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Editorial: Superdutch is dead: long live Superdutch

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The AR turns to the Netherlands for the 20th Emerging Architecture awards

The AR’s Emerging Architecture awards are now in their 20th year. We started in Copenhagen before returning to London. Last year, we were in Berlin. This November, it’s Amsterdam.

They were established in 1999 by the then Editor Peter Davey in response to the heavy-hitting Gold Medals, Pritzkers, and other lifetime achievement awards that were until then the only way to obtain international recognition. Coincidentally, in 1999 the AR ran yet another special issue on the Netherlands – Dutch designers inundated the pages of the AR during the ’80s and ’90s. It brought together the country’s emerging (now world-famous) architects at a time when their work was still largely concentrated at home, rather than abroad. The death of the great Dutch Modernist Aldo van Eyck, later that year, marked a shift in the nature of Dutch architecture towards self-serving gesture and flamboyance. Since that time, this trend has been perpetuated. 

‘In an issue devoted to the work of younger architects, mindful of the caveats and cautionary tales of pressures generated by early recognition, what does it take to be famous?’

In this month’s Outrage, Mark Minkjan laments Dutch architects’ lack of political positioning, particularly with respect to housing, and the evanescence of social imagination. However, the work of Van Eyck and Herman Hertzberger is now under renewed scrutiny, a reminder of the importance of constantly reassessing and revisiting significant buildings rather than keeping them petrified in aspic. 

Some would argue, as Peter Buchanan does in this issue, that the turning point was Rem Koolhaas, and the rise of the Superdutch. The country’s most stratospherically successful architectural export is a co-author of our cover illustration, and, at last, the subject of Reputations. Jack Self sheds forensic light on ‘how Rem became Rem’, in an attempt to answer the question ‘how does anyone become a Rem?’ Ubiquitous and unavoidable, Koolhaas has reframed the concept of what it means to be an architect – but at what cost?

In an issue devoted to the work of younger architects, mindful of the caveats and cautionary tales of pressures generated by early recognition, what does it take to be famous? While Koolhaas might believe that ‘you only have until 33 to start your career in earnest’ - partly ‘because that is how long Jesus lived’, but mostly ‘because if you can’t get your act together by that point, I don’t think you ever will’ – the only inflexible eligibility criterion of the Emerging Architecture awards is that practice founders must all be under 45. Other professions might ridicule this figure, but architecture is a slow and often meandering journey. In thinking both radically and propositionally about the future fate of buildings, cities and landscape, it takes time to gain confidence, exert authority and, crucially, turn ideas into built realities.

‘the more famous Rem becomes, the less there is to say about him’

Emerging Architecture is a springboard, and it has over the years propelled young talent onto the international stage. Previously, entrants were judged on a single completed building but, ever mindful of wanting to encourage rigorous critical thinking over short-term attention seeking, and prompted by the belief that an isolated project might not be representative of the path taken so far, or indicative of future aspirations, we have asked entrants to submit a portfolio of work. This year’s shortlist encompasses places as far-flung as Nepal, Uganda, Hong Kong and Brazil, and countries closer to home but equally under-represented in the history of these awards and the architectural press in general, such as Ireland. 

Though Dutch architects are absent from this year’s shortlist, in his keynote essay Hans Ibelings looks at how a growing trend of ‘crossing, stretching, and erasing disciplinary boundaries’ has surfaced in the Netherlands, including both young and slightly less young designers, opening up new possibilities for re-imagining the profession – and speculating that the Superdutch tide might be turning. Fame might be alluring, but it isn’t everything. As Reputations concludes, ‘the more famous Rem becomes, the less there is to say about him’. Time for architecture to cultivate a more nuanced engagement with the world.

Lead image: ‘The Baths’, from Rem Koolhaas’s 1972 AA thesis, produced with Madelon Vriesendorp, Elia and Zoe Zenghelis. ‘The function of the baths is to create and recycle public and private fantasies, to invent, test, and possibly introduce, new forms of behaviour’

This piece is featured in AR November issue on Emerging Architecture and the Netherlands – click here to purchase your copy today