When I was growing up in Europe, we lived near an American Air Force base in the Netherlands called Soesterberg. It was a source of all kinds of technological marvels, from the rock and roll records we borrowed from the base library to the hamburgers we put in newfangled devices called microwave ovens. But the most obvious and most impressive devices at which we marveled were the ones that gave the base its purpose: the jets that streaked and boomed overhead, their profiles defying all sense of proportion and promising power beyond compare.
Now that base is closed, but the Dutch firm RAAAF, working with the artist Frank Havermans, have devised the perfect memorial to it with Secret Operation 610. A diamond-shaped cockpit, suspended from splayed legs resting on tank wheels, slid out of the decommissioned hangar last week and onto the empty runway. Their makers claim it will be the site for important experiments by Delft’s University of Technology, but above all else its role is to commemorate the awesomeness, but also the scariness, of American power.
RAAAF (Rietveld Architecture-Art-Affordances) consists of two brothers, the landscape architect Ronald Rietveld and his philosopher brother Erik (no relation to the architect Gerrit), working together with the architect Arna Mackic. Ronald has been practicing at the edges of the discipline since he graduated a decade ago and won the Dutch Prix de Rome in 2006. In 2010, he created the installation Dutch Atlas of Vacancy for the 12th Architecture Biennale in Venice: blue foam forms cataloged all the empty spaces in Dutch buildings in a manner that made them legible.
What interests me in particular about the firm’s work is that they have chosen to make or propose exactly the kind of projects I think are so vital for the development of our built environment. I recently noted that the proposal by REX for Dallas was a good example of such thinking. RAAAF uses architecture to make essential, but invisible aspects of our society visible. They followed their Venice project up with a movie, Firemen Walk With Us, in which they laid out a grid of fires in metal pots to turn the insides of vacant buildings into sites with a presence that their darkness otherwise obscured.
In line with the Air Force base project, they sliced open a Second World War-era concrete bunker that still sits in a Dutch meadow. The path towards and through the defensive structure lets you experience a cross-cut of the landscape, while the cut itself opens up the tiny interior so long buried in all that concrete and makes it part of wider vistas.
RAAAF has both a political and an environmental agenda. They have proposed a way that dunes could be regenerated to counter coast erosion and protect the land behind it from rising seas. This year, they offered up a monument for the events at Taksim Square in Istanbul that would consist of a grid of lights shining out from a building, its luminescence offering hope, promising occupation, and commemorating the lives lost there last year.
In all their work, the Rietveld brothers and Mackic make use of the power of what is empty, unused, or gone. Perhaps it is because of Ronald’s landscape perspective, but what they offer is simple, yet invaluable. Rather than ignoring what does not point to itself as a showy structure; rather than filling voids; and rather than forgetting a past that might trouble us, they show us how we can find ways to make us aware of what is not. In the voids, turned into temporary objects or just marked, we can find what might be missing in a world so filled with stuff and images. RAAAF is bringing a necessary poetry of absence to a world of built clichés and unnecessary objects.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.