Crisis of identity: Le Medi by Geurst & Schulze Architects

Le Medi, a Mediterranean neighbourhood consisting of 93 dwellings in the Rotterdam district of Bospolder designed by Geurst & Schulze Architects, was completed this year.

Le Medi, Rotterdam

A visit to Le Medi made me ask myself the following question. What was the assignment that Woonbron Maasoevers housing association set for the architect to achieve this result? Or was it: Make a housing complex in a Mediterranean style that is more in harmony with the original environment of the neighbourhood’s residents. Or maybe: Make a housing complex for a Mediterranean target group that can identify with this style. Or even: Make a residential block with characteristics of Mediterranean dwellings that are in complete harmony with the contemporary needs of housing consumers in terms of both individuality and the design and interpretation of residential wishes. The last of these assignments in particular seems to have been addressed, though the cultural aspect was probably the starting point (In the vast majority of their projects, Geurst and Schulze do not refer specifically to any Arabic style). Remarkably, this residential style appeals to a number of target groups. I came across Dutch people young and old, for example, as well as people of foreign extraction. A specific design style, therefore, didn’t produce a predictable target group, and the architectural identity of the Mediterranean is interchangeable it seems. So is it really possible to design for a particular cultural target group? And should we actually want to do that?

There seems to be something of an identity crisis here. Original cultures are transforming as they come into contact with other cultures. Headscarves with stilettos are no longer an exception on Dutch streets. The Surinaams language spoken by Dutch youths is now an integral aspect of current youth culture. And Le Medi appeals to Dutch yuppies as a residential location.

Corporations gather identity experts, architects, designers, philosophers and sociologists to define housing consumers and produce made-to-measure home designs for them. But in the current multiform society this exercise seems to have reached the limits of what can be measured owing to a total blurring of identities. Besides, the relation between architecture and cultural identity is much more complex than we think it is.

Within Dutch culture you can already discern a discrepancy between traditionalist and modern architectural housing styles, which makes it difficult to say exactly which people feel at home in which type of architecture. The current cultural diversity makes the issue of identity even more complex. And within new cultures one can distinguish conservative and more modern groups who not only have different lifestyles but also different preferences when it comes to design.

Does that mean Le Medi is a failure? Yes, if the aim was to provide the local Moroccan population with homes in their own style. Irrespective of this objective, however, a residential complex has been created that responds to very contemporary Dutch housing issues thanks to its carefully executed stylistic analysis. The range of façades creates a sense of individuality. In addition, individual housing wishes can be met thanks to the wide range of extension possibilities offered by Le Medi. And the clear boundary between collective space and public space creates a sense of safety.

With the careful detailing of façades that feature articulated frames around the windows, stepped ornamentation in the expanses of brickwork and strategic use of colour, columns and embellishments, the neighbourhood refers to classic stylistic elements that still appeal strongly to a large group of house buyers in the Netherlands.

Architects like Piet Blom, Aldo van Eyck and also Hertzberger looked to the architecture of the Arabic world. The Kasbah housing scheme by Piet Blom in Hengelo is proof of that. Dutch architecture has long embraced the Arabic living style. Le Medi is in fact a solid, exceedingly Dutch housing product covered with an exotic sauce.