The game and how it’s played

The Architecture in the Netherlands Yearbook 2007/2008 was presented by the publisher and editors in the NSDM warehouse in Amsterdam on April 23. The ‘unveiling’ of the cover made it clear that the current editorial team, in its last year, wanted to do it in a completely different way one more time.

Despite the high degree of predictability in terms of form and contents – in itself an important feature and the reason why this publication has been the best-selling architecture book in the Netherlands for more than 25 years – it’s still exciting to find out which projects were selected for the book and what observations the editors make on the basis of that selection.

This issue is the third and final compiled by the current editorial team (Daan Bakker, Allard Jolles, Michelle Provoost, Cor Wagenaar). It is also the best and most coherent of the three: an individual, substantiated choice accompanied by an extensive explanation of the chosen projects. The selection consists of a nice mixture of the usual suspects like Claus en Kaan (2x), MVRDV (2x), Neutelings Riedijk (2x), Benthem Crouwel (1x), DOK architecten with Aequo architects (1x) and Wiel Arets (1x); a strong showing by two relative newcomers: Mei (3x) and Marlies Rohmer (2x); and a handful of nice, small and/or unusual projects, among them the NDSM studio complex by Dynamo Architecten, the scheme that graces the Yearbook’s cover.

Never before has the cover been such a mess. Criss-crossing the picture are steel structures, in between which are seemingly randomly stacked boxes made of waste material. Thankfully the floor has been swept carefully and the photographer took a vantage point that conveys the spatial character optimally. Otherwise the viewer, professional or not, wouldn’t recognise in it exemplary architecture. But this design doesn’t grace the cover because it scores so highly in terms of architectural norms and rules, nor that it’s the ‘best’ building of the past year, as the unveiling of the cover, such a carefully guarded secret, would seem to suggest. It’s even debatable if this is even architecture at all in the traditional sense. A striking example of ‘interior urban design’ is how the architect accurately describes it. After all, it’s about organising public circulation space and drawing up the rules covering the height and programmatic content of the ‘buildings’ between the spaces.

The fact that this very design made the cover, therefore, is chiefly a statement that conveys the central theme of this Yearbook. The four essays on the selected projects explore the context within which these projects were created. The editors unravel the ‘world behind the building’. Commission and client, budget, regulations, tendering, local and national regulations and political ambitions: project after project is discussed in terms of which crucial choices were made, by whom they were made, and what the role of the designer was. This is the game, and this is how you play it. As the editors state with as many words in their introduction, ‘the success of the game determines the quality of the architecture.’

Between the lines, however, one can discern repeated criticism in the choice of ‘orgware’ analysis. To some extent the editors are critical of the lecture by Willem Jan Neutelings during the Architectuur 2.0 congress in which he argued for a return to the roots of the profession. All well and good, the editors rightly point out, but you won’t get there with professionalism alone; and you have to be an architect of Neutelings’ stature if you want to survive the procedural storm stirred up by clients and policy-makers. The others will just have to play the game and master the rules and tricks that apply.

The editors furthermore justify their choice of theme with the fact that in recent years ‘architecture criticism’ has ignored, or at least underestimated, the importance of this subject – namely the relation between design and the political/social context within which design comes about. Yet to me the reverse seems to be the case. It isn’t in reading and describing the process that criticism has been silent but, rather, in describing and critically interpreting the unique character of the profession itself. Rarely have both architects and critics beat around the bush so much when it comes to professional practice and of autonomous qualities of architecture itself as over the last decade. And that includes the three Yearbooks produced under the current editorial team.

If we are witnessing a loss of power or position in the game of architecture, then it’s the powerlessness to express the inherent uniqueness of the profession itself. As long as knowledge and ability (two fundaments of the profession says Neutelings), or particular rules and patterns cannot be expressed, then it is difficult to play the game and architecture is indeed at the mercy of the rules and patterns of the other players. Evocation (Neutelings’ third fundament) then becomes a juggling act, a magic trick whose rules must by definition remain secret. In that sense Neutelings hit the nail on the head. He was wrong, of course, in the idea – carefully avoided by himself but all too easily heard from those not paying attention fully – that sufficient mastery of the profession automatically leads to evocative architecture. That’s nonsense of course, and the editors make that clear enough in their analyses of the processes. That said, the editors can’t avoid concluding that, ultimately, it’s often ‘the architect’ or ‘architecture’ that makes the difference in the complex game of contemporary building. But the editors have practically nothing to say about what precisely constitutes that difference and – apart from managing the process and negotiating one’s way adeptly across the complex field of play – what is the key architectural ‘moment’ in a design. And we’re not talking here about flashy, so-called iconic architecture but, rather, about the relatively modest examples. What elevates an average building to architecture? That’s the question. And it’s not answered by just describing how the design came about, no matter how useful that may be for an understanding of the result.

From the outset the editors consciously wanted to present themselves more as commentators than critics of Dutch architectural production. In the first of their three Yearbooks they even promised to ‘steer well clear of theoretical speculation.’ Apart from the odd decision to do this in a publication that boasts a long tradition of critical comment, it has resulted in a broad exploration of the field of play. And thus they have paved the way for the next crop of editors who, once again, can get back to focussing on a critical review of the profession.