Quit and New Game: Architecture in the Netherlands Yearbook 2004>05

The Architecture in the Netherlands Yearbook 2004>05 is the last in the series from the current team of editors. In their introduction they review their period at the helm and put a number of questions to their successors.

The starting points employed by the editors highlight both the qualities and the problems with the Yearbook. The main idea put forward in the Yearbook this year is that the social context is of lesser importance than the architectural object. And sure enough, there is more concern for specific architectural qualities, but nonetheless the programme and its social impact still play a very big role. It does indeed seem advisable to tone down the social pretensions of architecture, since a complex mixture of economic and cultural factors always come into play. The illusion that architects are independent (and superior) beings capable of building a better (or ideal) society through socially-critical architecture is at odds with their reliance on clients in order to build.

In selecting the projects, the editors put forward plurality as the hallmark of contemporary architectural production. No doubt this is a logical reaction to the hype surrounding Dutch architecture in the 1990s, a decade in which the cheerful pragmatism of Dutch projects conveyed the unbearable lightness of late capitalism. But the editors also point out that, despite the plurality of Dutch production and the work they have selected to represent it, they attempt to pinpoint a number of general tendencies or developments. Though they form a significant element of the Yearbook, the individual essays sometimes feel forced. Highlighting tendencies often amounts to simply listing differences. Even in some interesting comparisons, for instance between the Son-o-House by NOX and La Defense by Van Berkel, the differences are most notable. Plurality, therefore, hinders attempts to describe general tendencies. What’s more, the pretension of plurality turns out to be a diversion as long as ‘autonomous’ projects that pursue their own logic are categorised according to social context. Case in point: the project by De Nijl, held up as an unavoidable reaction to the fragmented city, as an anchor of enduring values in an era of increasing speed. It’s precisely here that so little is said about architectural quality.

What’s more, the projects selected give pause for thought. Almost all are familiar to anyone who glances through magazines now and again. The influence of the detested media is as strong here as anywhere. Does this mean that these projects are so fantastic that there was no other choice? Or that the publicity machine is so dominant that it is impossible to include unknown projects? Or that plurality in contemporary architecture is limited to a number of successful model projects? Perhaps these questions offer the next editorial team some scope to look a little further – at projects that fail and why, at projects that received scant publicity, at projects that have more to offer in reality than on the printed page and that might balance the more mediagenic architecture. Perhaps this is an impossible aim, but it might provide a different perspective to that so clearly sought by this editorial team.

The introduction also states that the works included in the Yearbook should be considered in their everyday context, which is sometimes good and sometimes ugly and banal. Reference has already been made to the fabulous photo essay by Jeroen Musch, which captures the different characters of our polder landscape in a way that makes you want to see more. The impressive photos show such a striking landscape that they make you long for an essay about this everyday character, these surroundings that function as ‘mental background’ for the editors.

In the end the essays that stay closest to architecture are the most stimulating, where social developments are directly relevant to architecture. Examples are the essay ‘Architectural power play’, in which the contemporary tendency for risk management is noted in the baroque exuberance of over-constructed bridges, and the essay ‘Squaring the home’, in which the importance of the over-55s is seen as a possible influence on domestic floor plans. These are essays that best express the editors’ aim to return to old-fashioned architecture analyses.

Such essays raise suspicions about the editors’ claim that architecture now finds itself in a crisis, a view voiced with increasing frequency in various publications. But is Dutch architecture really in a crisis? Or are we just witnessing the passing of a hype fed by critics and driven by the economic boom. Can we get back to the business of more everyday work in architecture? That might generate less substance for essays in the Yearbook but hopefully all the more plans and photographs that are worth publishing. There are some wonderful projects in the Yearbook. So where’s the crisis? The crisis, if there is one, is in criticism, not architecture.

In its review the editors express disappointment at the current state of architecture. They argue that society, and hence architecture, is strongly individualised, and they regret the lack of a collective consciousness. But is that not simply a reaction to the coercive collectivism of an earlier era? Would it not it be more worthwhile to look for examples in which collectivism manifests itself than to rue the fact that an earlier, 1960s utopian idea of community solidarity no longer exists?

Sometimes the answer seems to lie hidden in the projects selected by the editors themselves. A different form of collectivism is perhaps contained in the project by OMA in which infrastructure functions as a public building. Here the architectural quality of space is precisely what’s important.

Their view of architecture policy follows this line of thinking too. The highly planned Dutch landscape is starting to fragment. It is probably more interesting to look at the bureaucracy that comes with new policy forms and the problems they bring with them. Given current regulations, the freedom of individual building projects is often no more than a semblance of freedom.

Finally, the architect is seen as suffering from a hangover after a night on the town. But is that really the case? Is the hangover as widespread as claimed, or does is just affect the offices featured all the time in the Yearbooks? Or is it again down to the perception of critics rather than a hangover caused by architecture itself? There is an implicit reference to the apparent ‘power’ enjoyed by architects in the 1990s. But was that not an illusion spawned by developers ready to invest in and enjoy building projects.

The editors look back on the architecture of the last five years and on their own work in the Yearbook. They also point to issues that, they hope, will prove significant in the years ahead. Of genuine importance in his regard are both the social commitment and professional knowledge of and skill in architecture. But you have to hand it to the editors: raising all these issues is a very elegant way of paving the way for the next editorial team. The answer to their closing question ‘Quit or New Game’ is clear: New Game.