Soeters in the Wrong
The Prix de Rome architecture competition reached its conclusion last Thursday as the candidates in the final round presented their projects to the public. The presentation was to have been followed by a discussion with academics and developers intended to shed light on the relationship between architecture and entertainment. As it turned out, events took a different course. Architect Sjoerd Soeters expressed his agitation with the Prix de Rome design assignment and, in the process, roundly attacked the entire Dutch architecture education system.
The Prix de Rome organisers set a trendy, contemporary assignment for the final round: to convert the vacant CSM factory in Halfweg into a multifunctional events complex. The designers not only had to come up with an architectural design but also offer a vision on current society, on cultural developments and on the coagulating Randstad region.
The participants were not to be thrown off course by all that rhetoric, and each of them pursued their own fascinations. Winner of second prize Theo Hauben, for example, elaborated further his interest in 'movement as attraction' in which the car is not a problem but a source of pleasure: 'a lunapark of parking garages'. Marion Regitko (basic prize) shunned more emphatically the context provided and simply opted to continue the study into form initiated in the preliminary round. Intriguing forms inspired by coral reefs, reworked on the computer into intriguing spaces where diving and ice climbing coexist with lunching office workers.
It's no secret that the Prix de Rome is no longer won by a solitary individual slaving away in some modest room. All participants could rely on complete teams. Fjodor Richter (basic prize) went even further: he left the presentation to one of his co-designers. As in the preliminary round, the spectacular visualisations of this team were what made an impression.
Winner Gianni Cito went furthest in addressing the issues formulated in the assignment. A complex of exterior spaces, varying from a grass field ringed by a dike to giant, stacked open-air theatres, sought to encourage all forms of entertainment. Spectacular highlight was the Superbowl enclosing the existing silos.
Economic geographer Kloosterman kicked off the ensuing discussion by portraying today's young generation: 'For an evening out they choose between the Leidseplein, Scheveningen or the Maasvlakte. To them the Delta Metropolis is a reality.' But though, with six million inhabitants, it is comparable in scale to such metropolises as Berlin or Paris, it lacks a distinctive identity. And it lacks such essential places as a large public space for mass gatherings, like as Potsdamerplatz or the Champs-Elysées. 'Non-places like Halfweg lend themselves very well to creating such a distinctive identity for contemporary mass entertainment,' declared Kloosterman, 'but they must be unique, varied, surprising and public'. Kloosterman declined to say whether any of the presented projects met these criteria. The other speakers – Mommaas of the Catholic University in Tilburg and Dasbach, commercial director of Multi Vastgoed – were also reluctant to pass judgement. There was clearly a gulf between the leisure industry and the architecture presented. Mommaas succinctly expressed the discrepancy thus: 'in the leisure industry the programme is the problem, not the design. In the Netherlands we are not yet particularly good at large-scale entertainment. Many initiatives fail, among them the Miracle Planet in Enschede and the Van der Ende Studios in Aalsmeer. Even the Arena in Amsterdam is losing money'.
'So the assignment was a futile one,' argued Soeters, whose designs include the Java Island in Amsterdam. 'It's completely unrealistic, cut out all this nonsense, too embarrassing for words. Education should start addressing serious matters again. The younger generation only discovers what the world is like after fifteen years. To them it's a matter of gleaning magazines and copying images – it's not grounded in reality, pure incest', Soeters seethed with contempt. And there the discussion changed completely. Not entertainment, not the Delta Metropolis, but architectural education and the reveries of the architectural elite came under scrutiny. Soeters advocated an education that addresses serious problems. And to him, serious problems are urban problems. He echoed Vittorio Magnago Lumpugnani, who in the foreword to the Prix de Rome catalogue criticises 'the reality of the embalmed city centres and the bleak peripheries'. 'Why should we suck the life out of the cities and move activities to peripheral locations such as Halfweg?' he asked rhetorically. It seems to have become something of a tradition: older architects who seize competitions for young designers to vent their spleen. Carel Weeber paved the way with his TV performance during the awards ceremony for the ideas competition 'Het aanzien van Nederland'. Remarkably, both are in favour of design assignments that are more in touch with practice and are averse to what Soeters calls 'idle daydreaming'.
And was Soeters right in using this debate to express his irritation once again with the elite of architecture and Dutch architectural education? No: because if he had listened more attentively then he would have heard Kloosterman state that the non-places beyond the cities could be significant in defining the identity of the Delta Metropolis; because if he had looked more carefully he would have seen designers who were not ruffled by the design assignment and who consciously charted their own course (though perhaps not to Soeters' liking; and because if he had sensed the mood better he would have realised that he could have played a more honourable role in this debate than that of a grumpy old character.
And the participants? They didn't seem all that fussed by this verbal tirade. And given their personal commitment, one shouldn't expect them to take too much notice of it. In the meantime, it's to be hoped that (young) designers who have an affinity with such metropolitan issues will continue to address non-places like Halfweg, far beyond existing town centres. One detail of note: Soeters is the very architect who has been commissioned to make a design for Halfweg.
Although the debate about architecture and entertainment is highly topical, as was apparent at the outset of the discussion, the evening left far too many loose ends. Evidently the architecture world is unsure how to deal with this important contemporary challenge. Perhaps the colleges of education can take this discussion further. Experts like Mommaas, Kloosterman and Dasbach could play a valuable role in that endeavour.