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Restraint and Invention in Dutch Architecture


Restraint and Invention in Dutch Architecture
By Michael Webb -

The Dutch are masters of innovation, and design is embedded in their DNA. For centuries, this small, densely populated country has traded with the world, nurtured the arts, and held back the sea. Historic canals are lined with houses that were revolutionary in their day, and Dutch architects are constantly searching for fresh solutions - to living on water, repurposing old structures, and making good design a part of everyday life.
Several leading firms, including OMA, MVRDV and UNStudio, have developed global practices, and the principals spend much of their time abroad. Others, hard hit by the recession, have bounced back and are continuing to enrich the public realm. A new Amsterdam encircles the old, the Rotterdam waterfront has been transformed with clusters of towers, and also small towns are fertile ground for adventurous projects.
Alluring as all this must sound to architects in less fortunate countries, the picture must be shaded. “In Amsterdam, where the city owns all the land, modernism is still a mandate - though developers are challenging it,” says Felix Claus. “Elsewhere in Holland, cities have delivered themselves to the market, and have given in to historicist styles.” A wave of privatization has subjected architecture to developer greed, and sterile commercial projects are eroding the humanity and visual harmony of Dutch cities. And some of the urban planning is poorly conceived.
Ben van Berkel insists: “You cannot do a public project unless you pay heed to what the public wants. Otherwise they consider you arrogant and you have even greater difficulties.” But, he continued, “Over the past 20 years we were spoiled - there was too much money about. Traditionally we were frugal because we had to work with low budgets. It was very healthy because it encouraged one to be more inventive.” So the slow-down may have been a well-disguised blessing, for there is no lack of inventiveness in...

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