Beyond Buildings


Rome Prize Recap (Dutch Edition)

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Several weeks ago, I had the honor of chairing the jury that picked the winner of the Dutch Rome Prize (Prix de Rome) for architecture, urban planning, and landscape architecture.  Though the design is specific to its site, I thought the different approaches the four finalists took illuminated the difficulty architecture has in approaching social issues and offering concrete alternatives for a better culture.

The problem we as a jury gave the architects was both immediate and at the heart of architecture’s dilemma for the last century, if not longer. They were asked to redesign a square in Amsterdam’s western suburbs that was designed in the 1960s to be a modernist utopia, and has now become a run-down shopping and community district for a population of mainly foreign-born recent immigrants. We asked the participants in the Rome Prize whether architecture and planning could still contribute to the emergence of a better (more connective and socially just) society by making this a better place.

We chose four finalists who neither tried to convert the whole area into something resembling a North African or Middle Eastern soukh, an approach we felt denied both the cultural multiplicity of the area’s population and the possibility of integration. We also avoided schemes that tried to import traditional city forms and patterns to this suburban location.  Instead, we looked for ideas about how the bare bones of modernist (abstract, rational, and socially engineered) apartment blocks and open spaces could develop into something with a more human scale and more ways of addressing the possibility of social identification and conversation.


Spee and Steenvoorden

Two of the teams, those of Jeroen Spee and Jeroen Steenvoorden, and Thijs Bijsterveld and Oana Rades, took a modernist approach. They found within the clarity of forms and spaces the original plan, based on Cornelis van Eesteren’s planning principles, the possibility of possibilities: an openness that would encourage inhabitants to share a neutral space, that would allow different forms of perception and use, and that would yet tie together all there in an environment that represented exactly those notions of rationality, and thus democracy.

Spee and Steenvoorden did so with a highly reduced plan, in which architecture almost disappeared into horizontal lines etched into the ground. Based on walks and bicycle trips they had taken hrough the surrounding areas, the design resolved itself into a pathway connecting the urban core, on the other side of an elevated highway from the project area, to the open spaces beyond an also elevated railroad track at the study area’s other side. Beautifully designed squares focused on public space, but without enough power, we felt, to create truly social space.


Rades and Bijsterveld

Rades and Bijsterveld also used a modernist idiom, but a more robust one. They took the existing apartment block that frames the square’s southern side and elongated it. Against that long horizontal they posed a block building, its bottom carved out for a covered event space and one of its legs a mosque, which faced a raised plinth.  On either end, against the elevated roads and railroads, mid-rise blocks announced the area and gave it both a new scale and new uses, such as a hotel and a covered market.  As a jury, we felt it was ultimately too ambitious, too grand, and too large in scale.


Selbing and Vogel


At the other end of the spectrum, Johan Selbing and Anouk Vogel left most of the buildings on site and instead proposed a curvilinear landscape that would completely fill every inch of available open space. This new landscape would extend far beyond the square to take over the whole western part of Amsterdam, replacing the grid of streets between the apartment blocks with a sinuous and ever-changing natural environment. This scheme also seemed to us a bit too simplistic, though seductive.


Olv Klijn

The winner, Olv Klijn, had such a complex proposal (and such a bad presentation) that we could not at first figure it out.It only revealed itself in a long video in which he presented his voluminous research on the issues and in which we caught glimpses of the design.  It included a dense housing and shopping district “mound” that bridged over the railroad tracks, a collection of mastaba-like forms meant to house the local churches and mosques, and small parasite-buildings Klijn intended as incubators for local businesses and workshops. The square’s largest structure, the apartment block, became a combination water purification and storage device and water museum.  It would confront the issues created by global warming and over-building in a visible and educational manner.

Though we felt the scheme did too much, and that not all of its parts worked, the very variety of approaches—each of which did serve to break down scale, occupy space in a communal way, and create communal focal points—was exhilarating.  Klijn showed that architecture in both form and in program could propose many ways of activating a neighborhood.  The ideas were concrete enough to be architecture, based on social conditions so that they were sound contributions to planning, and together presented an alternative, three-dimensional reality that would make this area better.

Though many of the issues the designers confronted were specific to this site and to the Netherlands, I do feel that there is a bigger lesson there that is applicable to the United States as well. Architecture is not the reduction of all issues to one formal solution, nor is it social engineering, either of the modernist or the New Urbanist kind.  Instead, architecture of this kind is a set of proposals for a concrete reality, based on thorough research, which can contribute to the improvement of our urban and ex-urban conditions. I hope that somebody like Olv Klijn will make the same kind of contribution to our American environment.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.