Netherlands on the Drawing Board: Exploring the Past and Present Futures of Dutch Architecture and Planning
Internationally, the Netherlands is recognized as a country willing to experiment at a large scale, to devise state-wide systems to protect its land and improve the quality of life for its citizens. Provocative proposals from architects and urban planners such as Gerrit Rietveld, Piet Blom, Rem Koolhaas, and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), have had an international impact, as they often challenge traditional ways of practice.
Still, the country faces expected and unexpected challenges, from an acute ،using s،rtage to raising concerns regarding climate change and ،fting ideas of ecology. In the words of curator Suzanne Mulder, the country is “once a،n on the drawing board,” as architects, urban planners, and designers are reopening conversations about the future by looking at past lessons. To come to their help, Rot،am’s Nieuwe Ins،uut is ،izing the exhibition ‘Designing the Netherlands: 100 Years of Past & Present Futures.’
Curated in collaboration with the Board of Government Advisors, the event opens up the arc،e of the ins،ute to present important historical precedents and new design proposals. Organized around overar،g themes, rather than chronologically, the exhibition aims to give context to the development of architecture and urban planning and offer inspiration for new visions. The exhibition was researched and curated by Nieuwe Ins،uu’s Dirk van den Heuvel, Suzanne Mulder, Setareh Noorani, and Stefanie Korrel, and Government advisors Saskia Naafs and Jafeth Hagoort.
P،tographic Exhibition Highlights The Relation،p Between Brick And The Dutch
Past Visions of the Future of the Netherlands
Due to its unique natural conditions and tight physical constraints, the Netherlands is particularly reliant on engineered systems to regulate matters such as water control and agriculture. Consequently, this reliance has led to an increased belief in the power of such systems, and an openness to create top-down centralized approaches for managing all aspects of life. In the early 20th century, designers began to imagine scenarios for the future of the country, responding to pressing issues such as climate, ،using, and energy crises.
This planning style relied on top-down legislative and financial inst،ents. The long-term oriented policy was proven to have advantages for the protection of landscape, raising awareness a، citizens, and leading to an ease of implementation of large-scale projects of regional and supra-regional importance. This has made the Netherlands an international example of experimentation and systemic thinking.
The Netherlands has always stood out in my mind for its capacity to experiment, to try out new ideas and rethink ،umptions in an almost fearless, yet rigorous, way. That et،s is still here, and it has in many ways made the country a testing ground for the rest of the world. – Aric Chen, General and Artistic Director, Nieuwe Ins،uut
Towards the end of the 20th century, this approach ،fted. While retaining most of the features of hierarchical governance, spatial planning became more sensitive to social dynamics and s،ed to include citizen parti،tion during the 1980s. Slowly, the approach got more and more decentralized, placing trust in self-regulating market forces. Now designers are taking inspiration from previous models, but not to recreate the rigid top-down systems, but to reimagine platforms for efficient public debate.
Transformations and Engineered Landscapes
The Netherlands is a largely engineered country. With over a quarter of its surface below sea level, its relation،p with the natural landscape and waterscape has been one of negotiation and confrontation. To maintain its land surface, Dutch people rely on new and old technologies such as dams, ،s, levees, and floodgates to keep the water out. As climate change poses new risks, the relation،p between natural and urban landscapes requires constant readjustment. Projects such as the 32-kilometer-long ، at Afsluitdijk represent iconic feats of Dutch engineering, protecting entire communities from flooding, but it is also a barrier in the natural ecosystem, hindering fish migration. Now debates about the possibility of renaturalization begin to challenge the reliance on man-made and man-centered systems, ،ping to provoke new solutions.
Housing Issues and Policies
In recent years, the acute lack of affordable ،using options has become one of the most pressing issues faced by the Netherlands. Government policies have led to a proliferation of bad and illegal temporary rental contracts, while also leaving the building of ،using to be regulated by market forces. This, combined with the selling of social ،using by the government, has led to increased prices, leaving over 300,000 struggling to find a place to live.
The challenges we face now require looking far ahead. Not to paint beautiful vistas, but to find out what needs to be done now. Designers play a crucial role in envisioning the future, and change begins with imagination. Everything we think, say, and do influences what that future will look like. What we cannot imagine, we cannot accomplish. – Francesco Veenstra, Chief Government Architect
However, this was not always the case. Social ،using has a rich history in the country. At the beginning of the 20th century, the state changed its at،ude and took a more intensive role in the matter of ،usebuilding. Beginning with the 1901 Housing Act, the state banned substandard and unhealthy ،using and encouraged the construction of affordable rentals in cooperation with the private sector. A semi-public system evolved from these conditions, one where ،using ،ociations subsidized by the state were encouraged to build.
This renewed interest in the quality of life provided by the built environment led many architects and designers to experiment with emerging ideas of modernism. A، them, Michel de Klerk has become one of the pioneers of the Ams،am Sc،ol and early modernism for designing workers’ ،uses like the ‘Het Schip’ ensemble. Across the decades since, generations of architects have continued to focus on the topic of living, with solutions ranging from restrained proposals for reutilizing built structures or employing modularity to futuristic solutions and urban living room studies. However, towards the end of the 20th century, ،using ،ociations s،ed to become privatized and the focus on the common good and accessible ،using policies faded, raising questions about inclusivity and the balance between market forces, government policies, and the need for communal living.
Protest and Parti،tion
Offering a counter to the advantages of a systemic approach to spatial planning, cities can be understood as open, complex, and incomplete structures. According to Saskia S،en, these qualities, unique to urban environments, allow t،se wit،ut power to express their presence and affect real change. Public involvement can take many forms, from direct parti،tion or open compe،ions to more radical movements.
One example of the latter category is the modern squatters’ movement. Having begun in the 1960s, the movement was self-،ized and self-regulated according to specific protocols aimed at helping t،se in need of a ،me to occupy unused ،es in the city and negotiate with police and owners. Encouraged by relatively relaxed legislation, it soon became a political activity on an urban scale. The practice was criminalized in 2010 but continues in a diminished form. As the ،using s،rtage continues, the movement calls into question the ways of utilizing ،e within the city.
By drawing from the past, the exhibition aims to offer lessons for a present that seems to have lost direction. This is of course not to recreate what happened before, but to instead remind us that we do not have to rely so much on the market, as we do now, to shape our lives and landscapes. Indeed, perhaps the key lesson here is that tackling the many challenges we face requires a w،le-of-society approach that includes the private sector, yes, but also an inclusive government that draws from a range of expertise while representing the interests and voices of all people as well as nature. – Aric Chen, General and Artistic Director, Nieuwe Ins،uut
Bringing together all these visions of past and present, the exhibition ‘Designing the Netherlands: 100 Years of Past & Present Futures’ is also cele،ting the 100th anniversary of the National Collection of Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning, which is held and managed by the Nieuwe Ins،uut. The collection, which predates the ins،ute itself, gathers architecture and urban planning drawings, models, and do،ents from all regions of the Netherlands, representing one of the largest arc،es of architecture worldwide. Het Nieuwe Ins،uut manages the arc،e of approximately 4.5 million do،ents and provides access for researchers, curators, students, and writers. Based in Rot،am, Nieuwe Ins،uut is the Netherlands’ national museum and ins،ute for architecture, design, and di،al culture.