, extended from 'red' to 'green', are defined: from stacked to clustered to individual to the water retention area.

STACKED – This strip contains units built in a high 'city' density at walking distance from the bus stop on the Schiphol-Haarlem-Corus fast lane. Parking garages are located under the water. Metropolitan aura with a dash of Java.

CLUSTERED – Return to the neighbourhood concept. Clusters with an individual programmatic and architectural identity, combining not only living but also working. Parking in Smart®towers.

INDIVIDUAL – Force the genie back in the bottle, Ponec must have thought. Which here means: force the Vinex into barely floating concrete vessels – inside, anything goes. The ironic thing is that this inversion of 'living in water' will appeal most to everyone – official, investor, builder, resident and visitor. Individual? Two in one vessel is also possible.

Poldergeist – MVRDV

MVRDV's trick is that they always think up a very abstract algorithm but still produce a surprisingly concrete project. So too here. MVRDV propose a 'cross-breeding' of architectural, urban design and economic parameters in order to force variety, put into perspective by the use of forced trouvailles as subtitle. Of all entrants, MVRDV place greatest emphasis on the expo aspect. They applaud the location for its lack of history, which makes a 'raw outpouring of diversity' possible. MVRDV are never averse to a hefty paradox. To escape from what they call the 'over-regulated Randstad', they propose a highly complicated planning system that might seem too totalitarian in what is a land of ultimate consensus-seeking. Winy Maas, for that matter, isn't vague on the issue, speaking as he does of FORCED trouvailles.

The project seems incomprehensible at first glance. That is a consequence of the presentation method. But the underlying idea is fairly straightforward: draw up an inventory of all possible variables that affect the plan (such as 'sustainable building' and 'double functions'), turn these into parameters, and cross the parameters at will with one or more other parameters. Next, assess market interest in the matrix fields thus created (e.g. the category 'AND red AND aluminium AND 5-metre floor-ceiling height AND roof garden'). And then it's just a matter of building. To prevent the market's choosing for 'AND semi-detached AND garden AND parking space in the driveway AND brick', limits are set for such popular categories, while conversely, less popular ones are forced.

MVRDV forces us to learn to walk again and again. And that is a good thing. But Toolenburg South is simply too small for the MVRDV method. Both in administrative and physical terms, the plan area and total of one thousand dwelling units are simply too modest for the quasi-random approach. For such an infinitum ad absurdum you need no fewer than a factor of 12 houses (i.e. almost 480 million), as Professor Middelkoop rapidly calculated for the public. Conversely, if you only need to build 1,000, you're can manage by crossing just 6 parameters, and even then you don't have to build two identical houses. Which only leaves the visual power of the model – only worth selecting if MVRDV can build everything themselves.

The Dutch Mountains – Erick van Egeraat Associates

This project is a relief to behold. Beautiful, an absolute dream. The plan exudes a utopian simplicity. EEA goes furthest in embracing the ten-point manifesto. Consequently, the proposal is largely complementary to 'what the architects don't like but still build again and again.' Why is the ribbon development so typical of the polder landscape disappearing? Why have our neighbourhoods no longer have a horizon where the Dutch skies touch the polder landscape of the Martians? Why do we even bother building houses with gardens, when we can see the disastrous effect on our landscape heritage all around us every day?

EEA adopt a radical approach to the physical planning issues brought about by Vinex and came up with a Dutch Mountain. This mountain of houses accentuates the flatness of the polder and makes Schiphol's proximity a matter of fact. In the process it defines a completely new relationship with the landscape. Completely new? Ville Contemporaine – Le Corbusier, 1942?

EEA prove convincingly that such a residential mountain can function well, can be suitably laid out, and is a most attractive living environment for dinkies. EEA themselves point out a very vulnerable aspect of the concept: the mountain of houses must be surrounded permanently by a pure and virgin polder. And well… the more beautiful the better. My advice: do it, but not here and not now. Wait for the invention of anti-gravitational power, then rise with both feet from the ground.

Living in the 21st Century – Steven Holl Architects

Thankfully, after all that theoretical and architectural violence by the MVRDV and EEA giants, this is a good old-fashioned plan. Almost anachronistic, since it is physically deterministic. Steven Holl links 'Cactus Towers' to the 'international travellers', 'Co-housing units' to 'single-parent families', and 'floating villas' and 'checkerboard Garden Houses' to the 'more normative families'. But that's just what we've been good at over the past few decades, and what we definitely don't want now! Fair is fair, there are two types of living that do fit in with the 'New Thinking': the 'House-Factory' (living and working combined in all sorts of ways) and the 'Polder Voids', based on perforated building blocks around 'reflective pools'.

If the projects are judged on the basis of the consistency and logic with which the themes are dealt with, then the deliberations shouldn't be too complicated: 1st prize EEA, 2nd prize MVRDV, 3rd prize SvEP. But… the project by Soeters Van Eldonk Ponec might just come up trumps. It fits in well with the aims set down in the Fifth Report on Physical Planning, is well worked out in terms of civil-engineering, can be undertaken without delay and, last but not least: more than anyone else, Soeters, in his master plan for Java Island near Amsterdam, has shown that he is prepared to experiment and to achieve his aims without compromise and with a charisma badly needed in this country. Steven Holl can then make one or two of his Polder Voids in the cluster strip, MVRDV must be allowed to build too of course, and then there's enough space left over for the lesser Gods: in the vessels. But let's not jump too far ahead. Alderman Cees Spijkers brought the afternoon to a close with a promise to reveal in mid-June which project the Haarlemmermeer intends to proceed with.

To be continued.