Hostages of reality

The Yearbook Architecture in the Netherlands has become an institution one cannot escape. Every few years the successful formula is critically revised by a new editorial board. This was one such year. The editorial team of recent years has been replaced by a whole new quartet made up of Daan Bakker, Allard Jolles, Michelle Provoost and Cor Wagenaar (one architect and three historians).

The contrived optimistic mood makes one immediately think of the propaganda of the ‘projective’ and the ‘post-theoretical’, as expressed by Bob Somol and Michael Speaks. Stylos recently organised the Projective Landscape congress on the subject. A paradox discernible in the ‘projectives’ is also discernible in the yearbook editors: intellectuals who adopt an anti-intellectual position. The difficult thing about this ‘post-theoretical’ idea is that people no longer reveal their colours or are prepared to take a stand. They let themselves be held hostage by ‘reality’ as something unavoidable. The hostage syndrome makes them embrace the unavoidable without reservation and identify with it wholeheartedly. It’s interesting to ask why historians in particular voice this ‘post-theory’, since it amounts to a form of self-denial. By their own account, what the historians among the yearbook editors enjoy most is rushing out of the library and jumping into the car to soak up the raw reality on the streets.

Once out on the street and in the car, the editors see the ‘new Netherlands’ appear, a new order characterised by ‘… the disappearance of all correlation between the daily rhythms of the average resident and the spatial patterns within the city and between cities and surroundings.’ This disappearance of the correlation goes hand in hand with the ‘self-sufficiency of traffic flows’. They become ‘autonomous networks’, which is proof of ‘a victory of the market, which aspires to be borderless and global and to free itself from local conditions’.

These are moments you wish you could pull the editors straight out of the car and drag them back into the library to read a good book by Saskia Sassen or Arnold Reijndorp for example. Perhaps then it would dawn on them that while correlation is disappearing, new forms of correlation are being formed, including new hierarchies and new forms of centrality and locality. That’s precisely what you want to learn more about in a yearbook. Unfortunately, the editors prefer to pontificate further by way of association.

Apart from the fact that passages like this make it difficult to take the authors seriously, you also wonder why they think it’s ‘new’. It all sounds like a distant echo of the 1990s mixed with the Pim Fortuyn revolt: a large dose of market, a bit of infrastructure, a dollop of populism and hey presto: a portrait of our age. You just wish the editors dared to venture further instead of delivering clichés like these. Just what sort of market are we talking about when we’re talking about city branding and property development? Is there really a pure market situation in the Netherlands, as the editors suggest? Who are the parties involved? And who does the architect have to deal with? What and who determines the space in which the architect can manoeuvre? Does the architect have any influence on it? What authority and what expertise are architects able and permitted to contribute, and what are they denied? These are all questions that the editors ignore instead of ponder.

The limited tenability of the presuppositions held by the editors is further underlined by their own selection of projects. While the travelogue brims with praise for the ‘market’, very little of that ‘market’ is in evidence in the documented projects. Of the 32 schemes included, 24 were commissioned by (semi-)public bodies, while only four were commissioned by private developers. What’s more, there’s precious little evidence of the signalled retro-trend or the populism so praised by the editors. The two that are included seem to be the key works in this yearbook: the centre of Ypenburg by Rapp + Rapp, and Castle Leliënhuyze by Soeters Van Eldonk Ponec, both indeed built by property developers.

The importance of these projects is not that they represent a ‘new’ moment. Rather, they continue the development started by Kattenbroek in Amerfoort and the Eastern Harbour Islands in Amsterdam. They are important because, more than the other projects, they absorb the inconsistencies under which architects have to build in architecture that is powerful and original. Still, these two projects can also be criticized. More than the others, they illustrate as well how difficult it is to see architecture and the architectural ptoject as a collective enterprise that may counter the fragmentation of the city. The two projects represent the extremes of the current spectrum. While Christian Rapp opts for a strict and anonymous architecture, Soeters cheerfully indulges in an individualist castle fantasy.

This is just one of the many real issues evident on the Dutch streets and waiting to be addressed, but the yearbook editors prefer to look the other way. Maybe next time they should drive a little less fast.

Although the yearbook series displays a large measure of continuity -– this year’s edition is no different – the four editors still felt the need in the opening article to deal with the departing editorial group made up of Anne Hoogewoning, Roemer van Toorn, Piet Vollaard and Arthur Wortmann. What’s more, they make quite a fuss announcing a supposed new age, a new Netherlands and a ‘new man’.

Dealing with the yearbook series just concluded essentially means dispensing with the contemplative essays. The current editors limit themselves to a collectively written ‘travelogue’ of long car drives across the Netherlands. Entitled ‘Happiness To Suit Every Purse’, this report forms the appetiser for the main course: the selected projects. The question why it’s apparently no longer necessary to include critical reflection is left unanswered. Right from the very first paragraphs it’s clear that the editors intend to steer well clear of ‘theory’ or other forms of reflection. ‘Architecture theory’, apparently, has nothing to do with what’s going on in the Netherlands because it isn’t ‘evident on the street’. The editors like ‘driving fast’ and only look in the rear-view mirror to see the ‘old’ Netherlands vanishing over the horizon. According to the editors, it’s not their task but that ‘of others to outline the background’ to the drastic developments now affecting our country. Their implied influence on architectural work is also left unexplained by the editors.

By adopting such an attitude, the editors undermine the yearbook’s very right to exist. For what else is the book for? The least you could expect is a bit of sharp analysis, or some attempt to offer fresh insight. But, claim the editors, no-one’s waiting for gloomy criticism written ‘with quivering lower lip and tear-filled eyes’. The new age demands unrestrained optimism because ‘happiness’ is there for the taking, for those who want it.

The editors thus donned their rose-coloured glasses, revved up, and sped around the Netherlands for a week. Through the windscreen they saw a new country appear, a country that’s turned into ‘one big happiness factory’, a ‘perfect (i.e. attuned to each individual’s wishes) habitat for the new human being’. That’s become possible because the ‘market’ prevails in the Netherlands today and because the ‘planned economy’ in which authorities, urban designers and architects determined what was good for people has been dispensed with. According to the editors, ‘both illusion and decor are fundamental values of the new age’, and they don’t seem to really mind. In fact, they don’t have any views about this at all. Now and again a bit of doubt creeps into the report – as if some back-seat passenger occasionally tries to raise an objection – but the conclusion leaves us in no doubt. ‘There is no end to happiness in the new Netherlands’, and critics should restrain from passing judgement or expressing an opinion on the matter.

Two main questions arise. How innocent and sincere is this uncritical stance adopted by the editors? And how new is this new Netherlands really?