The shock of the new Dutch masters

Holland is currently thought the top architecture nation in Europe. Indeed, the Dutch regard themselves as heralds of a 'Second Modernity'. What can they mean?
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It is said in some British architectural quarters that Dutch architects are hot, the happening thing. Lord Rogers, for one, has been happy to endorse them. But what really gives? Are they thirty- and forty-something messiahs, or just purveyors of buildings (and weird sex) with grandstanding iconic twists?

It is said in some British architectural quarters that Dutch architects are hot, the happening thing. Lord Rogers, for one, has been happy to endorse them. But what really gives? Are they thirty- and forty-something messiahs, or just purveyors of buildings (and weird sex) with grandstanding iconic twists?

There would be no debate if the architecture being discussed was by Rem Koolhaas. This far-sighted and witty man, who did not complete his first building until 1984 when he was 40, has since become a stellar presence in international architecture. It was Koolhaas who die-stamped the idea of no-style architecture based on a severe new rigour in design, blatant use of modest materials and an aesthetic that burst clear of the Dutch passion for fractured modernism.

But Koolhaas has always been in an iconoclastic class of one. And if the Dutch posse is to continue to make an impact among up-and-coming British architects, their work must be seen in perspective.

It's not that these usual suspects cannot design - they obviously can. But the lesson to be learned from them is deeper than the relatively simple question of what they have built. To find out where Erick van Egeraat's wonderfully synthesised ING Bank building in Budapest, Lars Spuybroek's warped spaces or Atelier van Lieshout's strangulation-sex aid came from requires a journey which starts in 1920.

Until then, Holland had virtually no notable "architecture"; even classicism had failed to take significant root - which meant that the first incursions of serious architectural design coincided with the onset of modernism. It was an approach that suited the general Calvinist and water-managing mentality: straightforward use of materials, no frills, a sense of equality.

After the Second World War, the Dutch thought it must be possible to reconstruct society to eliminate poverty and inequality. By the 1960s, evidence suggested otherwise. The pressing need was for urban renewal. Twenty years later the legacy was a kind of chaos: randomly-injected developments that had little to do with a big-picture strategy.

Then, two key developments. First, much more thorough dialogues with foreign architects and schools of architecture; then the invitation, by Labour Party-dominated councils in The Hague, Groningen and Maastricht of overseas "stars" to design major public projects. Norman Foster, Daniel Libeskind and Michael Graves were among the first to scramble through the lowland beach-head.

In their wake came an extraordinary Dutch brat-pack with practices such as Mecanoo and Karelse Van der Meer acting as local architects for the visiting heroes. This fuelled a surge of interest in architecture as a culturally-dynamic force. In the decade to 1990 taxpayers' money was funnelled into a stream of major schemes - this time designed by young architects.

Since then, this new-wave has been part of something called the Second Modernity. What does it mean? In Koolhaas' case "it has to do with a sort of minimal use of means. As far as that goes there are indeed two sorts of minimalism: a Calcutta minimalism and a detailed, even fussy, minimalism. I feel more affinity with Calcutta. It absolutely doesn't mean that we only make cheap things, but I think that the research into how you can carry out as many programmes as possible with as little money as possible is incredibly interesting". Aesthetics are fetishes, he says.

But has the new wave really broken the shackles of pre-war modernism? Peter Cook, professor of architecture at University College London, is not so sure. He thinks their buildings are mostly middle-brow. They appeal "because they're do-able. Holland is the fashionable architectural country. Before that, it was Switzerland and, before that, Spain."

Prof Cook's wry diagnosis is that the Dutch gang are "a bit ploddy, except for Rem, who's damn clever. The designs are not really that complex. It's just a few geometric tricks. Sometimes the materials are made to look sexier than they are. The Dutch are more icon-conscious - and they've got an eye for a photograph, an eye for a gesture. The Dutch are quite cute on that." This, he says, sates the appetites of the polite British modernists who lap up the thrills to be found just across the water.

Yet the best of Dutch architecture plainly has virtues - and can even be violently impolite. Van Egeraat's mannerly Budapest building features a boardroom shaped like a ribbed glass grub which hangs above its central stairwell. It's a baroque and almost Kafkaesque tour de force in an otherwise classical interior.

NOX, led by Lars Spuybroek, is something else. A multi-media practice whose work has little to do with hard-core modernism. Computer-generated architecture is a hallmark of Spuybroek's work - and never more obviously than in NOX's proposals for Off-the-road, 5-speed Housing in Eindhoven. The forms look like random shucks of discarded snake-skin.

And then there's Atelier van Lieshout, which is really something else. Josep van Lieshout's team slaughters animals and distils alcohol in the studio - for personal consumption and sale. Their work, says architectural commentator Bart Lootsma, is "a calculated insult to architects and artists who try to produce refined objects". Van Lieshout's "outrages" include a cannon that can be mounted on a pick-up truck, Reichian orgone boxes made of gloopy plastic, stark interiors fitted with cages and a bed designed for strangulation-sex - the coitus chokerruptus model, presumably.

Beneath these politenesses and extremities lurk important messages for British architecture. Dutch architects build cheap, they're often outstandingly detail-conscious in project organisation and new, more radical, approaches to design are clearly fermenting.

The Dutch government has just announced a five-year plan, Designing the Netherlands, to fuel housebuilding and other major projects. But there remains a startling flipside. Despite the bold lead set in the 1980s and early 1990s, Spuybroek insists that many graduates from the key architecture schools in Delft and Eindhoven "can't even end a sentence. They're not taught to explain their projects. There's more research being done in architectural practices than at the architectural schools". Too often, he says, they rely on being "finished" at architectural schools in London and New York.

Britain's "polite modernists" may take note; and so might the Government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. British strangulation-architecture may be nearer than we think.

'SuperDutch' is published by Thames & Hudson.

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