"It is always a wave, and we are at the bottom of the swell," sighs one critic when I ask about the current state of Dutch architecture. "At least, I hope we are."
Architecture in the Netherlands has become notably boring in recent years. Without getting overly nostalgic, it is almost impossible not to notice that the country, which for a good two decades on either side of the millennium produced some of the most striking, innovative and experimental architecture in the world, is now building a lot of boxes.
Clad in brick or concrete, these office buildings, housing blocks and cultural institutions have little to no decoration or distinction. Their main flourish seems to be thin, vertically elongated arches that dance across some of the facades.
Several decades of right-wing-dominated politics and cost-cutting have eroded generous subsidies
A case in point is the evolution of one of OMA's first designs, the building that housed the Netherlands Dance Theater in The Hague. After it was deemed out of date 10 years ago, the firm Neutelings Riedijk won the competition for a new structure with a highly decorated and formally elaborate structure. A right-wing city government nixed the plan and now a box festooned with fluted columns, designed by NOAHH, with the concocted-by-consultants name Amare, has taken its place (pictured).
Similarly, the experiments and social housing in newly built settlements such as Ypenburg and Leidsche Rijn, built as part of the Vinex program to build a million homes, which gave hope to some of us that sprawl could be done right, have now been replaced by uniform blocks with neo-traditional facades.
"I really can't tell you of any really good new firms," wrote another leader in the field. Nobody I contacted wanted to speak about this situation on the record. Perhaps they do not want to add to negativity about the current state of architecture, or they do not want to offend local talent.
One critic, the editor-in-chief of De Architect, the largest architecture magazine in the country, Merel Pit, did give me a list of young firms she felt were doing interesting work. Most of them also design rectangular containers for various programs, although she was able to dig up a few that at least use more glass.
"For young architects it is difficult to receive commission," Pit added. A well-known architect, Sjoerd Soeters, closed his office this summer with the claim that it was too difficult to work with either the government or private clients these days.
Several decades of right-wing-dominated politics and cost-cutting have eroded the generous subsidies the Dutch used to give to young firms to help them get started, travel or exhibit and publish their work.
There is little of the openness to experimentation that the Dutch government at various levels used to display
Moreover, there is little of the openness to experimentation that the Dutch government at various levels used to display when it commissioned architects such as Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos to design the Erasmus Bridge, OMA the offices of the Rotterdam city government or Benthem Crouwel the new Municipal Museum (Stedelijk Museum) in Amsterdam. And yes, the regulations, both financial and in terms of codes, have become more restraining.
That is not to say that the Netherlands has not seen remarkable buildings appear on its landscape in the last few years. OMA's loose stack of angular glass planes for the nHow Hotel and MVRDV's mixed-use eroded mountain, Valley Towers, both opened in 2022 on either side of the highway ringing Amsterdam's southern edge.
The latter firm's Depot for the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, a reflective glass "flower pot" containing six floors of open storage shot through with an atrium that provides dramatic views of the art stored there, which opened in 2023, is surely one of the most astonishing structures to be completed anywhere in the world since the pandemic.
However strong they are, these are designs that not only come out of firms that are by now decades old, they are also based on thinking and strategies at least as ancient. These ideas and forms might still work, but they are not helping us to understand and respond to the issues that architects in the Netherlands and elsewhere should be puzzling out by design.
The most important new-ish firm (founded in 2015) to my mind is Civic Architects. In collaboration with an array of established firms such as Mecanoo, Civic designed the most beautiful "new" building to open in the Netherlands in the last few years – the renovation of a former tram repair shop into LocHal, a library and community center in Tilburg, which opened in 2019.
This is not to say that the work being done by a host of younger firms is not of merit
Firms such as Jan Jongert's Superuse Studios, building on the tradition pioneered by the Droog Design movement starting in 1993, have pioneered dumpster diving as an architectural practice. It also happens to make beautiful spaces, like those in its own offices at BlueCity, a renovated spa along a dike bordering the Rhine river. The 20 year-old firm ZUS, meanwhile, is continuing the idea that architecture should be a form of intervention and social action that rarely if ever involves the use of natural resources to make buildings.
There are some firms that are continuing the high-visual-impact forms pioneered by the likes of OMA and Neutelings Riedijk at the turn of the millennium in a more polite mode. Notable among these is Barcode Architects, whose Sluishuis, a collaboration with OMA graduate Bjarke Ingles' Danish company BIG, features a triangular gate 10 storeys tall, cantilevered over the water in Amsterdam and carved out of an apartment block.
That the most expressive forms are either being produced by large, international firms such as OMA, MVRDV and Benthem Crouwel, which at this point just happen to be based in the Netherlands (even if those roots are central to their achievements) or in collaboration with firms from other countries, is quite telling. Twenty years ago, when the Dutch state privatized the postal service and other organizations that had commissioned some of the best graphic design in the world, the new identities for these organizations were almost all created by foreign companies.
The same tendency now seems to have crept into architecture: if they happen to have the chance to take risks or make a statement, developers seem to be looking beyond the borders, where larger firms such as BIG have shown they can build weirdness at scale.
This is not to say that the work being done by a host of younger firms, ranging from the carefully crafted facades and renovations by Marjolein van Eig to the restrained public buildings and housing by Happel Cornelisse Verhoeven to the generously proportioned minimalism of Maarten van Kesteren, is not of merit. Such architecture works with and responds to Dutch traditions, and seeks to ground itself in a sense of restraint perhaps exemplified by the old Dutch saying: "act normal, and you will be strange enough".
Like in almost every country in the world, most of what is getting built in the Netherlands is horrible. As elsewhere, there are always exceptions to be found and there are both good established firms and ambitious and talented youngsters who get a chance to make something. The problem – or, if you believe in restraint, the beauty – of that work is that almost all of it is utterly boring.
Aaron Betsky is a professor at Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design and was president of the School of Architecture at Taliesin from 2017 to 2019. He has written more than a dozen books on architecture, design and art.
The photo is by Ossip van Duivenbode.
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