The future of the old, sluggish discipline

The NAi organised a symposium on the future of architecture in association with Victor Veldhuijzen van Zanten on November 9, 2007. Architecture 2.0, The Destiny of Architecture was a marathon session of lectures by prominent architects. It was a gathering that contemplated the future by looking back at the past.

In a packed Doelen theatre, and on a day when water levels reached their highest since 1953, NAi director Ole Bouman asked the cream of Dutch architecture whether the future of architecture is something beyond our control or something we can influence. Francine Houben, Wiel Arets, Ben van Berkel, Willem-Jan Neutelings, Winy Maas and Rem Koolhaas were all present. Since designing and organising are always inextricably linked in architecture, public officials were also represented by Ivo Opstelten (Mayor of Rotterdam) and Elco Brinkman (chairman of Bouwend Nederland). Government architect Mels Crouwel was asked to review the architects’ presentations at the end of the day.

The worlds of designing and regulating didn’t come closer to each other during this symposium, however. The reason was that most speakers chose the approach most familiar to them. As per usual, the administrators shrouded the audience in a blanket of foggy language. The architects bombarded those present with PowerPoint images of their not inconsiderable achievements. But that’s not what we came for.

No wonder the contribution from Willem-Jan Neutelings received a generous round of applause. He focused on the central question of the symposium, and the only visuals he employed were the titles of the five ‘chapters’ that comprised his story. He launched a veritable J’accuse. Architects no longer master the language of their profession. They are guilty of amateur science with their data-scaping and lapse into a form of pseudo-journalism without offering answers to the problems they highlight. They seduce without convincing, and in the process they’ve become dependent on computer technology. Urban designers and the associated public agencies also came under fire. Owing to the crisis in the profession (caused by unwillingness or ignorance, he didn’t specify), urban design has become the incomprehensible result of socio-economic forces. Rotterdam, he told Opstelten, isn’t a city but a collection of odd buildings. Neutelings argued for a return to the traditional architectural values of knowledge, skill and evocative power. Buildings are inert masses, architecture has a tradition that extends back 5000 years, and designing is a slow discipline. The real challenge for the future, he argued, isn’t the 5% spectacular architecture made up of museums and opera houses but the other 95%, the architecture of everyday in which core values such as sustainability, quality and comfort have to acquire shape.

None of the other speakers examined the issue of identity so generically or deeply. Francine Houben argued that nature is stronger than architecture, and that the growth markets in Asia and Russia pay scant attention to sustainability. Nonetheless, she frankly wondered how long she could resist designing megalomaniac buildings without context for the oligarchies of our times. Winy Maas preached the MVRDV method. He was supported by Mels Crouwel in his proven assertion that experiments can actually be built as icons for the future. Wiel Arets had a relevant example (though modest in scale) for today with his Hedgehouse. In this small museum for a private collection the art hangs beside the chickens so that the house complies with the local zoning plan. He could thus span a bridge between design and regulations. Ben van Berkel’s tale was as fluid as his buildings. With his Mercedes museum as backdrop he cited Baudrillard as he wondered why everything in architecture had to have value. Luckily, the computer not only allows him to design better, as he said himself, but also to communicate increasingly better on the subject. Rem Koolhaas of course has long soared beyond the Netherlands and now seems to have left architecture behind him for good. His point appeared to be was that you don’t build to achieve a social aim but, rather, that you attain a social position so that you can then perhaps build something. He illustrated that by opening his lecture, which had alliances as its main theme, with an image of Bush and Blair and ended with an image of Koolhaas in an aureole of the stars in the European Parliament. Some of the audience regretted that this late contribution disrupted the closing forum discussion.

The final conclusion of chairman Bouman was that the discipline isn’t facing a crisis. That was disappointing and unworthy of the unique array of talent present, given the size and urgency of the questions he himself had raised. Interspersed among the presentations of the ‘starchitects’ were five-minute presentations that did reflect the urgency of the symposium. These ‘elevator pitches’ by young talented architects succeeded in providing some counterweight, although they were primarily used as sanitary pauses because of the packed programme. Mels Crouwel wished them every success.