“Architecture in the Netherlands has become noticeably boring.”

“Architecture in the Netherlands has become noticeably boring.”

Dutch architecture may be at the forefront of sustainable building practices, but Aaron Betsky feels it has lost its luster in recent years.

“It’s always a wave, and we’re 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 noticeably dull in recent years. Without getting too nostalgic, it’s almost impossible not to notice that the country, which for two decades on either side of the millennium produced some of the world’s most fascinating, innovative and experimental architecture, is now building a lot of boxes.

Clad in brick or concrete, these office buildings, residential complexes and cultural institutions have no decoration or distinction. Its main flourishes appear to be thin, vertically elongated arches that dance across some of the facades.

Many decades of right-wing, cost-cutting policies have eroded generous subsidies

An example of this is the development of one of OMA’s first designs, the building that housed the Dutch Dance Theater in The Hague. After being considered obsolete 10 years ago, Neutelings Riedijk has won the competition for a new structure with a highly ornate and formally elaborate structure. The right-wing city government scrapped the plan, and in its place is now a box decorated with fluted columns, designed by NOAHH, with the name invented by consultants Amare (pictured).

Likewise, experiments and social housing in newly built settlements such as Lippenburg and Leidsch-Rhein, built as part of the Phoenix Million Home Programme, which gave some of us hope that urban sprawl could be done right, have now been replaced by new housing. Unified blocks with new traditional interfaces.

“I really can’t tell you about any really good new companies,” another industry leader wrote. No one I contacted wanted to talk about this situation on the record. Maybe they don’t want to add more negativity about the current state of architecture, or they don’t want to offend local talent.

One critic, the editor-in-chief of De Architect, the country’s largest architecture magazine, Merel Pit, gave me a list of startups that she felt were doing interesting work. Most of them also design rectangular enclosures for different programs, although they have managed to extract a few that use at least more glass.

“For young architects, it’s difficult to get a commission,” Pete added. Renowned architect, Sword Sutters, closed his office this summer, claiming that it is too difficult to work with government or private clients these days.

Several decades of right-wing policies and cost-cutting have eroded the generous subsidies the Dutch used to offer startups to help them get started, travel or showcase and publicize their work.

There is little of the openness to experimentation that the Dutch government used to show at various levels

Moreover, there is little of the openness to experimentation that the Dutch government used to show at various levels when it commissioned architects such as Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos to design the Erasmus Bridge, the offices of the Rotterdam city government or Bentheim Kroel. New Municipal Museum (Stedelijk Museum) in Amsterdam. And yes, regulations, both financial and legal, are becoming more restrictive.

This is not to say that the Netherlands has not seen amazing buildings appear on its landscape in the past few years. OMA’s loose collection of angular glass planes for the nHow Hotel and MVRDV’s multi-use eroded mountain, Valley Towers, will open in 2022 on either side of the highway flanking the southern edge of Amsterdam.

The company’s latest warehouse for the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, a reflective glass “flower bowl” containing six floors of open storage photographed through an atrium offering dramatic views of the art stored there, which opened in 2023, is certainly One of the company’s last warehouses. The most surprising structures completed anywhere in the world since the pandemic.

However powerful, they are designs that not only come from companies that are now decades old, but also rely on at least as old thinking and strategies. These ideas and forms may still be effective, but they do not help us understand and respond to the issues that architects in the Netherlands and elsewhere have to confound design with.

One area in which the Dutch continue to work on effective and innovative responses to social issues is through reuse, innovative forms of adaptive reuse, and recycling.

The most important new firm (founded in 2015) in my opinion is Civic Architects. In collaboration with a group of established companies such as Mecanoo, Civic has 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 does not mean that the work being done by a group of newer companies is not worthy of merit

Firms like Jan Jongert’s Superuse Studios, drawing on the tradition pioneered by the Droog Design movement that began in 1993, have pioneered dumpster diving as an architectural practice. She also creates beautiful spaces, like those in her own offices at BlueCity, a renovated spa along the embankment overlooking the Rhine River. Meanwhile, the 20-year-old firm ZUS continues the idea that architecture should be a form of social intervention and action that rarely involves the use of natural resources to create buildings.

There are some companies that continue the high-visual impact shapes pioneered by the likes of OMA and Neutelings Riedijk at the turn of the millennium in a more subdued style. Most notable among these is Barcode Architects, whose Sluishuis, in collaboration with OMA graduate Danish firm BIG, features a 10-storey-tall triple portal, cantilevered over the water in Amsterdam and carved out of a residential building.

That the most expressive models are either produced by large international companies such as OMA, MVRDV and Benthem Crouwel, which at this point happen to be based in the Netherlands (even if these roots are fundamental to their achievements) or in collaboration with companies from other countries, is quite telling. Twenty years ago, when the Dutch state privatized the postal service and other organizations that commissioned some of the world’s best graphic designs, the new identities of these organizations were created almost entirely by foreign companies.

The same trend seems to have now crept into architecture: given the opportunity to take risks or make a statement, developers seem to look beyond boundaries, as big companies like BIG have shown they are capable of building strange things at scale.

This is not to say that the work being undertaken by a range of newer firms, ranging from carefully designed facades and renovations by Marjolein van Eeg to restrained public buildings and housing by Hubble Cornelis Verhoeven to the generously proportioned minimalism of Maarten van Kesteren, is not of merit. Such architecture works with and responds to Dutch traditions, seeking to ground itself in a sense of restraint perhaps embodied in the old Dutch proverb: “Act naturally, and you’ll be strange enough.”

As in almost every country in the world, most of what is built in the Netherlands is terrible. As in other places, there are always exceptions, there are established companies and ambitious and talented young people who get the chance to make something. The problem – or beauty, if you believe in restraint – with this work is that almost all of it is completely boring.

Aaron Betsky is a professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture and Design and was head of the Taliesin School of Architecture from 2017 to 2019. He has written more than a dozen books on architecture, design, and art.

Photo by Osip van Duijvenbode.

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