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Architecture Workroom
Brussels

A Whole World to Win— Floris Alkemade in conversation with Els Vervloesem and Joachim Declerck

Els Vervloesem (EV) and Joachim Declerck (JD) of Architecture Workroom Brussels talk to Floris Alkemade (FA), some eighteen months after he took up the post of Chief Government Architect. They are curious to know how he thinks he can use his privileged position to make a difference. How can he help to shape the role that architecture and design can or should play today? The world is changing at a rapid pace. Many social challenges, such as care, climate change or employment, are manifest ing as spatial design issues. How does Alkemade, who started his career at OMA, where ‘fuck context’ was for a while theleitmotif, view all this? On architecture as export product, the ‘make able society’, ‘tabula scripta’, a role for design power, the envisioning of a better future and the art of daring to fail.

Order here the Architecture in the Netherlands Yearbook 2016/17

As Government Architect, Floris Alkemade is tasked with overseeing and promoting the architectural quality and spatial integration of government real estate. He also advises the government, on request or otherwise, on architectural policy. As Government Architect he is also keen to look ahead to the future and to raise a range of themes relating to the regeneration and restructuring of neighbourhoods, cities and regions, and to a variety of social challenges. At the invitation of the Yearbook editors, Architecture Workroom Brussels went to take a look at what the neighbours are doing. No strangers to the Netherlands, Architecture Work room, as a cultural workplace for architecture and urban design, under stands and shares Alkemade’s mission to find out what architecture can do in light of the many urgent social issues facing us today. This is also reflected in their collaboration in Projectatelier BrabantStad, in the context of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. On 1 February 2017, Architecture Workroom travelled to The Hague. En route from the station to the offices of the Government Architect they were accompanied by young demonstrators protesting President Donald Trump’s introduction of a ‘ban on Muslims’. What follows is an account of the interview that took place in an office overlooking Malieveld, at that moment not only a place of protest, but also a platform for a different, better world.

Architecture is defenceless, but definitely of value.

JD: For a long time, the Netherlands was a model when it came to the relation between architecture, urban design and social development. From the late 1990s onwards, that success resulted in a lot of effort being put into Dutch architecture as an international export product. The flip side of this is that right now Dutch architects seem to be more caught up with the Business of Design Week in Hong Kong, than with the many social challenges in their own backyard. How do you view this development?

FA: I recognize what you’re saying. The huge international interest in Dutch architecture has led to a steep decline in the issues being raised by architects. During the period when the economy was still powering ahead, architecture was strongly assimilated with the market and free market ideology. At the same time, the idea of a proactive government operating on the basis of a social agenda, faded into the background. In times of prosperity that worked out well. But now you’re seeing what happens when there’s an economic crisis: the entire professional group has been ruthlessly swept aside. This is because it no longer has a distinctive narrative, independent of that economic agenda. There are two big disadvantages to this: on the one hand it renders architects defenceless in times of crisis, and on the other hand, architects are no longer taken seriously in other domains. Architecture is being marginalized and reduced to a beautiful versus ugly story.

EV: That last remark immediately touches on the first point on your agenda as Government Architect, namely: looking for the social benefit in every undertaking. It reminds me of one of your earlier statements, to the effect that designers should be more concerned with things they have no control over. In other words, architecture’s dependency on the reality of which it is a part is crucial. How are you trying, from your position as Government Architect, to operate strategically in that contingent, confusing reality?

FA: By first of all drawing attention to the importance of that social benefit. In the past, the architect was the specialist in the entire building process: he knew all about structural design and engineering, and what materials should be used. Nowadays on building sites you often find that the developer and the contractor have already got together and worked how to make it more cheaply. They are effectively saying to the architect: we only need you for the pretty picture, after that you’re just an inconvenience and you cost us time and money. I’m convinced that recovering the architect’s relevance must go hand in hand with writing architecture back into the script of the social narrative. That’s where the real urgency and innovation lies. And precisely how this can be achieved really fascinates me. The architectural way of thinking is perfectly suited to that. It is about deploying design power once more and in a different way.

EV: The circumstances in which architects work today are indeed dramatic ally different. That has a lot to do with the changing position of the government. We started out with the welfare state and the idea of the makeable society, in which a key role was reserved for government. This was followed by a period in which free market ideology dominated. And today we find ourselves in the so-called participation society. What’s your view on that? And how should architects engage with it?

FA: The idea of a makeable society often went too far, and I certainly don’t see it as something we should return to. The world has moved on to what it is today. In this era of lean government, one is looking to the local councils, the citizens and market layers to shoulder their responsibility. It’s up to architects to find out what role they can play in that altered field of influence. There are urgent issues that architects are ideally placed to work on, and which are currently not being picked up by anyone. In this way, architecture itself could regain its relevance and expressive power. For example, there’s the acute redevelopment task in the postwar districts, which were built in response to the enormous baby boom in those years. It’s not just about the huge number of districts involved: in a short period of time more was built for a single generation than for all previous generations together. The problem is also that these districts were designed for a household model that no longer pertains today. All these districts were predicated on big families and provided a whole battery of services that supported the citizen from cradle to grave. But today we have forty per cent one-person households. As a result of successive waves of immigration, these neighbourhoods are today home to many different cultural back grounds, while yesterday’s baby boom is today’s ageing boom. This entails a completely different way of living and of living together, which in turn calls for a completely different approach. And then the welfare state says: ‘We can’t finance all of this. So, citizens: it’s time to stand on your own two feet.’ That is an utterly radical change of direction and oddly enough right now nobody seems to be concerning themselves with these sorts of complex and necessary transformation tasks in sufficient depth and with equal radicalness.

JD: What you are actually saying is that the government is no longer involved in all those social issues. But citizens can’t take them all on either. Let alone the market. And so you put designers in the middle of that arena, with empowerment as the main goal, but taking a new approach. There’s a whiff of the architect as God in what you just said. No one else is doing it anymore, so the architect should do it?

FA: I don’t see the architect as God, but I do see the architect as very well equipped to navigate the dynamics of such a confusing arena of competing interests and to finally come up with a strategy and a form for tackling big problems in order to arrive at big improvements. An architect is used to working with a lot of different disciplines. If you expand that field to include a range of social issues, it only becomes more interesting and relevant. Which is why we immediately started off last year with a competition for refugee accommodation. Europe as a whole had been hit by a shockwave. People were saying out loud: ‘We’re being swamped.’ Whereas in absolute terms, the number of refugees admitted in 2015 accounted for around a quarter of one per cent of the EU population. How is it possible that a quarter of a per cent can generate such panic, while in countries like Jordan it’s as much as thirty percent? My conclusion: this is not a refugee crisis, but a solidarity crisis. This highlights the inability of countries to work together. In fact, you could see this situation as a metaphor for the way our housing is organized today. How is it possible that the Netherlands now has the most expensive housing in Europe? While you know that there is a whole segment of more mobile city dwellers out there who require flexible, affordable living space. And I don’t just mean refugees, but students, expats, the recently divorced, elderly people keen to return to the city, seasonal workers, and so on. It’s often precisely these groups that give a city a positive vibe. So the question is not how we are going to house refugees, but how we can add a much lighter or temporary form of housing to our cities. This would make it easier for people to come and go without immediately triggering a sense of crisis. And then the focus would no longer be on the laborious solving of problems but on an optimistic view of urban development. We are so incredibly well-off in the Netherlands, but as soon as we start to think about the future, all we see is impending disaster. It’s something you notice in the political debate as well, which is all about avoiding and solving problems. There doesn’t seem to be any awareness anymore that our generation is better off than any previous generation. There’s absolutely no sense that with all the means at our disposal, we can go even further. It’s up to the architect to contribute ideas and to speak about the future in terms of social benefit.

From export products to designing the processes of change

EV: So according to you, architects should use their design power to envision better futures. How then are we to move from dream to deed? How do you set about achieving concrete actions?

FA: As part of the ‘A Home away from Home’ competition aimed at refugee accommodation, a number of full-size prototypes were built during the Dutch Design Week. That’s where you see that the distance between dream and deed can be bridged. The Finch Buildings are going to be built by the city of Leiden and still more cities are in the process of realizing designs by other winners. These modules can be adapted to suit the use and the location, and can be used for care housing, student housing, hotels, or accommodation for residence permit holders. The emphasis on quality makes them attractive enough to use for other target groups. In the end it saves you a lot of money because you don’t have to keep on assembling and disassembling, transporting, storing, and there’s no need for temporary foundations and services. But the task of providing refugee camps in stricken areas also calls for a different approach. Ditto slum areas, where you can start to think about improving and upgrading with and for the current residents when you develop smarter forms of light housing. Governments today are worried that refugee camps will eventually turn into permanent settlements. The result is that everybody remains living in tents. In summer those tents are sweltering and in winter they provide no protection against the cold. In response, René van Zuuk came up with an ingenious poly styrene house. Polystyrene is easy to transport by boat, people can put it together themselves on the spot and then give it a coat of plaster, and it is very light and cheap. You don’t need any foundations and thanks to the high insulation value, a single tea light is virtually enough to keep you warm in winter, while in summer it offers protection against the heat. We have good designers, new materials and the appropriate production methods. It demonstrates that with the addition of design power, you can very quickly realize clear improvements. It’s not about exporting products anymore, but about exporting a way of thinking. Or rather: get out there, go and stand with your feet in the mud and see what you can achieve. And that’s something we can ask of designers, too.

EV: The aim of the second competition, ‘Who Cares’, picks up on this idea. It is a call for design ideas for future-proof districts. On the one hand you’ve got a government that’s keen to make drastic cutbacks, and so it calls on so-called citizen power. If you need care, you’re expected to start by turning to your family, friends, neighbours and acquaintances for help, which is not achievable for everyone. But if you try to look at this in a positive way, we are going from cure to care: from curing sickness to a more caring approach to the design of our homes and our living environment. Here, too, there are two sides to the story. What is your take on current changes in the care system?

FA: The ageing of the population and the fact that the welfare state is in retreat, can be seen as problematical. At the same time, everyone is attracted by the idea of being able to keep on living in their own home. So there are good aspects to it as well. Only, we have to dare to think beyond the mere adaptation of dwellings: stair lifts alone are not the solution. In my view it is first and foremost an urban design task. This competition is once again firmly focused on realization and we are actively working with four municipalities: Rotterdam, Almere, Groningen and Sittard-Geleen. We are calling for multidisciplinary teams, with the aim of involving as many different parties in the process as possible. We want to break open the whole care issue. Care is not confined to the elderly; it applies to everyone who is (even temporarily) vulnerable. When the city is organized in such a way that it works well for vulnerable groups, it works well for everyone. We are focusing on three research areas: integration of care in the neighbourhood, new ideas for living arrangements and living together, and the organization of the public domain. That last point relates of course to interaction and encounters, but also to enabling people to move around. Students who spent a day going around with an elderly person reported, for example, that a single high kerb on the route to the shopping centre can mean that people won’t leave their house anymore. Not that you should organize the city on the basis of a totally foolproof idea. But these are the first tentative exercises in seeing care and ageing as a design challenge; via an intelligent design approach to dignity.

JD: Dutch architecture is often shrewdly opportunistic. You manage time and again to extract the maximum from social change and then turn it into a kind of market. In fact you’re saying that’s OK. That’s something we have to be prepared to do again. Those changes have positive aspects, even though it is important to also keep on pursuing that combination of social agenda and market mentality.

FA: Yes, that’s what makes a crisis interesting. It’s then that you realize how vulnerable you are when you focus exclusively on money. A great illustration of that combination of pragmatism and idealism is the youth hospice Xenia, a project in Leiden that won the Golden Pyramid in 2016, a government prize for inspiring commissioning. The initiative came from a nurse who noticed that while a lot is being done for terminally ill children and elderly people, there is actually nothing for young people. With no budget and no financial resources, she set up a hospice in the middle of the city where these young people can be temporarily cared for. With the help of donations and support from a housing association, she managed against all the odds to get this project off the ground. Supervision was mainly done by volunteers from among the many young people studying in Leiden, who were only too happy to be able to help their peers who are ill. In a business model it would never add up, but by simply going ahead and doing it, all kinds of mechanisms are set in motion and suddenly it’s possible. Money is important, but it is only one of the forces in a much broader process where you can also bring other aspects into play. If there is one lesson to be learnt from the crisis, it’s that you make yourself vulnerable when money is the sole driver.

Tabula scripta: modelling a cultural shift

JD: In the various examples you’ve cited, the architect is placed in a completely new position in the social arena. This also calls for a different architectural culture. Is the future generation of architects ready for that? Are the architecture schools geared to that?

FA: Dutch architecture is proof that we have good architecture schools, which produce strong architects who know how to design. But yes, those social issues are barely covered and that’s something I’m trying to change. At the academy in Amsterdam, where I now teach, I have called my course ‘tabula scripta’, the opposite of ‘tabula rasa’. Instead of wiping the slate clean and starting over, you grab what you have and continue to work on that. What I am saying to students is that this is not only the challenge for the future, but also a valuable form of architecture. The architect is like a sculptor modelling a mass of material, and that mass is the existing city. And in that modelling of a pre-existing city you can be much more precise, you can introduce refinements, and add layers. That eventually leads to a much more interesting city, namely the kind of city we value when we find ourselves in historical city centres. I’ve noticed that the students are quick to take that on board, so I am very optimistic about the up and coming generations in that respect.

EV: Do you also seize other opportunities to work at building that forum for a different architectural culture? The ‘tabula scripta’ approach also resonates in your ambitions as Government Architect. Is there sufficient scope for putting this to the test? You could launch a new competition every year, but is that enough?

FA: I also purposely give a lot of lectures aimed at initiating the debate. I see this as a way of building towards a single narrative, which is also fuelled by the competitions I organize. Late last year I published an essay in book form, entitled The emancipation of the periphery. In the Netherlands a debate about population decline has already been going on for some time. At present we define this issue of shrinking cities solely in terms of a problem. In my lectures and in that essay I’m trying to turn the current debate around. There seems to be an image of the Netherlands today as an enlarged Randstad where it’s all happening, surrounded by areas where it doesn’t seem to be happening. I don’t see the growing Randstad conurbation as an unalloyed good thing, and the shrinking periphery as failure. I see the Netherlands as a single cooperative system. Growth is not the only form of development. Development can also mean devising radically innovative concepts in the field of food or energy production. The highly urbanized Randstad can only exist as long as sufficient energy and food is being produced in the surrounding areas. You don’t solve that within the urban fabric, which is why you need peripheral areas with space to spare. If you look at the system from a slightly different perspective, you see that it is actually the periphery that is going to have to play a pioneering role in tackling the most fundamental issues. The region is better placed when it comes to radical innovation.

Towards a shared responsibility

JD: In your narrative, you oscillate between ‘fuck context’ and ‘tabula scripta’, but in your version these are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand you say that the big social changes make it necessary to look at what’s happening with a ‘fuck context’ mentality. On the other hand you point to the importance of the ‘tabula scripta’ and of looking at what is already there. Not to bring back what it used to be, or papering over the cracks in the system, but with a view to moving things on by redesigning in a much more radical way. We might actually start believing that a whole world can be won if we are able to put the pertinent issues on the agenda. But where, in your view, are the obstacles?

FA: The big risk is that nothing happens and that the entire society is gripped by a growing cynicism. In which case we would slide further towards the American system: if you fall by the wayside, you’re on your own. I like to quote Michel Houellebecq and his The Elementary Particles in this context. Then entropy, or the increase in confusion and chaos, which is the basic law governing the universe, will eventually determine the direction of development in our society as well. But that doomsday scenario strikes me as too plausible and insufficiently challenging. It doesn’t require any imagination. It’s against that back ground you should see the ‘fuck context’ statement: the realization that your own narrative has to be more than just a derivative of what the environment offers or dictates. That’s also what the ‘tabula scripta’ course is about. I’m forever fascinated by how invisible gradual processes are. The slow crumbling away, the gradual erosion is something you’re not aware of, and people get used to everything. Which is why it’s important to keep on asking fundamental questions about our current approach to housing, working and living. Answers need to be as radical as the questions being put to us by the present.

JD: Do you also link that shaking up with an eye to a better future to the role and the policy of the government you work for?

FA: I certainly try to make that link, both in my conversations with ministers and in building narratives. Because in the last instance it’s all about integrated thinking, whereas all the systems and government structures proceed on the basis of their own domain, each with its own budget, plans and objectives. Again and again you see that one department’s solution is another’s problem. But as soon as you link different domains together, you’re able to combine funding streams and operate more effectively. That’s why collaboration with the Board of Government Advisers is crucial. We work on the basis of connecting several ministries and formulate agendas together. We are always alert to possible links between different domains and to the role that design power can play in this. At the moment, for instance, we are collaborating on the spatial impact of energy transition.

JD: And by repeatedly bringing those domains together, you can eventually reduce the social costs.

FA: Exactly. And you mustn’t only think about how, but also about who can bring those domains together. There’s a role there for municipalities and for builders. Now that the economy is starting to trend upwards, there’s a sense of euphoria among municipalities and builders, especially in the west of the country. Both parties have land holdings and are intent on marketing them. I try to remind them of their responsibility vis-à-vis the inner city consolidation task and the trans formation task in existing districts. That will obviously cost more money and effort, because land acquisition is difficult, as is transformation and consultation. But if you add up all the costs from the perspective of an integrated approach, continuing to build on the existing urban area becomes logical and desirable. To achieve that it is necessary that all the parties involved start to see those big social issues as something they must all work on together: the government, the municipalities, the builders, and the architects. That’s a cultural shift that is already under way.

JD: Are architectural practices still organized in such a way as to be able to carry out that sort of work relating to social tasks?

FA: I try at any rate to appeal to both the established practices and the large group of self-employed architects. Both groups have a responsibility in that area. But there’s certainly no guarantee when it comes to the big firms. Because money is once again easier to come by, the need to seek out other domains has faded. At the same time, because of the crisis the professional group has halved in size, while the number of practices has doubled. Eighty per cent of Dutch architects are self-employed. That’s a huge army of people needing to rediscover themselves and their position in the field as it were. There’s an enormous reservoir of innovative strength there.

EV: What you’ve been outlining sounds like an optimistic plea on behalf of architectural practice. Design is a vehicle for bringing the social task, or the ‘what’ closer, but also how it can be tackled, and with whom. So it’s at the same time an emphatic appeal to revalue that practice by drastically transforming it?

FA: Indeed. At a time when the changes are so drastic, it’s important to begin by researching the task itself and only then proffering a solution. This implies an evolution in the Government Architect’s practice and role. He started out as ‘The King’s Architect’. At that time there were only palaces. Later this became government real estate. I see my agenda-setting role as an essential addition. My hope is to show how, on a number of points, things can be done differently, by building up a culture. And that this will prove sufficiently credible to have a follow up. But this attempt may just as easily fail. There’s no desire to fail, but also no desire to exclude failure.

Order here the Architecture in the Netherlands Yearbook 2016/17

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