(by Jane Holtz Kay) Water is to Holland as plains and hills are to America–a clean slate for future building. Yet, for all their plucky history in turning bog and sea into buildable land, the Netherlands’ dedication to urban and social planning is equally heroic.
Rich in urban and environmental skills, Dutch architects and engineers have shaped civilized cities, doted on mass housing and tooled low-income rental housing, foreign to market-driven America. From public transport and bicycling, to sustainable space and environmental protection, the virtual island nation has framed standards for the world.
Now, however, some see a shrinking of these urban and social values. In the wake of the conservative election after the murder of far-right candidate Pim Fortuyn, they worry that market dictates and the move to the right could undo progressive living policies. Some fear that the proportion of social housing, down from its former 70 percent to 30 (still formidable) could descend still further. Others look anxiously at suburbanization and motorization’s expansion outside the cities and new shopping centers spinning off the freeway.
Boom times in Europe’s new global economy have fed the urge for more space for a swelling population of 16 million people in 13,000 square miles (the size of Connecticut). Like the ever-spreading Americans, the affluent Dutch display not only a real but a perceived need for more living space. Even before the election, privatization and motorization had begun to worry planners. There’s more of a “free-for-all for developers,” Aaron Betsky, Dutch-born head of the Netherlands Architectural Institute and former director of the San Francisco Museum of Art, told visitors.
Holland’s atoll of a country, with almost half its land underwater, has the greater risk, of course. “The most densely built country in the world,” says Betsky. “Every plan, every road becomes one giant 3-D puzzle.” And, despite the near and present danger, visitors are admiring of their puzzle-solving.
The virtual-island nation’s record of public house-building launched after World War II sought a goal of 100,000 homes a year. Reaffirmed in 1990, they expect to reach one million by 2010. Dutch citizens don’t shy away from the standards and subsidies that make Americans blanch. Not only their housing, but their agriculture, energy-making, and conservation have government support and supervision. Strict building and design codes set standards for everything from height to sustainability, but architects go beyond them.
At a university campus in Utrecht, the handsome Minnaert building by Neutelings and Riedijk features a 30-by-150-foot pond at the entrance; it collects rain to cool the waste heat from the classroom lighting. In a handsome library at the Delft University of Technology and a management school in Utrect, Mecanoo architects combine their “poetic modernism” with a green roof, geo-thermal heating, and good ventilation for ecologically-oriented goals.
In the surrounds as well, wind turbines churn to either side of the highways. To tour from city to city, site to site, is to see the adaptation of the ages: wooden windmills and steely new turbines churn and spin besides farmlands gridded by the canals that recall their reclamation from the sea.
Still, concern grows. Allard Jolles, architectural historian at Amsterdam’s Planning Department, conducts us to Amsterdam’s 1965 Zuidoost, city center, now a grim landscape of anti-social highrises. Despite its new stadium, the wind-whipped landscape seems as ready for uprooting as rehabilitation with a proposed shopping center and more highrises. “Collecting rain on the roof” does not compensate for a failure to plan the density that supports urban life, Jolles says, looking around dubiously. Likewise at Rotterdam’s old harbor, the environs of Kop van Zuid, which housed the barracks whwere Jews were held for deportation during World War II, display an urban redevelopment that seems sterile compared to the vivid past.
The office of Rem Koolhaas, the Netherlands’ peripatetic star architect, shows some of the contradictions rampant in today’s Dutch planning and design. Koolhaas’ Educatorium in Utrecht, is a handsome building; his Delirious New York and high-tech Prada store have put him in the spotlight. Yet, the models in his Office of Metropolitan Architecture look more like techno-trick tools of the computer than the orderly planning of Holland’s so-called “beauty commission” defining urban space with grace and urbanity. His zany and non-contextual museum addition for New York, now under wraps, should stay there. And his plan for the Netherlands’ New Town of Almere, begun in 1976, is not only anti-city but anti-social.
In Almere, a space as big as Amsterdam, motorized impulses play out on a ghost land of office buildings. Supposedly a core, the design, as isolated and carbound as the silicon cities of America, can do little to focus the stretched out landscape. Even the latest attractive and flexible housing project on well-groomed canals by MVRVD seems mute as an empty dormitory suburb.
Everywhere, this “VINEX” mode of housing plan on the outskirts perpetuates the dominant auto-bound that drives many Dutch commuters to travel from single-family homes, in single-occupancy vehicles, to distant jobs, say planners. The housing models in the information room at the new town of Ypenburg, the site of a former airport “tenanted by rabbits five years ago,” show dwelling spaces with the 1.3 parking spaces the residents will need to drive to remote schools and services. Even a superior settlement for young families by UN studios, complete with pebbled walkways, gardens, and playgrounds, cannot escape the isolation.
And, yet, for all these ominous intimations on the periphery, Dutch urban design is still a model. The tradition of accomplished architects working within this country’s small canvas endures. Amsterdam, vigorous and vital, has managed to maintain strict planning rules to keep the ship of urban design afloat. In the last decade, a splendid new community has sprung up on four islands (or peninsulas) formed from the land dredged in the city’s Eastern Harbour Area. Beginning with KNSM island in 1989, a mix of housing forms has shaped a community of peninsulas as Java Island, Borneo, and Sporenburg emerged to occupy the once polluted industrial site.
The most recent rowhouses poised on canals along Borneo’s Scheepstimmermanstratt, the latest canal-side complex, duplicates the city center. Drenched with light from sky and sea, the upstairs-downstairs life goes on, for everyone from young families to artist-residents. Facades, virtual frontispieces of design, with many stunning interiors, sidle along the street in a gallery of styles: Mondrian spartan, beside pre-cast concrete, beside a glass façade fronted by an airy, steel-wire design. The dense dwellings create a splendid showcase destined to result eventually in 8000 houses and 17,000 apartments. Though a 15-minute bike ride to Amsterdam and lacking neighborhood shops, sadly swapped off for ten years to secure a supermarket, the zone is a metropolitan delight.
It was the happy outcome for “the future of the spatial debate,” says Betsky, in stark contrast to the “scandalous lack of debate” at the World Trade Center site, he observes. “The Dutch do things very differently,” the director reminds us of the ongoing work of the Ministry of Social Housing. Perhaps “this insane landscape” makes it so, he says. Will it remain?
Certainly, the transportation system, the emerald chain of Holland, continues to fortify its urbanscape. Trains of all sizes dominate. Streetcars spin down streets in a national web of reliable rail. Bikes offer transit for over ten percent of commuters. Half of all Amsterdam traffic is two-wheeled, moving on safe lanes that bypass car traffic. And even today’s Dutch developers, who barter and beat down the powers-that-be, must adhere to planning restrictions that make America’s pushover zoning guides look as permanent as chalk lines in a hard rain.
And, yet, Harm Tilman (editor of de Architect and a self-described bicycle addict) and others fear for the future. Today’s Holland is no more immune to the pitfall of polynuclear settlements that swallow land and starve cities than it was to the sixties highrise craze “without concern about the neighborhood,” as Tilman puts it. “Land has become a market commodity” with a “bigger role for developers” in a period where the old model is subject to change, he says concernedly. As the nation prospers and market-oriented housing gains hold, so are others in this progressive nation. “We have had a very social development,” says Tilman, and now, the old model is “in revision.” A tilt to the right and a tilt to the road threaten Dutch life. “We have to re-think,” says Tilman. And the time is now.
This article originally appeared on the “Idea” page of the Christian Science Monitor.