ROTTERDAM | Dinner
We stepped through the doorway into Post--Office and finally out of the rain – it had been raining cats and dogs since we arrived three hours earlier via Schiphol, or as I heard the Dutch say, steel poles. I was still trying to get my bearings after an eleven hour flight, followed by a speedy intercity ride on the Fyra, then a cab ride and finally a brisk walk to Post--Office. It looked just as we had expected from the images we had seen on the web: raw, somber and worn. The decor was a study in contrasts, with peeling paint countered by delicate fresh cut flowers on a recently pressed white cloth, illuminated by a handful of lonely, single bulb ceiling pendants.
The space was buzzing with half a dozen Post--Office members preparing for Sunday’s dinner. It was our hope that the invited guests would reveal some of the story behind what we felt made The Netherlands crucial to our project – that this was ‘the’ place where architecture was being made, an ideology many of us envied as we shaped our own architectural ideals in Winnipeg and around the globe.
We were greeted by Post--Office’s Hans Larsson, who we had briefly Skyped with in the lead up to our visit. Hans, who also works at OMA, had a bit of time to give us a quick tour and hash out the last remaining logistical details for Sunday’s dinner party. Hans described how Post--Office had courted the building owner for several weeks with a proposal to inhabit the space until a new tenant was found. Several community interventions were staged on the sidewalk out front, until the owner realized they were not going away and agreed to let them rent the space for the interim. The Table for Twelve dinner just happened to dovetail with Post--Office’s directive of people coming together to discuss, engage with and share ideas of architecture, urbanism and the community that surrounds it.
Our guests arrived, stepping out of the rain one by one just as we had two days earlier. Umbrellas collapsed one after another to reveal smiles, warmth and friendliness. A quick glass of Prosecco in the parlor allowed time for everyone to enter and greet one another. Phyllis Wong of Greensparrow catering had prepared a tremendous dinner for everyone, with ample wine in supply to keep the conversation flowing.
Once we sat down for our meal, our Rotterdam liaison Tanner Merkley dove right in: “What was it that allowed the phenomenon of Super Dutch to take place?” And with that we were immediately immersed in our guests’ thoughts and recollections of the various factors contributing to this Dutch zeitgeist. Nathalie de Vries (MVRDV), Nanne de Ru (Powerhouse Company and The Berlage), and Matthijs Bouw (One Architecture) quickly unpacked the factors that had created the perfect storm – a transformation of social housing policy, a liberalized market, the alignment of visionary political players, housing stimulus money and, of course, Rem Koolhaas. No small reproducible feat once described.
Johanna skillfully directed the conversation: “What about national identity, did this have anything to do with architecture culture?” Matthijs provided a brief history of the last hundred years of Dutch development, where experimentation and ingenuity grew out of necessity to solve the contemporary hurdles of a quickly growing, urbanized post-war country. Perhaps pragmatic problem solving comes as a result of eking out a landscape from beneath a relentless sea. We assumed a country so rich in design, architecture and building culture would also boast a public with an elevated understanding and appreciation of the same. I asked our guests if this was indeed the case. While this questions seems to continually preoccupy us at home, it generated a minimal reaction from the table. Matthijs volunteered that although the Dutch are essentially surrounded by design and architecture in their everyday lives, it is largely appreciated only as style. Marina van den Bergen of Archined added that it is in the architecture community that the true value of architecture is appreciated and ideas exchanged, and with this the conversation moved on. It seemed that our guests did not dwell much on what the greater public perception of architecture was, a stark contrast to our own experience in North America.
As our dinner progressed, the conversation meandered to the present state of architecture culture in Holland, and the fact that the Super Dutch brand’s strength has flagged since its unofficial inception sometime in the early 1990s. It was Rem who casually declared during his Delft Seminar lecture what everyone had already suspected – that the party was over (Declerck & Vande Velde After The Party, Magazine OASE Nr. 67, 2005).
It was Rietveld Landscape, along with Jurgen Bey (Studio Makkink & Bey) and Saskia van Stein (Bureau Europa) who illustrated the magnitude of the current situation in their 2010 Venice Biennale exhibition Vacant NL. The exhibit catalogued and displayed the over one million square meters of vacant and unused buildings that litter the Dutch landscape. The exhibition’s theme was reinforced when we learned that The Netherlands Chief Government Architect, Frits van Dongen, had recently declared that The Netherlands is completely built. A profound and somewhat unfathomable statement that any country could possibly be completely built.
Hans Larsson described how today’s young architects are victims of the past, in that the opportunities afforded by Super Dutch are no longer available. The new climate of Dutch architecture requires an entirely different response. Whether it is the sidewalk urbanism of Post--Office, or ZUS’s vacant tower parties and crowd-funded pedestrian bridges, today’s young Dutch architecture collaborations are rising to the challenge and providing grass-roots, creative solutions to the new condition, redefining the role of the architect in the process. While this approach might be the only way for new architects to engage their profession in the current climate, it was emphasized by Matthijs Bouw that while this might work in the interim, a very granular approach is limited in scope, and likely will not work at a larger scale once Holland’s economy picks up again. It was touted that Netherlands still has a goal of an additional 500,000 new housing units to be built by 2040.
The steadfast pragmatism and creativeness of the Dutch way will certainly produce new solutions in less prosperous times. Ultimately, the Dutch will likely succeed by thinking their way out of their current economic gloom. Post--Office, ZUS and the established offices are working to create the next architectural movement.
Having now been able to peer into the Dutch architecture community through a truly remarkable experience, it seems that there are actually more parallels between Rotterdam and our home city than originally thought. It is easy to believe that your own architecture community is alone in its struggle to engage the public in a design conversation – one that recognizes, requires, supports and demands quality architecture. It can seem like other communities have an easier time of it, as depicted by the myriad architecture blogs and journals we unintentionally measure our communities against.
The true value of the Table for Twelve tour might be in the opportunity to visit with peers abroad and be reminded that the grass is not always greener, and that the struggle to create a sustainable and lasting culture of architecture within one’s own community and the larger public remains a struggle regardless of the passion, support structures, champions, and dollars dedicated to elevating design. In the case of the Super Dutch phenomenon, despite having the figurative planets align to create a perceptually perfect climate for great architecture to emerge, a more sustainable model is still necessary. Perhaps it might be necessary to balance the lessons from this movement with those of its successors in order to create a lasting culture of architecture.