I recently returned to the Netherlands, where I lived for six years at the beginning of the decade. I took the new high-speed train from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, cutting through the middle of the country's "Green Heart," where the poetry of rectangular meadows separated by drainage ditches has transformed this swamp into agricultural and now urban space. I admired its collage of open space, new suburbs and industry, messy but always clear in its divisions and mixing all aspects of modern space together. I could remark on all this because I was not actually going very fast: the new line is open, but the trains are the same old ones, whizzing along at a leisurely pace.
It is indicative of much that has gone wrong and what is still right in the Netherlands. The decade started with the government's call for ten "Large Projects," but most have been a disaster. The high-speed train was supposed to open five years ago. A new building for the State Monument Agency, by Juan Baldeweg, is a monument to nothing but blandness. The renovation of the country's greatest art museum, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is also six years overdue and its cost has ballooned to close to a billion dollars, though nobody is quite sure yet. It is not just the Large Projects that are in trouble: Amsterdam's new metro is years too late, three times as expensive as planned, and causing ancient canal houses to list. A new parking garage opposite where I worked in Rotterdam is still not finished and is currently projected to cost—wait for it—over $140 million.
The list goes on and on. In terms of what is actually built, the days of derring-do such as MVRDV's Silodam Housing Project, or UN Studio's Moebius House, seem a thing of the past. If firms such as this, or the granddaddy of them all, Rem Koolhaas' OMA, do build anymore in these days of economic contraction, it is usually out of the country. What OMA has proposed for Rotterdam is a ridiculous vertical donut, while former lead designer Kees Christiaanse has imposed another badly detailed housing project on the city, except that this one is bright red (it is called The Red Apple) and towers over a nest of equally bland recently built towers.
Having written a great deal of articles and a book about the lessons to be learned from Dutch design, I would still say that those lessons have been learned, but that the best proof is buried deep inside the pudding, and is thus often invisible.
The Hague Tram Tunnel
A few years ago, OMA produced its best building ever in the Netherlands, an underground tram stop, parking garage, and pedestrian undercrossing in the middle of the Hague. Nothing of it was or is visible aboveground. It also cost too much, but at least it is a great example of how to create civic space that serves to bind us—literally—together.
Langerak Development in Leidsche Rijn
What remains of the age of experimentation last decade are exactly those rows of houses interspersed with meadows that I cruised by on the slow train to Amsterdam. The intelligently designed suburban developments created in the so-called Vinex program in the 1990s and early 2000s are mostly finished and inhabited, and are beginning to offer answers as to how we can create intelligent ways of working with sprawl. They are now being outfitted with all the public facilities, such as schools and community centers, as well as public transportation that are making their startling experiments in housing forms more rooted in daily life. In Rotterdam and Amsterdam, old industrial piers are being filled with residential blocks that are not necessarily beautiful, but logical continuations of the historic patterns, now transformed into spaces for living and working with lots of light and good connections to the cities' cores.
The real lesson, then, is that good architecture is not always the making of clever buildings with racy forms, or aspiring to the making of great monuments, but the sensible allocation of space on an urban level, the supply of good infrastructure, and the allowance for enough variety to allow each space to develop its own character. Good architecture can be invisible in single objects, but visible as a collective lived environment.
That sounds like pure socialism, in other words, though it is, in the Netherlands, tempered by developers working according to the rules of private enterprise and shorn of the notion that we all need to be part of the same proletarian army. It does not work when the country tries to compete with France or England in the making of big things. It does work when it tries to make better places to live, work, and be part of a community and landscape. That is a great message for the United States. It should be what our government should be doing: acting as an honest broker in decisions about the uses of space, providing infrastructure, and helping to develop a coherent, but loose framework in which our urban areas—including sprawl—can develop in a sensible, sensitive, and sociable manner.
There is not a lot of chance of that in a country that can't even decide that it needs better and more logical health care, but that shouldn't help us from dreaming of Dutch treats.