Crash | icon 003 | June 2003

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photo: David Levene photo: David Levene
words Kieran Long

The golden age of Dutch architecture is over. Rotterdam's first international architecture biennale has opened in a country with a failing economy, and a newly right-wing political climate.

Even though construction is still steaming ahead on the Kop van Zuid regeneration area, the piledrivers sound more like a death knell for a scene that prospered through the self-obsessed 1990s, but looks increasingly out of place in the newly sober and nervous 21st century.

The Netherlands' domination of the world architectural scene has lasted a decade beginning with the Vinex housing masterplans of the early Nineties, and ending now, with an architecture festival that finally reveals that the Netherlands has lost its critical edge. It is no longer the provocative knowing voice, familiar from the manifesto-mongering of OMA, MVRDV and UN Studio. This festival seems all too unaware of its context, exploring its theme of mobility through a mix of fantastical visions by invited architects and ivory tower academia from a selection of international universities.

Rotterdam is, on the face of it, an ideal place to institute a major exhibition, and the aspiration was to make Rotterdam a serious, research-led version of Venice. The exhibition occupies all of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) - the self-proclaimed "most influential institute in the world" - and a series of warehouses on the Kop van Zuid near UN Studio's landmark Erasmus bridge.

The Dutch elections that took place in January this year, along with the preceding year of political turbulence, was widely trailed as the start of a period of self-examination for the Dutch electorate. Still now, in Rotterdam itself, the openly fascist Nederlandse Volks-Unie occupies two council seats in the Feyenoord district, and the mainstream agenda has been irrevocably affected by the legacy of murdered right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn. His taboo- breaking criticism of the Netherlands' liberal immigration policy and bigoted remarks about Islam changed the face of Dutch public life, and engendered a new self-consciousness into the self-satisfied political classes. Dutch architecture of the 1990s, too, had a moral certainty about it created both by the unquestioned liberalism of the regime, and by its perceived link with the high modernist project of JJP Oud, Bakema and others. In the new climate, moral certainty looks crass, rather than reassuring, and it seems that Dutch architecture is not yet conscious of this.

Maxwan, an up-and-coming name in the Netherlands, is a fine example of this. Its House on a Highway project, exhibited in the open biennale in the Las Palmas warehouse, puts accommodation in large balls suspended on thin legs above the highway. These are characterised as "trees", with the spherical forms justified as follows: "The ball is without direction and allows for very loose urban arrangements. The ball allows for fantastic 360¡ panoramas, as seen from the interior. Basically, the ball is geometrically simple and therefore prone to repetition and therefore economical." The relentless flawed logic, the bankrupt metaphors taken from nature and the cosmetic appearance of simplicity are all characteristic of the Dutch architecture with which we have a love-hate relationship. The patois, though, has now become a justification in itself; technique has become method, and while the new generation can talk the talk, they are looking far less convincing in their walking.

The Netherlands still wants to solve universal problems through abstraction. Invoffice, the alter ego of media artist Frans Vogelaar, advocates in its Idensity project an architecture that exists in a moral and cultural vacuum, where the benefits of communication and the media are self-evident: "Identity is related to connectivity and place. Privacy is inverting to the public. In today's non-spaces of surmodernity we are always on the move." The Invoffice project tries to "accelerate local events and collide them with the global" and aims at the "fusion of the media and urban space" in a variety of images somewhere between media, art and architecture.

Looking at work like this, it is impossible to know that the development of the biennale took place through an unparalleled time of domestic political upheaval and global crisis. The whole festival has become an examination of the car as a fact of life, and the opportunity for the self-proclaimed avant-garde to legitimise its nebulous project through making form out of a discourse of networks, flows and connectivity.

The development of the biennale was initiated by former NAI director Kristin Feireiss, then passed on to Mecanoo boss Francine Houben when Feireiss left the institute last year. This curatorial buck-passing has clearly not helped the development of the exhibition, and there is a very strong feeling that the content has been sourced from friends of the curators, without strong editorial control and in thrall to the global star system in architecture.

The Holland Avenue part of the festival, on the top floor of the NAI, is presented as a section where schools from around the world were given an invitation to submit mobility-related projects by students. In practice, the exhibition is dominated by the charges of star tutors such as Zaha Hadid, Alejandro Zaera-Polo, Hani Rashid and Odile Decq. The open biennale section, in effect a showcase of transport-related projects from around the world, was equally haphazard in its procurement, with an email call for entries followed by a huge sifting process. About 130 proposals appear in this section.

Paul Meurs, curator of the Motopias exhibition, told me that the selection of projects for his part of the show had rested entirely on the opinions of a group of respected architects. Therefore, the selection is entirely canonical - Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Willem Jan Neutelings, among others - and a huge opportunity missed to examine other mobility utopias, perhaps in art, literature, science and film.

The overwhelming feeling is that one approach to the subject is not priviliged above another, and that the biennale, in the end, has not made a stand. The theme has a very complex and perhaps slightly worrying relationship to the political swing to the right that has occurred in Dutch politics in the last two years. The so-called "Polder model" of Dutch collective society is in the process of being deconstructed. The car is clearly both a symptom and a cause of this - both the ultimate expression of the atomised self in the capitalist world, and a necessity in a country arranged around the Randstad motorway ring between The Hague, Rotterdam, Delft, Amsterdam and Utrecht. While the biennale is an admirable attempt to force the authorities to think about road design, there are other battles to be fought.

One Amsterdam architect I spoke to, who appeared in the famous Superdutch book that defined a generation of architects in the Netherlands, talked about the coming decade as one that could return the country to the dark ages of architecture. With the European subsidies that allowed Dutch housing design to become the most innovative in the world running dry, and the private market collapsing, "the spatial experimentation will stop, and banality will rule again," he says. The Netherlands owes it to the world to examine its legacy of contemporary design, and reflect on the mistakes and successes, and build on them. If the biennale is anything to go by, the march of meretricious form-making disguised as experimentation could mean that Dutch architecture loses the irreverent pragmatism that made it a force in the first place.

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