On the 21st of November of last year, I had the chance to attend “The Next Power of Dutch Architecture”. The event was organized in under three weeks to an absolute perfection, and gathered more than 10 female speakers of the highest calibre. The spark that started it all was the reaction of Christine de Baan to the 10 white male line up of the Architecture Congress previously organized by de Architect with the theme The Power of Dutch Architecture.
Besides the fantastic presentations and the large quantity of useful information, throughout the day it was emphasized on multiple occasions that we need “to make the right friends”. Meaning that, we needed to create better relations with authorities and with people of influence that can help us in creating a better architectural environment.
And while this is something we indeed must see through, how about working on all available plans and making use of the force that is user feedback? Not one single person mentioned the need to better the line of communication with the actual folks we design for as well as making them more aware of what they need to pay attention to.
When I asked him about the line of communication between people and architects and how to better reach them, Li Hu stated that one starts by winning an important contest, find the right client or build one’s best work ever. However, all that still rather keeps architecture tied to the people found at the intersection between willing to see further than just asset investments and having the authority and means to invest. And thought it might make one think that creating something recognizable in the architecture community is the basis of communicating with the actual user, I challenge you to see how many people in the Netherlands actually know who Rem Koolhaas is.
And speaking about OMA. As a social and cultural anthropology aficionado, immersing myself in the stories of how things unfolded, which Reinier de Graaf put on paper for his book “Four Walls and a Roof”, was something I was really looking for. Little did I know that along with them I would also sign up for a decent portion of depression.
“Once I began working for myself, things hardly improved. I quickly discovered that the economic needs render the architect a largely powerless figure. Saying no or questioning a client’s directives is at best a matter of gentle persuasion and never a battle of equals. As a profession, architecture presents a paradox. In economic terms, it is mainly a reactive discipline, a response to preformulated needs; in intellectual terms, it is the opposite: a visionary domain that claims the future, aspiring to set the agenda and precede needs. Architecture is a form of omniscience practiced in a context of utter dependency.” – Reinier de Graaf , Four Walls and a Roof
In the book, he talks about how he would love to design uncomplicated residential architecture. The kind that is actually made for people and not just to make money. And that, to me, is the epitome of the irony of residential architecture in the Netherlands.
Social housing in the Netherlands started at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, it was a great pride to be designing new residences for the working class. However, in 1993, after almost a century of cultural tradition and major investments, the Dutch government relinquished its responsibility on building residential architecture and cut subsidies for social housing.
The downsides of the last 26 years can be seen in the overall quality of design and construction. Identical houses or blocks of flats built closer and closer than ever in order to maximize use of land slowly but steadily take over the green landscape. Segregating functions is still a widely used urban approach, most likely due to its ease in planning and construction, despite proven downsides to the social life and the economy of a city. And thought most new residences are decreasing in size, they are rather inefficient in their use of available space.
In the same time the old built environment screams for attention and, once again, a more efficient use. A large percentage of built square meters is still gathering dust, as apparently sometimes an empty building can be more profitable than an occupied one.
In her presentation “Happy people in healthy architecture”, Lone Wiggers talks about the circuit between the high quality of Scandinavian public design and the demand for better quality design, and how the two feed of each other. As a society, this is the ideal place to be in. However, in order to get there a starting point is required. One side must step forward.
“The quality of public design has traditionally been very high in Denmark and in Scandinavia, so you could argue that the common building, the building quality of society’s common buildings (it’s all our buildings) it actually is so powerful because the welfare state is so important in the Scandinavian society that it actually rubs off on the private sector as well, and it kind of educates and impacts the users who are raising their demands and standards of quality. And so, when the public sector takes a strong lead and sort of goes ahead in demanding quality of design (pressured by the user) it educates the population again and raises the expectation of quality. So, this is a very interesting circle, and I believe personally, that that is one of the reasons why the Scandinavian countries have this high design profile because it is the democratic user pressure and expectations of more and more good design.
What we are seeing now, unfortunately is that politically there is not the same kind of respect and loyalty to that quality of program. There are other issues that are more important, apparently… So, this is a challenge that we feel every day when we go to work.” – Lone Wiggers, Happy people in healthy architecture
Unfortunately, people who do not have an interest in architecture or interior design are usually not aware of the abovementioned issues. The market tool to go to is not an architect but an online website with rent/buy available real-estate. Beautiful, detailed, interesting and innovative houses can be found on the websites of various architecture studios, but regular folks like you and I, buy theirs on funda.nl.
In the Q&A round of a presentation, held at Garage Rotterdam, about some of the problems of present day Dutch residential architecture, I was asked why do I label floor plans that have been in use for many years, as inefficient and impractical. They had lived themselves in a similar apartment and they considered everything to be perfectly fine.
The reaction shows the impressive human ability to adapt and the need for experiences outside of one’s comfort zone. Being fine is not thriving. And here in Western Europe we’re not designing for basics anymore, we refining.
At least we’re supposed to…
I thus believe, focusing only on “the right friends” means not making the most of available resources. The Netherlands has a strong history of social and cultural activism. People have been voicing their concerns, actively getting involved in being heard and being proactive in finding possible solutions. They have fought for their right to a safe biking infrastructure, protected buildings and in recent years started leading the way in environmental consciousness. So where is that activism in regard to residential architecture? Are we complacent in our comfort or simply not aware that things can be better and, implicitly, what to ask for?
When I pointed this out during the final debate at the “The Next Power of Dutch Architecture”, I was obviously asked how would I tackle this? And whether I see media as a strong enough medium to raise awareness?
I believe that in the overflow of information that already we have to navigate on a daily basis, trying to raise awareness on such a complicated issue through media alone, has a great chance of getting lost in the noise. Not to mention the decline in reliable sources and the loss of trust that there isn’t a commercial reason behind the approach.
Combining media and education stands a better chance of reaching the desired audience. Providing information on the importance of one’s environment at an early age, debating the topic in schools, writing about it, and essentially bringing it in the foreground is just the very first step. All this has to be backed up through the action of the professionals in the field that have to get used to reach a different type of audience and help people understand the relevance of their work. Just like any other architect, I love a good debate with my peers. And while it is rewarding, writing for an audience of architects alone will not help in changing people’s view of architecture from purchasable product to investment in one’s development.
User feedback and a clear understanding of one’s needs are two of the most important elements in my opinion. Ironically, user feedback in architecture is an underused resource, if not the most underused. Yes, research and analysis are the basis of any project, yet how many offices commonly go back to interview the residents of a building and see how well they fared?
Teaching a better understanding of one’s needs and relevant ways to impact personal development from an early age is the next step in development for any educational system. A clear awareness of how one’s environment impact works will help bridge the gap between users and architects. It will also provide the user with a much better understanding in regard to what they need to demand from the market in order to jump start the desired cycle of demand and production of higher quality.
And once again, it all comes back to a two-way line of communication!
 Christine de Baan – founder and managing director of ROAM foundation
 LI Hu – architect, founding partner at Open Architecture
 Rem Koolhaas – architect, founding partner at Office for Metropolitan Architecture
 OMA – Office of Metropolitan Architecture, architecture office in the Netherlands
 Reinier de Graaf – architect, partner at Office for Metropolitan Architecture
 Lone Wiggers – architect, partner at C.F. Møller Architects
 Funda – Dutch real-estate website