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Architecture with a flavour

Gerd Streng

Last Monday Erick van Egeraat gave a lecture on landscape and architecture in Theater Het Oude Raadhuis in Hoofddorp. In attendance at the lecture, organised by the Podium for Architecture in the municipality of Haarlemmermeer, were both architects and others from outside the profession. Reason enough, therefore, for Erick van Egeraat to outline in somewhat populist yet certainly flamboyant style his views on architecture and landscape as a ‘big impact on a small scale’.

Architecture with a flavour

The first part of his lecture focused on what makes architecture 'good'. For Van Egeraat it is precisely the unnecessary accessories and decorative elements that give architecture its particular flavour, and that's the reason they survive through the ages. Things that seemingly lack purpose, which is why they have little appeal within the functionalist reality of the Netherlands. In this context, Van Egeraat manages to combine his own Dutch background with a cosmopolitan savoir vivre. Baroque references, to Dresden amongst others, clearly illustrate his thesis of emotionalism and 'beautiful reality serves no purpose', as opposed to rational 'hospital architecture'. No great conceptual depth is required because: 'it should simply taste good today, for it won't be the same tomorrow'. A refreshingly honest and simple view of architecture in a time of clever-sounding, self-referential sociological concepts. The parallel he draws with the world of fashion, however, is less appropriate. Last season's dress is older than yesterday's newspaper, and Van Egeraat seeks to erect buildings for eternity.

Dutch Mountains versus Polder Model

In addition to the Delft University Library from his Mecanoo period, an unsurprising choice given the theme of landscape and architecture, Van Egeraat also showed two less well-known designs. In Nagykovacsi, just outside Budapest, EEA has completed 40 dwellings in what you could call a 'two-under-one-mound' scheme. The two-level dwellings are half-sunk into the ground, and the grass that extends over the projecting half makes buildings and landscape merge into one. The external walls are faced in local stone that harmonises with the natural surroundings. Van Egeraat hardly needed to mention that this was a cunning way of developing more than the 25 percent of the site permitted by the regulations.

Projects like this are difficult to realise in the Haarlemmermeer polder. EEA's entry for the Toolenburg South residential competition takes its cue from the landscape in another way (or rather, the end of the landscape: the horizon). An enormous monolith like Ayers Rock, 20 floors high, provides views from the 1000 dwellings across the polder as far as the horizon.

Van Egeraat was rightly critical of the standard Dutch low-density residential developments with front and back gardens currently being built. To him, towns like Naarden and Haarlem that have evolved over time have more of the 'flavour' that people appreciate. He contrasts compact development, originally a way of creating fortified and safe towns, with the planned grid of Los Angeles, which is a response to very different considerations. The fact that Haarlem's history, not simply its density and appearance, is what really gives the town its identity didn't enter the discussion. The Dutch Mountains design can be considered not so much a feasible competition entry but, rather, a programmatic stacking of different dwellings for residents with different lifestyles. Including landscape for everyone.

Some of those in attendance were less appreciative of the radical proposal that Van Egeraat really wanted to get across in his enthusiastic presentation. In the ensuing discussion on the pros and cons of differentiated architecture with 'flavour', Van Egeraat made clear that it takes a lot of effort and money to replace uniform repetition with individualised architecture, but it is possible and necessary. He took the opportunity, too, to mention in passing that in Moscow, where EEA is working on a project, people are much more receptive to his ideas than they are in the Netherlands.

Although at times the lecture felt as if it had been cobbled together from fragments of previous presentations, it was still a successful examination of architecture and, equally, of the image of the architect.