A Tale of Two Yearbooks

Under Pressure: Architecture in the Netherlands 2018-2019 is actually two books: one, a collection of twenty-seven projects of varying scales and functions that were realized over the past year in the Netherlands; the other, a captivating journalistic excursus through the urgent issues facing our profession and society today, narrated by compelling, humane voices. Unfortunately, the two don’t quite match up.

Under Pressure: Architecture in the Netherlands 2018-2019

Under Pressure — the yearbook’s thematic thread developed by editors Kirsten Hannema, Robert-Jan de Kort and Lara Schrijver — is coloured in vividly from the outset. Demographics driving up density, putting pressure on transportation and health services; climate change and its urgent implications on how we consume; the prism of social media fragmenting the complex issues of the day into dazzling, flattened, soundbites. The editors also highlight the ongoing retreat of the government as a organizing force, with the stable public framework of yesterday’s Grands Projets in ruins. The resulting lone citizen, entreated to perform harder – work-life distinctions blurring into a smartphone-fuelled haze of perpetual activity – is in danger of collapsing from burnout. The ‘pressure’ we are collectively ‘under’ is emphatically described, and it is convincing.

Then you turn the page and stumble upon the projects, and you wonder for a moment if they belong to the same book. We are shown the new Courthouse in Breda, by Hootsmans and Paul de Ruiter. We learn that ‘the low-key material palette of concrete, wood, aluminium and glass underscores the desire to create a tranquil atmosphere’. We briefly flit through EGM Architecten’s Erasmus MC and its ‘patient-focused environment’. Then there are the new metro stations in Amsterdam, designed by Benthem & Crouwel, that generate ‘[a] restful impression, not least because of the absence of kiosks and advertising’.

The relaxation doesn’t stop there, though. Contemporary architecture in the Netherlands is committed to making you feel really calm. The MFC Doelum in the town of Renkum, by NOAHH + Studio Ney van Noort, is a multipurpose hall, combining sports facilities (which can also be used by local schools) with day-care space and a café. ‘The key word in this project is relaxation.’ The same goes for De Boel by Hans van Heeswijk architecten, a renovated low-income housing block in Amsterdam. Its rooftop terrace is ‘[a] city oasis where residents can relax or host a party, and which also collects rainwater’. You don’t say? The Clarissenhof in Tilburg by DOK, which looks like a sanatorium located somewhere in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, is yet another ‘space for rest and contemplation’.

In a logical but somewhat tone-deaf arithmetic, the only response to ‘pressure’, seems to be ‘rest and relaxation’. This creates the effect, at least in this particular reader, of further enflaming the sense of mounting pressure. With such a dire worldview forecast in the introduction, many of the projects that follow seem to miss the point, instead casting the architect as purveyor of spatial sedatives.

Studio Ossidiana’s Prix de Rome winner / Amsterdam Allegories figures amongst the speculative projects featured in the editorial thread / pages from yearbook 2018-2019

In contrast, the editorial parentheses inserted within the stolid line of projects glimmers with intelligence. In Incomparable Coherence, Robert-Jan de Kort reflects on the legacy of the Dutch socio-political ‘DNA’ that gave rise to the Delta Works. He refers to the glory days of this ‘integrated spatial project’ in the 1950s, alerting to the new challenges under today’s neoliberal model – such as the intrinsic need for marketing of projects watering them down, and the more fragmented ‘patchwork’ of initiatives that necessarily arises when central government is diluted.

Kirsten Hannema’s Amor Vacui expounds on the notion of emptiness as a building block in its own right. Hannema surveys the blurring of the boundary between work and leisure brought about by new technologies, the need to constantly be ‘on’ that this produces, and the resulting burn-out. She declares, quoting writer and burnout-sufferer Bregje Hofstede, that the problem is not lack of energy to do things, it is ‘lack of emptiness’. Hannema pleads for a limit to density and for the preservation of indeterminate public space as a means to escape the mechanistic tick-tock of our personal rat-races. In Material Agency, Lara Schrijver renders an eloge to ‘vibrant matter’, and its ability to ‘bring the scale of the world down to a direct and tangible intimacy’, a lucid praise of material processes that avoids the creaking, moralistic scare-mongering of so much sustainability discourse.

Perhaps not so incidentally, both Schrijver and Hannema give a nod to the recent Prix de Rome projects, outstanding young talent exploring new approaches in relation to some of the themes in Under Pressure. Schrijver evokes winner Studio Ossidiana as one young practice developing an ‘enhanced sensitivity to the secret life of things’, whose Amsterdam Allegories project allows for a reading of ‘the joy, the frustration, the actual sensibility with which it was made’. The editorial pieces are intelligent, vivid, and intriguing as a whole. They manifest an earnest conscience grappling with the important issues of the day and avoiding trite answers. They imply that we need (subtle) game changers: fresh approaches and meaningful concrete actions that do not fall back on nostalgia for sweeping gestures of a bygone past, but rather resound exuberantly in the present.

Civic’s Piushaven offers a free hug / pages from yearbook 2018-2019

Towards the end of the 150-odd pages of the yearbook, a handful of small projects echo the spark of the editorial stream of consciousness. We find ourselves reading more about processes, design decisions, and projects that criticize (or create their own) brief. For example, Civic’s Piushaven, a pavilion containing a café in Tilburg, reaches out with Neue Nationalgalerie-esque roof beams to embrace the space around it. The architects argued for an expanded footprint in order to preserve unprogrammed public space around and on top of the café, and succeeded in convincing the city council to make the additional investment to ensure this.

Unfolding Rubik’s Cube – Huis Eén by Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk / pages from yearbook 2018-2019

A cluster of small residential projects by Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk, BETA and ANA architecten, often self-initiated, impress with a spatial tetris of partitions, kitchen units, bedrooms, bathrooms; interlocking and overlapping houses in a house; subtle compositions of everyday activities with simple materials.

Huis Eén by Lilith Ronner van Hooijdonk articulates inter-generational living for a young family and their elder parents, for whom living together necessarily means formulating how to also be apart. With an unfolding twist of a Rubik’s Cube, the architects compose two houses in one; different structural systems, entrance facades, and terrace spaces that effortlessly sculpt zones of privacy in close quarters. The three-generation house by BETA in Amsterdam is a self-initiated, low-cost owner-occupied home that also contains two dwellings in one for a young family and grandparents. The juxtaposition of austere cinder blocks and warm wood panelling is invigorating.

The Schetsblok by ANA architecten was created for three self-build collectives. The architects proposed a load-bearing façade so that apartment partitions and services could be arranged in a greater variety of layouts. Buyers were able to design their own homes using an online platform. The sober rhythms of the quasi-corporate façade belie the organic articulation of plans within.

Hilberinkbosch’s Sixteen-oak barn, a cadavre exquis. / Project photo by René de Wit / pages from yearbook 2018-2019

Perhaps the most intriguing project featured in Under Pressure, the Sixteen-oak barn by Hilberinkbosch was designed and built from trees on site. Slated to be taken down due to their poor condition, the oak trees’ substance was thoroughly exploited and different parts of the trunk assigned the purpose most suitable to their material quality. Structural elements, shingles, as well as formwork for the concrete foundation were made with wood from the trees found on site. Most strikingly, panels of skinned bark, like a vegetal travertine, clad swathes of the barn’s façade. The result is an architectural cadavre exquis, marrying poetics and practicality — surely a welcome alternative to the token green-washing normally used to mollify clients and councils.

Under Pressure signals critical issues for the coming years in the Netherlands — density, new forms of collectivity and agency, renewed approaches towards materiality — but doesn’t easily find the responses in the material at hand. It is a mixed bag, with a few tasty morsels soaking in the juice at the bottom. What else was to be expected, when this is simply the state of the profession? The breadth of scales, programme and styles of projects in the book is diverse and non-partisan — it’s safe to say that this is a relatively objective scan of what is being built today in the Netherlands. This year’s crop simply highlights the paucity of most contemporary architecture, its complicity in a system that it is powerless to change, its resignation to playing a supporting role with a stock repertoire of palette variations. As invigorating as the editorial narrative of Architecture in the Netherlands is, most of the projects are quaint solutions to routine problems and not much more. There is, nonetheless, the occasional joyful spark, and perhaps these brief glimpses can succeed in calling us to action. After all, next year’s architecture yearbook can only be as good as the architects…