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Outrage: Dutch architecture no longer shows social imagination

While their cities’ once-exemplary housing system is dismantled and the national social-housing stock plummets, Dutch architects remain silent

Compared with countries such as Germany and France, the Netherlands has produced few great thinkers, but a huge number of famous painters, designers and other image producers. Today, this image-led culture has become obsessive and unhealthy for the architecture sphere, infatuated by the production of eye-catching buildings collecting likes on Instagram and shaping skylines the world over. While the ‘Superdutch’ (global fame is still reserved to a happy few) know how to design and discuss great public buildings, there is a deafening silence when it comes to the larger issue of housing. 



Het Schip (The Ship), a social-housing complex in the Spaarndammerbuurt district of Amsterdam, was designed by Michel de Klerk and built between 1917 and 1921. A former primary school within has been transformed into Museum Het Schip, which focuses on art, architecture and social housing

Dutch cities were once exemplars of affordability and diversity, but the country’s social-housing stock decreased by 53,000 between 2015 and 2017. Amsterdam has seen its share shrink by a third to 39 per cent today. While still considerable by international figures, it is an enormous and speedy loss for a city that boasted 58 per cent of social housing in 1995 – originally state-owned, these homes are now rented out by not-for-profit housing associations. Prices are rising at alarming rates: 60 per cent since 2013, the year a heavy tax was introduced to force housing associations to sell off social housing to market parties. As a result, the Dutch capital has now overtaken London on the Global Real Estate Bubble Index. As more affluent prospective buyers move to the cities, national policies increasingly favour home-ownership, and municipalities are eager to sell land at high prices for upscale residential developments. Rotterdam, swamped with iconic buildings, is planning to demolish almost 20,000 poorly maintained, still-inhabited social units to replace them with apartments for the more prosperous.

The Netherlands has largely decentralised urban planning, and most cities have long ensured mixed neighbourhoods, with social housing not restricted to the lowest incomes. But today, newcomers cannot afford a place in their cities of choice and it is virtually impossible for young people without an inheritance to get a mortgage. Dutch tenants spent around half their income on housing costs in 2016, compared with 28 per cent in the 1990s. Amsterdam has begun to see the destruction of its social heritage and now wants to maintain a 40 per cent social-housing quota in all new developments. Better, but not enough, since most home seekers have been forced onto the overheated private market, victim to speculation and soaring housing costs. 

‘A serious offensive could take shape and bless progressive politics with the future visions it so desperately lacks’

Dutch architects have been completely silent during the dismantling of the housing system. Simultaneously, they are struggling to find their relevance. The biggest controversy of the past year concerned Amsterdam’s Sluisbuurt area, where the city is planning and parcelling out land for 5,500 dwellings. Fascinatingly, the fuss has been about form instead of content.

For months, talk shows and newspapers debated whether it should be a high-rise district or a historicising neighbourhood with waterways and oversized canal houses. The navel-gazing was telling of Dutch architecture’s ignorance towards the need for affordable housing and the lack of innovative thinking around increased production and non-standard domestic arrangements. 

Architects have the competence to visualise and coordinate alternatives by connecting home seekers, developers, planners, politicians and media, yet do not speak out on political issues. If the apathy persists, the profession is going to waste an obvious opportunity to regain relevance and become part of the public discussion.

Exactly one century ago, the Amsterdam School social-housing projects were under construction. Many of them still stand today, including Rotterdam’s Justus van Effen estate. In the 1920s, JJP Oud’s workers’ housing followed, icons of the International Style. The proud affordability and radical innovation of this architecture, as well as the united work of politicians, planners, tenant associations and architects to invest in proper housing and forward-looking architecture for the many, are monumental to this day. A few decades later, Bakema, Hertzberger, Van Eyck and other poster boys (even today, it is still mostly boys) showed their engagement – political winds at the time made it easier to have an agenda and get paid for it, but they did voice themselves.

Today’s endless scroll of glorious Dutch architecture shows no social imagination. With help from the architectural community, a serious offensive could take shape and bless progressive politics with the future visions it so desperately lacks. OMA’s Rem Koolhaas, MVRDV’s Winy Maas, Mecanoo’s Francine Houben, and UNStudio’s Ben van Berkel get prime-time TV and mainstream publications coverage. Yet, since even the architectural media seem to have gone quiet on the topic of housing, the engagement and authority of influencers is desperately needed to spark a change. 

Ironically, Mecanoo kick-started their celebrity with social housing in the 1980s. They have since gained experience in affordable housing in the Netherlands and elsewhere, so they could map a way forward. OMA’s Reinier de Graaf, who has eloquently written about the architecture of housing in the AR, wants OMA to do more affordable housing and personally engage politically in the topic. Powerhouse Company are setting up their own real-estate branch, giving them a privileged position to work on affordability innovation across design, construction and financing. A concerted effort is required to make sure that in a century from now, people in the Netherlands will have social monuments of the 2020s to look back at.

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