Urban renewal

article by Michelle Provoost
invention, transformation and the power of the architect
15 May 2008

Voor de derde en laatste keer maakte Michelle Provoost deel uit van de redactie van het welbekende Jaarboek van de Nederlandse architectuur, samen met Allard Jolles, Cor wagenaar en Daan Bakker. Het volgende artikel is één van haar bijdragen aan het Jaarboek: / For the third and last time Michelle Provoost was editor of the wellknown Yearbook of Architecture in the Netherlands, together with colleagues Allard Jolles, Cor Wagenaar and Daan Bakker. The following article is one of her contributions to the Yearbook:

Recent years have witnessed a growing sense of unease about the standard of architectural criticism – there is too little of it, the magazines are superficial, some have even pronounced it dead. One perceived obstacle is the lack of any common denominator in architectural production, either of movement, language, aim or conviction. At a time when ‘a style for the job’ is the rule and many positions appear to have become interchangeable, it is simply impossible to make any meaningful comparison of buildings. The same applies to standpoints, which are rarely articulated by architects nowadays.

Ruud Brouwers, the godfather of the Yearbook and a critic of architecture since the 1970s, has – doubtless out of desperation – come up with a label for the present architectural spectrum: New Realism. The term would appear to allude to Neorealism, the post-war Italian cinematographic movement that embraced raw, everyday reality and authenticity as the essence of film-making. But in fact Brouwer’s New Realism looks more like German Realpolitik, a pragmatic way of thinking and behaving unencumbered by ideological convictions. For New Realism spells out how, in today’s market-dictated building production, the architectural image is determined by ‘the builders’ and ‘government’ and less and less by architects.1 In the strong alliance that is forged between clients and administrators, the outlines of the architectural project are first thrashed out in detail after which the architect is invited to colour them in. For the critic this means that, in addition to the familiar elements of any critique (context, meaning, execution and materialization), there is now an additional important analytical element, namely the intricacies of the client–administrator nexus and its incorporation into the design. That the building’s appearance must woo buyers and satisfy politicians or housing corporations, is the familiar explanation for the excessive number of ‘iconic’ buildings that are being built for all manner of (frequently non-iconic) programmes. This often results in an architecture more reminiscent ‘of a randomly assembled exhibition than a city’2, in which the role of the architect is contractually restricted to producing a beguiling image.

Interestingly, architects hold sentiments similar to those of critics: an urge to re-evaluate ‘the profession’, a need for clarity through the demarcation of boundaries and the mapping out of future directions. At the ‘Architectuur 2.0’ conference held in Rotterdam in November 2007, the topic of which was no less than ‘the destiny of architecture’, Willem Jan Neutelings delivered a speech that met with considerable approval. In it he reiterated in detail the standpoint of Neutelings Riedijk: architecture is not a dynamic discipline compelled to adapt constantly to every passing trend, but a slow profession, based on centuries-old principles, that delivers solid, preferably orthogonal buildings.3 While the conference chairman, ex-Volume editor-in-chief and current NAi director Ole Bouman raised his by now familiar hobby-horse of architecture’s prospects in the age of computers and digitization, Neutelings took a diametrically opposed position. In a paraphrase of Vitruvius, he nominated knowledge, expertise and evocation as the three cornerstones of the architectural profession, the basis of its authority. He related an embarrassing anecdote about an adjudication at Columbia University where he had attempted to interrupt the pseudo-scientific-philosophical student jargon only to end up quitting the hall in disillusionment; this in support of his contention that there is no common architectural language any more; just a miscellaneous collection of loan words from other disciplines like IT, biology and economics. The profession is being eroded; there is less and less to be said and discussing one another’s work has become impossible. Architects first lose themselves, then their authority, and are finally swallowed up by sociology, computer science or journalism.

But who did Neutelings actually have in his sights? He called for a reappraisal of architecture as an autonomous profession (‘architectuur als vak’), but from the evidence of the projects in past few Yearbooks, that process is already well under way. The craftsmanly aspect of the profession has become much more important in recent years than in the ‘conceptual’ years of the Superdutch generation. The attitude of the accommodating architect who has a thorough command of the profession, is more popular today than that of the 1990s visionary. Perhaps Neutelings was directing his remarks at his contemporaries, present at the congress: Winy Maas (the inventor) and Ben van Berkel (the biologist), and father figure Rem Koolhaas (the journalist). In which case the lecture was a settling of scores. Nothing wrong with that of course, but more problematic is the question of whether consciously ‘withdrawing to one’s own territory’ is not an alibi for the loss of ground that architects have recently suffered in the procedural war waged by clients and administrators. The noble image of the skilled architect is all very fine, but you need to have Neuteling’s standing to have any hope of exerting real influence and playing an integrative role as accommodating architect. As such, it is easy enough for Neutelings to talk, but any young practices wanting to follow his lead are in for a tough time.

Visibility versus power
The problem of an architecture that is so varied in shape and form that it looks like a junk shop display from which it is impossible to choose, was cleverly tackled by Brouwers and Simon Franke, the former director of NAi Publishers, with the launching of their new architecture magazine, Stadscahiers.4 By concentrating on a single segment of architecture, the restructuring of the post-war city, they were assured of a common ground and common themes. The complex restructuring themes are a red thread running through the review, comparison and critique of architecture. The elusiveness and apparent wilfulness of the designs evaporate in the face of the common basis of the modernist districts.

This Yearbook, too, contains a number of buildings in such districts. The most striking project in our selection could well be the block of walk-up flats in the Rotterdam district of Pendrecht that Henk van Schagen ‘designed’. At first sight the project doesn’t stand out at all: it is no icon, it is not a new architectural image, and it is clearly recognizable as a 1950s housing block. It’s a bit like a ‘spot the difference’ puzzle: what is new about this building, in what way is this new architecture? Yet this re-use plan is based on substantial architectural input because the architect was responsible for the preliminary and structural research and for the formulation of the programme. He drew on his knowledge of the original architecture and structural principles, he advised his client on the choice between demolition and re-use, designed new floor plans, and then used his professional skills to transform the flats into maisonettes and to ‘style’ an array of small new elements like a stair or a letterbox. From the terms of reference to the smallest detail, the architect was running the show in this project. There is no question here of marginalization of the profession, quite the opposite: this project reveals great architectural authority, if that is defined as the degree to which the architect is involved in all aspects of the design and construction process, or as the depth to which he manages to penetrate the whole process of financing, designing, regulating, building, living and legislation. Or, in the words of Willem Jan Neutelings, as the application of knowledge, expertise and evocation. That last element, the exercise of imagination, does not result in spectacular images in this project. But is the modest appearance of these blocks not eminently appropriate for a housing programme, which still accounts for 95% of building production?

This building suggests an hypothesis: could it be that architectural significance and relevance are inversely proportional to the visibility of the architecture or the conspicuousness of the architectural image? The reverse is at any rate true according to Ruud Brouwers: the iconic and, more generally, the striking architectural image, is emblematic of the power of the market, the client and the politicians and of the subordination of the architect.

Are the buildings that are most published and eulogized (in this Yearbook, among others) because of their attractive or striking appearance effectively the product of a coalition among construction parties in which the architect is marginalized and retains control only over the facade? Does the real social relevance lie hidden in the visually silent, modest projects in which evocation does not overshadow the other key elements, knowledge and expertise? Are these the projects where the genuine innovations are taking place? This hypothesis can be tested further with reference to a few buildings that were deployed as a corrective in urban renewal.

Elaborating on modernism
There would appear to be growing appreciation for the true worth of the post-war modernist districts. Only a few years ago it was usual for housing corporations and local authorities to opt for a symbolic, energetic approach which began by demolishing existing development and then replacing it with a completely new and different architecture and spatial layout. At present there is much more focus on and appreciation for the original characteristics and on ‘recycling’ them. People are also starting to realize that these are comparable districts with comparable spatial-architectural characteristics and problems, whether it be Amsterdam-West, The Hague-Southwest, Hoogvliet in Rotterdam or some other district from the same family. Designs that are predicated on a familiarity with the common modernist legacy are producing some very significant results.

VMX designed a project of housing and shops in Hoogvliet, on the edge of Meeuwenweide Park. At right angles to the park stood rows of housing for the elderly arranged in an open layout. The corporation wanted to demolish these tiny, soberly appointed dwellings and replace them with more comfortable, ‘age-in-place’ housing. The complexity of this simple-sounding task was huge and it had a lengthy preamble in the form of urban design studies, a tree audit, aesthetic studies, financial agreements between various clients, consultation with future residents, et cetera. In the final design all these occasionally conflicting demands are apparently effortlessly resolved in a clear built structure. The open-row layout, at right angles to the park like the earlier scheme, encloses courtyards that are alternately laid out as car parking or as private terrace gardens. At first floor level a continuous pedestrian route links all the houses. With its staggered composition and fresh, brightly coloured parapets, the complex adds a new, optimistic touch to the Hoogvliet palette, while its layout is a perfect continuation of the modernist subdivision.

Similarly, architect Erna van Sambeek has previously demonstrated that, thanks to her thorough urban design–morphological research, she is so familiar with the vocabulary of the modernist districts that she is able to use it to weave new narratives. In The Hague-Southwest, her firm was responsible for the re-construction of Veld 17, a neighbourhood within a spatial masterplan designed by W.M. Dudok and elaborated by J.H. van den Broek. The old housing consisted entirely of blocks of walk-up flats arranged as repetitive units in an orthogonal grid.

The new design also uses free-standing blocks in a rectangular, open subdivision, but with far-reaching differences: the composition is no longer determined by the logic of the crane gantry but by an array of different types of outdoor space. In an intelligent modernization of the post-war ‘neighbourhood’ concept in which the collective garden knits the neighbourhood together, Van Sambeek uses small squares, courts and internal streets as unifying elements, thereby generating a sequence of spaces from private, through collective to public. The different types of single-family dwellings share an architectural image defined by dark grey bricks and white accents. Details like planters and corner bay windows articulate the spatial layout. The architecture refers neither typologically nor visually to the modernist blocks that once stood here; but the spatial structure, of which the buildings are an integral part, is a reinterpretation of well-known spatial and ideological themes, in particular that of the neighbourhood concept. In light of the current trend for as much difference and variation in architectural expression as possible (probably to avoid dullness and a large-scale effect), the determined choice here of a lucid, two-colour image and its powerful effect is particularly striking. It emphasizes the unity of the neighbourhood while simultaneously concealing the enormous complexity that lies behind it.

The southern edge of Geuzenveld, part of Cornelis van Eesteren’s 1934 General Extension Plan for Amsterdam, was until recently made up of three big repetitive units of L-shaped blocks of terraced housing. One section of houses, which were not just small but also occupied a prime location on the edge of the city and a park, were demolished and in their stead Burobeb designed six blocks of houses, arranged in pairs. Thanks to their well-judged placement, which takes account of sightlines and vistas from the immediate surroundings, the new blocks fit quite naturally into the old layout. Here, too, the architecture differs markedly from the existing terraced housing in order to attract a new and more affluent public: the facades are of wood and their decorative patterns are somewhat reminiscent of the expressionistic architecture of the 1930s. Linking the free-standing blocks to the spatial structure, not only satisfies the wish to introduce some more expensive housing into this area, but does it in a way that upgrades the whole district rather than further degrading the existing buildings to ‘old’ or ‘flawed’. This is extremely important for it maintains a sense of collectivity and avoids a division between poor (in the old part) and wealthy (in the Burobeb houses).

In such ‘restructuring’ projects, social, spatial and financial issues form an inextricable mix. The architect operates at the level of the square millimetre on these projects which together make up the bulk of the housing stock, often working with a modest budget and programme of dwellings, in a context that is full of complexity. Indeed, the architect needs all of his professional skills in order to successfully weather the various phasing, financing, approval and urban design processes – much more so than for a new-build project on a greenfield site. And of course, there are branding and image campaigns, the ‘housing consumer’ has to be served on the basis of the usual target group policy and the architect must also manage to come through the consultation rounds unscathed. In terms of authority and professional skill these projects command respect.

Neo-New Frumpiness
The renewed respect for modernist districts does not apply to the post-war shopping centres, nearly all of which are being renovated or replaced. The ubiquitous modernist model of the introvert, pedestrianized shopping centre is being replaced by new complexes based more on traditional urban fabrics. The aim is to do away with the disadvantages of the old centres (e.g. long rear walls turned to the surrounding neighbourhood) and to accommodate the latest trends for cosiness and security. The principles for an ideal shopping experience, perfected by American firms like Jon Jerde, are applied in the transformation of the cheerless 1950s districts. The Koopgoot in Rotterdam (de Architekten Cie. & The Jerde Partnership) was the first in a series that was later taken up elsewhere – in Nijmegen, Nootdorp and Spijkenisse (Soeters Van Eldonk), Wielwijk in Dordrecht (Lucien Kroll), Hoogvliet and Drunen (Molenaar & Van Winden), Lelystad (West 8) and Hoofddorp (de Architekten Cie.). In Neo-Realist relations it goes without saying that in the design of these new shopping centres, the evocation of a cosy, secure and recognizable environment is the main aim of the architectural exercise.

To get some idea of the high turnover rate for shopping centres today, one has only to look at Spijkenisse. This new town just south of Rotterdam started life in the 1960s as part of the government’s growth centres policy. In 1978 it commissioned Pietro Hammel to design a city block containing a theatre, a cultural centre, a public library and some housing. Hammel was one of the exponents of ‘the new frumpiness’, a movement that wanted to abandon the monotony and austerity of functionalism and which had a clear message: ‘back to the old cosiness’.5 Taking the user’s need for communication and recognizable forms and signs for orientation, he set out to ‘create buildings, streets and squares that seek to engage in a dialogue’. Hammel’s terminology is surprisingly similar to that of Soeters thirty years later. Hammel’s complex has since been demolished because it is no longer considered cosy. It has made way for an intensive programme of housing, shops and offices on top of a car park. The new centre takes its cue from the public space of the street and the square and is designed with twists and turns so that the perspective is constantly changing and a series of intimate spaces is generated. Soeters’ architecture looks like an urban elevation that has developed over time, lot by lot, each building differently designed in styles similar to the shopping centre the firm previously designed for the Nootdorp development: an architecture parlante, recognizable for users and residents.

Similarly recognizable architecture, which incorporates an array of well-known references to historical examples in its decoration and ornamentation, is a feature of the mini-centre that Molenaar & Van Winden designed for the town of Drunen in Brabant. The complex of shops and housing stands between the post-war church and the picturesque town hall, on a site previously occupied by a 1950s block with the self-same programme. The organization, with shops behind a street-level arcade and dwellings above, is completely logical and the entrance to the dwellings, via a spacious deck at the rear, is handsome.

But the most striking features here are the technical execution, the materialization and the detailing, some of which is very finely done. The ‘sign’ for the restaurant De Sleutel, for instance, is sculpted into the facade and another wall has been worked by a stone cutter using pick-axe and grinding stone to look like an ‘upholstered’ brick facade. In terms of its styling – ‘French’ mansard roof with large roof lights and a ‘cast-iron’ canopy over the arcade – the centre is quite out of place in Drunen. Yet thanks to the decorative brick architecture it can be read as part of a trio: church–town hall–shopping centre.

The desire for a varied streetscape that appears to have grown organically rather than been designed by a single hand, is a recurring theme of recent building production. Not just in city centres but also in suburban developments like Adriaan Geuze’s Waterrijk development in Woerden, which the planner describes as an old-fashioned ‘Dutch town’ – which is precisely how the ‘new frumpy’ canals of Almere Haven were described many years ago. The organic impression is generated not only by introducing a variety of historicizing styles, as Soeters does, but also by giving visual expression to residents’ wishes, as in the residential/shopping centre that Atelier Lucien Kroll designed for Wielwijk in Dordrecht. On the site once occupied by a 1960s centre, houses and shops are arranged around a square. The pursuit of diversity is exhaustive: housing types, materials, structures, everything reveals an obsessive desire to stand out against the monotony of the surrounding district. However, the low-budget execution and materialization and the clumsy treatment of the shop entrances suggest that this centre will not last much longer than its predecessor.

In the Lelystad city centre, masterplanned by West 8, the existing block pattern was intensified with building masses and a variety of streets, laneways and squares, resulting in a dense urban fabric. The illusion of organic growth and small scale is helped here by the subdivision of streets, for example Zilverparkkade, into modest lots varying in size and height, each of which was assigned to a different architect. The variation is created not by a succession of traditionalist facades, but by an array of expressive facades as in an architectural type case: EEA’s ‘knot’, René van Zuuk’s ‘twigs’, buildings by Tekta, Meyer & Van Schooten, De Zwarte Hond, the undulating balconies of SeArch and so on. At the other end of the centre, moreover, stands the number one icon of 2007, UN Studio’s bright orange theatre where the chromatic spectacle continues inside with a pink void and red auditorium. Like nearby Almere, Lelystad and Adriaan Geuze have opted for a strategy that gives architectural evocation the main role and puts Lelystad on the map as a modern architecture city.

Whether the choice falls on a historicizing, a modern or a postmodern architectural vocabulary, all these new centres employ the themes of variation, urban fabric, small-scale development, ‘experience’ and identity. They look historical or organic, but they have been built all at once. In reality they are examples of a tabula rasa approach, previously the preserve of the modern movement. The modernists of the 1960s saw their work as an improvement on history and consequently had no qualms about sweeping away anything that stood in their path. Similarly, today’s traditionalists see their work as an improvement on the modernist history, so: away with it! A nice example of progressive thinking that is very successful and popular right now. Yet it is not difficult to predict that in no more than thirty years’ time these centres will themselves fall victim to the next cosiness trend.

If we test these projects against the aforementioned hypothesis of visibility versus authority, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to argue that such projects erode the position of the architect in the building process because he or she becomes complicit in a maelstrom of ever-shorter cycles of change which also seem to be getting increasingly ‘superficial’ and ‘image-focused’.

Invention versus transformation
On certain crucial spots in the renewal of post-war districts, the same themes are played out as in the new centres, and the architecture is dictated by the market, image, iconic value, branding, et cetera. Faced with such displays of spectacle, one is inclined to assume that the architect wielded a lot of power, that he wound the client around his little finger and controlled the building process. But is that really so? Two such buildings are included in this Yearbook.

The Parkrand building stands on the edge of Eendracht Park in Amsterdam-Geuzenveld and was designed by MVRDV. Right from the start, the client, Het Oosten Kristal housing corporation, wanted to build an icon, something that the neighbourhood was lacking. As such, the building is a good example of Brouwer’s New Realism. Although the programme changed during the process and the owner-occupied dwellings became rental dwellings, the iconic ambition never faltered. The local authority and the national government contributed financially to the extra allure. The result is an imposing building that impresses from afar because of its form (building with holes) and from nearby because of its design: the white inner facades are clad with specially designed tiles and the surrealistic outdoor rooms were created by a big-name designer, Richard Hutten. But the building looks better in photographs than in reality. The iconic form is daring and superbly exploits the parkside location; close up the building’s spaces, including the outdoor rooms, are cold and primarily vandal-proof. ‘Icon’ has clearly been interpreted here as a visual phenomenon; the building is first and foremost a photographic icon.

De Eekenhof is described by its architects, Claus en Kaan, as a completely logical, functional design. It stands on the edge of the park at the centre of Roombeek, the Enschede district largely destroyed by a fireworks disaster in 2000, a stone’s throw away from the foundations of SE Fireworks. The spatial masterplan by Pi de Bruyn and co. determined the plot and specified the height (ten storeys facing the park, dropping to three at the rear). The programme, comprising a health centre with a number of practices, several single-family homes, sheltered housing and 26 rental and 26 owner-occupied apartments, was drawn up by the housing corporation. The architects then sought the most logical and advantageous configuration for this programme within the given urban design parameters. This resulted in internal accessing of the apartments via a central atrium, a staggered form to meet the prescribed heights, and a division into several volumes around a courtyard on top of a car park. Last of all, according to the architect, came the decision that gives the building its attractive appearance: the balconies were nominated as a compositional theme in the design of the facade; the (neo-expressionist) detailing and the choice of material (yellow brick) were the finishing touches. All in all, an exemplary but also normal way of working. Knowledge and expertise are deployed, imagination and the rational interpretation of the context and parameters lead to the expressive form. The result is an icon, but one in which the visual effect does not predominate over the other aspects of the design.

Visually stunning buildings are generally the most highly regarded. After all, the ingenuity and artistry on display in such buildings are the architect’s visiting card. Conversions and makeovers of existing buildings are usually considered less prestigious: the consensus is that the ‘limitations’ placed on the architect are so great that there is scarcely any scope for ingenuity, let alone an artistic tour de force with a personal signature. Yet, if only because reuse projects are on the rise in the Netherlands, it is worth taking a more serious look at this area.

Is it not so that adaptive reuse projects actually require architects to display even more craftsmanship, ingenuity and commitment than conventional building projects? Despite the fact that the architect’s intervention is barely detectable on the outside, especially compared with the visual bombast of iconic magazine architecture? In other words: couldn’t it be argued that an architect’s influence is inversely proportional to the degree to which he or she controls the image? A few examples from this Yearbook would seem to suggest that this is indeed so.

First of all there are the blocks of housing that Henk van Schagen renovated in Pendrecht, Rotterdam. As in an earlier rehabilitation job in Pendrecht, this commission, too, concerned the generally reviled walk-up flats of the 1950s. The blocks’ owner, De Nieuwe Unie housing corporation, had already been ‘schooled’ by Van Schagen with projects like the renovation of Delisquare in Katendrecht. A mixture of restoration and modernization transformed this nineteenth-century square into the attractive focal point of the regeneration of the troubled Katendrecht district.
The cheap-looking roof extensions (sneeringly referred to as ‘roof boxes’) added during previous urban regeneration operations were removed and the original detailing of the ground-level shops was restored. A mix of small businesses, from a tattoo shop to a sambal kitchen and a café bar, has since moved into the previously rundown square. While it is clear from the typically crude urban renewal era staircases that some of the housing belong to the subsidized rental sector, the roof boxes were replaced by owner-occupied dwellings which made striking use of the nineteenth-century facades: large sections of the sloping roof are transparent so that the bell gables stand like pieces of scenery in front of the dwellings which also enjoy a breathtaking view of the towers on Wilhelminapier.

But in Pendrecht the qualities of the architecture were not so self-evident. De Nieuwe Unie asked Van Schagen to investigate whether the existing housing stock could be converted into the desired four-room dwellings for both the owner-occupied and rental markets. All the structural shells in the area were surveyed and eight blocks of walk-up flats were declared suitable. The unsightly buildings, which previous renovations had robbed of any architectural charms they may once have possessed, consisted of small, three-room flats. Two flats, one above the other, were joined by inserting an internal stair in the former kitchen, thus producing four-room dwellings of approximately 110m².

Little of this radical transformation is evident on the exterior; the plastic window frames were replaced by long narrow ones with deep reveals, the brickwork was cleaned, the entrance was renewed and faced with glass, and the loggias were turned into semi-internal balconies with large sliding glass doors between balcony and living room. These important improvements of the living enjoyment made the dwellings commercially viable again while leaving the architectural image largely unaltered and emphasizing the qualities of the original 1956 design by Van Herwaarden & Bos.

There are several advantages to such an approach: high-grade dwellings for a relatively low cost, shorter construction time, environmentally friendlier and more interesting in terms of cultural history. In addition, the open green structure of the modernist district was retained; it is usually the first thing to disappear when blocks of flats are demolished because of the larger footprint of the replacement single-family dwellings.

The role of the architect in this project is far-reaching: he does the preliminary research, formulates the task, makes the design and supervises the construction. The architect obviously understands the complexity of the building process and the project situation so well that he is given (or takes) an early, fully embedded role in the building process. His position is consequently strong. The total absence of any urge to create an icon turns it into a statement: an added staircase or balcony would have been the kiss of death for what is perhaps the most formal of the urban renewal designs in this Yearbook.

Another project in which there is scarcely any evidence of ‘evocation’ or ‘design’ in the outward appearance, is the Wallis Block in the Rotterdam district of Spangen; although the transformation of this block was carried out in an innovative fashion, you cannot deduce that from the exterior. This block was in such a poor state of repair that renovation was financially unfeasible and the demolition–new-build estimates were similarly unfavourable. The architect, Ineke Hulshof, and the Stichting Woning consultancy together worked out a unique arrangement: the dwellings were given away ‘for free’, but with an obligation to invest in the dwelling and to refurbish the block in concert with the other owners. Supervised by the architect, the prospective residents chose the size, layout and design of their dwelling, turning 26 structural units into 34 completely different dwellings. The artist’s impression of the block, with its welter of different colours, looks like a university student’s plan full of contrived arbitrariness, but in this case it really did turn out like this and the variation was the result of residents’ wishes.

The Wallis Block illustrates a new type of gentrification. The value of this ‘invention’ lies primarily in the new division of roles between owner, architect and residents. The architect’s task is not that of designer, but of a project leader who must supervise a lengthy process, solve a complicated puzzle involving a lot of assertive clients who all have to be fitted into a single block. This is where the ingenuity of this project lies, in the orgware and the process. The rest, including the architectural intervention, is virtually invisible. The architect evidently saw no need to express the new interior on the outside. And rightly so, because the quality of these dwellings lies in their original charm. It shows courage on the part of the architect to concentrate on a renewal of the organizational structure rather than on the design.

The question posed at the beginning of this essay was whether the power and influence of the architect, his architectural authority (the knowledge, expertise and evocation of which Neutelings spoke), is inversely proportional to the iconic value of the architecture. The all but invisible interventions in Pendrecht and in the Wallis Block confirm this by reason of the extreme degree to which the architects submerged themselves in the construction and design process and were in charge of every aspect of the show. But the final example of urban renewal in this Yearbook, MVRDV’s Diddendorp in Rotterdam, transcends this proposition. It is a mini-icon that achieves a maximum effect with only a minimal residential area and is highly visible thanks to its distinctive colour which identifies the project from afar as an eruption of blue. It is deliberately garish, but because of its small size, unquestionably sympathetic. And Diddendorp was the fruit of many years’ close collaboration between architect and residents. It was not some jolly idea or contrivance of the architect. The result is a new architectural image, a floating village, in no way adapted to its surroundings, monomaniacally itself in Smurf colouring. The residents were involved in all aspects and phases of the design and the construction, yet it is also a design statement by the architect which has made it into all the architecture magazines. Thanks to this multi-layeredness and involvement it is actually a more convincing project than MVRDV’s Parkrand building. The iconic quality is not the outcome of local government policy or of the client’s marketing strategy, nor an example of New Realism, but an authentic, eccentric form of colonization of the second ground plane.

More broadly, it is a non-institutional, experimental contribution to the debate about ‘topping up’, thanks to its innovative structural research and demonstrative power. Unfortunately it has shown that building on a roof, even a large, flat roof like this one, is infinitely more difficult and expensive than anticipated. And yet it is worthwhile, for thanks to their investment in Diddendorp the residents can pursue their urban lifestyle without being forced to decamp to the Rotterdam suburbs for lack of space. Diddendorp can also be read as an idiosyncratic protest against all those insipid housing models that the market produces and a good alternative to the perennial terrace house with garden which, according to the current New Realism consensus, is supposed to keep middle-class families in the city centres.

Rules and organization
The hypothesis floated at the beginning of this essay – visibility versus power – turns out to be untenable. Not all flashy buildings are empty shells; the selection in this Yearbook tells a different story. Many of the attractive buildings in this book derive their eloquence from close collaboration with the client, a well-directed design energy and the professional expertise of the architect. Conversely, it has been plausibly demonstrated that well-nigh invisible architecture projects, reuse or otherwise, can have iconic significance because of their social relevance and that, contrary to expectations, these projects entail a more prominent role for the architect. This is an important finding, certainly in a period when adaptive reuse and transformation are playing an ever-bigger part in building production.

It is also important to note that although knowledge, expertise and evocation are the basis of every architectural project, conducting the architectural debate in Vitruvius’s terms alone will not get us very far. A discussion about such an atypical project as the Wallis Block, which is purely about a different organization and new rules, would be pointless. Moreover, architecture needs to assimilate all the knowledge from related disciplines in order to ensure that the architect can continue to play his role in the midst of market, politics, consultants and residents as a generalist and not as a woolly talker or untouchable visionary. That professional expertise, as Neutelings emphasized, is the core of the generalist approach, few would dispute. The support this statement received indicates that many architects are pleased to have the boundaries of their profession reaffirmed. But when it comes to a genuine discussion or to obtaining an influential position in the building process, this is definitely not enough.

Brouwers is correct in his observation that New Realism is a defining characteristic of current building production. But that, too, is a condition that holds for every architect and every project and thus loses its distinguishing power. There is always (except in the case of private clients) a market party, whether it be a developer, an investor or a housing corporation; everything is market. This has important consequences for the architecture journalist or critic. The orgware behind every project (the complexity of the task, the financial structure and the balance of power) is more important than ever. The unravelling and interpretation of that orgware therefore deserves much more attention. From the formal appearance of a building it is impossible to deduce the degree to which New Realism has influenced its production. If architecture criticism is to be meaningful and to exert some influence on what is built – and so to have relevance beyond its own little circle – it must take stock of all facets of design and building practice.

For the same reason, namely the growing influence (and decreasing transparency) of external and political factors in the architectural design, projects that intervene creatively in the orgware, as the Wallis Block and the Pendrecht blocks of walk-up flats do, are of immense importance. They are innovative because they allow architects to penetrate to the heart of architectural production, because they experiment with new methods of organization, commissioning and financing and ignore ‘business as usual’. Diddendorp does this too, and was moreover realized completely independently of institutional constructions and interests, indeed, could never have been realized at all in such a context.

As well as icons, urban renewal needs buildings that are relevant because of innovative financial and organizational constructions, like the Wallis Block and Diddendorp which are both in their own way icons, one of collective and the other of private commissioning. Both are examples of projects where the architect is not marginalized and is able to exercise his professional expertise – be it in completely different ways – to the fullest.

  1. ‘The definition of New Realism is that public administrators and clients–developers together decide what the outcome of a building initiative should be, through market segmentation, project formulation and then the famous branding, sticking an enticing image on a building initiative.’ Ruud Brouwers, ‘New realism. An exercise in contemporary architecture criticism’, Stadscahiers. De transformatie van de naoorlogse stad [Urban cahiers. The transformation of the post-war city], no. 1, 2007, p. 25.
  2. Idem, p. 26.
  3. For the lectures given during this congress, see: www.architectuurtweepuntnul.nl
  4. Three issues of Stadscahiers. De transformatie van de naoorlogse stad have been published to date. See: www.stadscahiers.nl.
  5. Hilde de Haan and Ids Haagsma, Wie is er bang voor nieuwbouw... confrontatie met Nederlandse architecten / Who’s afraid of new-build... confrontation with Dutch architects, Amsterdam 1981, p. 139.

article ‘Urban renewal: invention, transformation and the power of the architect’, in: Daan Bakker, Allard Jolles, Michelle Provoost, Cor Wagenaar, Architectuur in Nederland Jaarboek 2007>08, NAi uitgever 2008, p. 176, Nl/Eng ISBN 978-90-5662-050-9