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2007 July: 'A tricky Dutch conundrum' by Peter Cook

The AR’s star columnist ponders a tricky Dutch conundrum

Shrill conflict, complete with pitched battles of words, were no problem in former times: those between the Romanticists and Classicists in the English 1800s make fascinating reading. Between those of an Expressionist inclination and the more austere, things must have been pretty close to the surface (despite alliances) as German Modernism started to develop. One wonders how much Ludwig Hilbersheimer really had to say to Hans Scharoun over the odd schnapps. And what about all that Corbusian rhetoric?

Things are now a little different: it’s somehow not cool for an architect to slag off an opponent in public. The printed word is (generally) left to professional commentators for the making of categorisations and assumptions. Of course there’s plenty of discreet ganging-up, with New York and Paris preferring the tightly demarcated coterie to the unreliable chumminess of London and Los Angeles. But much more fascinating is the barometer of thrill, inspiration or recognition.

Teacher-architects with good antennae, or voracious lecture-goers, may be aware of this barometer at work. As a test-bed, I will take the case of MVRDV, that active bunch of Rotterdam architects who are centre stage wherever you go; what fascinates me are the extremes of excitement and distaste they generate.

On two competition juries in the Far East, on a professorship slug-out in Austria and after a couple of London lectures I have witnessed at first hand the effect of Winy Maas, the most exposed of the three partners. No, I am being coy: the most glamorous, the most articulate, the most publicly aware and (though it is supposed to be a non-issue) the most charismatic. This same charisma is somehow linked to the vehemence of the reception. So after a Bartlett lecture some four years ago, the next morning was interrupted every twenty minutes by a wide variety of colleagues coming in one after the other and bending my ear over their irritation with the speaker. On the professorial panel, it was a similar story, but in both cases, the students had been noticeably excited.

One of the competitions had staged the presentations in public. Again the students responded enthusiastically to Winy, but in the closed jury my one (semi-enthusiastic) vote to keep their scheme somewhere in the running was quickly dismissed by irritated colleagues. More lately I have been fascinated by the fact that some of their wittier ideas have been swamped by those that are more diagrammatic (and, frankly, more formulaic), yet the latter seem to appeal most to the young and to the curators.

Intrigued by all this and refusing to rely solely on my own bewilderment, I have been conducting a modest little poll of Americans, French, Scandinavians and anyone else who would listen. So what is it about MVRDV that touches nerves? Why is it that possible rivals, such as FOA of London, PLOT (now BIG) of Copenhagen or fellow Rotterdamers NOX, elicit a more conditioned response: almost project-by-project, with future recognition probably dependent on holding the interest of the observer rather than eliciting a similar state of Heroics?

Are those Dutch diagrams (predicted by so many to go out as fast as pudding haircuts), more vehemently thrust down like gauntlets by MVRDV than by the others? Are the giant cantilevers, now superseded by giant holes, not the stuff of those same Modernist heroics that we saw in the ink drawings of the Constructivists and the Brazilians? Are not those provocative towers of animals, fruit, vegetation or artefacts in the great tradition of … wait a minute … Archigram (that’s us lot)? I have a long memory of the ill-concealed sneers of Hampstead types of the generation ahead of us who waited for us to either disappear, come into line or somehow try to seduce them by argument and reason.

Yet here’s the rub: if FOA have a corner in intellectualism, Spuybroek of NOX is a good reasoner and PLOT/BIG have just got on with it without much posturing, they escape from the drama (though I wouldn’t mind betting that they would all secretly enjoy it). Yet my sampling did throw up some other intriguing markers: ‘It’s the simplicity of the ideas’; ‘It’s the glamour of naughtiness’; ‘It’s the fact that it’s built, it’s there and there’s lots of it’; ‘Their arrogance carries them forward’.

That Dutch arrogance has served Rem Koolhaas brilliantly, but there’s another rub: Rem, with all his faults, possesses a level of wit - both visual and intellectual - that continues to engage, that can twist, turn, contradict and seduce. It sits heavily on all the other Dutch architects. So the big book that MVRDV produced after Rem’s S,M,L,XL might have seemed an embarrassing wannabe symbol to an English observer brought up on the virtues of originality.

In fact, we all look over our shoulders; even Corb, Kahn and Price looked when nobody was watching. I remain intrigued. Am I saying I’m irritated, that there are plenty of better architects, that my fascination demands that I reconstruct my value system? Take more heed of the young? Or dig deeper?

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