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In association with the exhibition  MAATWERK/MASSARBEIT in the Deutsches Architekturmuseum about architecture in the Low Countries over the past few decades, Het Nieuwe Instituut has organised a series of four dialogues about the future of architectural culture. The first discussion took place on Thursday 27 October 2016 in Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, where the ‘young’ architects Floris de Bruyn of  GAFPA (BE), Freek Dendooven from Raamwerk (BE) and Floris Cornelisse from Happel Cornelisse Verhoeven Architecten (NL) were invited to talk with ‘doyen’  Koen Van Velsen (NL), and architecture critic Gideon Boie from  BAVO (BE). The evening was moderated by Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Flora van Gaalen. The discussion dealt with the similarities and differences between Flemish and Dutch architecture and the encounters between the two cultures among a new generation of architects. 

The exhibition MAATWERK/MASSARBEIT – an overview of architectural production in Flanders and the Netherlands in recent decades – opened at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt at the beginning of October 2016. The exhibition was curated by the Flanders Architecture Institute and provides an overview of this recent history through a large collection of models representing key works from the past thirty years. The exhibition and the extensive catalogue entitled Maatwerk | Made to Measure aim to rewrite this history. In contrast to the clichéd view of an ordered Dutch architecture versus a messy Flemish architecture, they highlight the similarities between both architectural cultures, which, the catalogue argues, are growing increasingly close. Using the theme of ‘custom-made’, the exhibition invites the viewer to take a fresh look at this history in which Dutch architecture appears to be remarkably contextual and Flemish projects give legibility to the ‘disorderliness’ found south of the border. It transpires that these two distinct architectural cultures have more in common than one might expect.

The striking exhibition design is by Jantje Engels and Marius Grootveld, who work together as Veldwerk. Within the exhibition, they have conceived a mini exhibition entitled Prelude. In this 'wunderkammer' (or cabinet of curiosities) they look to the future and attempt to distinguish a new generation in which the Flemish and Dutch architectural cultures come together. They invited a selection of architects from this ‘weaving generation’ to show a range of small objects that are representative of their architectural practice. The objects are juxtaposed to reveal associative connections, telling the story of a generation. The ‘wunderkammer’ is thus an extension of the main exhibition, just as this new group of architects emerges from former generations. This series of dialogues is a subsequent step in creating a conversation between the new generation from the ‘wunderkammer’ and the previous generation whose work is featured in the rest of the exhibition.

It is also an attempt to find answers to the following questions: what precisely defines this new generation, to what extent does it differ from the previous generation, and is there indeed a distinct ‘generation’?

The first dialogue in Rotterdam opened with observations from the Flemish architecture critic Gideon Boie, who today works mostly in Belgium. In his introduction he formulated several reflections on the term ‘custom-made’ in an attempt to draw out its meanings. In the catalogue, it is defined first and foremost as the extent to which the architect has control of the complete design and construction process, from the first sketch to the materialisation and detailing of the building. This is expressed primarily in the ways in which the architect’s hand is visible in the realised construction, in which this construction tells the architect’s story in the form itself by means of historical, typological and contextual references. Indeed, the exhibition takes the form of a collection of models in which architecture is displayed as a tangible construction, while the ‘wunderkammer’ is an associative narrative made up of diverse, smaller objects. In other words, architecture is presented as an autonomous object that must speak for itself. This is reiterated in the catalogue in the interview with Jantje Engels and Marius Grootveld, in which they posit that it is the architecture itself that must make the argument. Or as the Flemish architecture critic Geert Bekaert once put it: architecture should not always have to excuse itself.

 In this positioning of the term ‘custom-made’, Gideon Boie noted that whereas the architect may have control over the entire construction process in a project with a private client, this is not the case with a public project in which the end user is usually unknown. He also remarked that this focus on architecture as an autonomous object ignores many other forms of architecture such as paper architecture, ‘unsolicited’ architecture or the architect’s role as mediator.

However, his most important objection was that the architectural object exhibits not only the hand of the architect but also that of the client, as well as the influence of the underlying architectural culture within which the object is realised – an observation that would set the tone for the rest of the discussion.

Three projects by the ‘young’ architecture practices were then discussed in the light of these points. Floris de Bruyn from GAFPA showed a design for a weekend house with a minimal construction and an optimal relationship to the green surroundings of Wachtebeke. Freek Dendooven from Raamwerk presented an artist's house in Mariakerke, in which the living quarters and studio were placed on the site as two individual volumes. Floris Cornelisse from HCVA presented the practice’s design for the Noord-Hollands Archief in the centre of Haarlem, comprising the renovation of the existing reading room in combination with a new entrance. It is noteworthy that in each of these projects the architect’s starting point was not the functional or social concerns dictated by the brief, but rather personal fascinations or references. The weekend house by GAFPA is the result of an extensive study of a house by Jean Prouvé in Nancy, while the house in Raamwerk emerges from an attempt to reinterpret as a structural element in wood the stone triglyphs used as ornaments in Greek temples. By contrast, HCVA focused on the formal characteristics of the site, in which a central tree and the cornice of the adjacent building were decisive elements for the view from the reading room. The detailing of the interior also drew upon external references, such as the incised handles of the archival cabinets, which allude to the Dutch writer Hella Haasse, who believes that archives are the repositories of lost time.

These diverse references seem to point to an underlying attitude in which architecture is perceived as an expression of a personal worldview rather than of a uniform culture. In all three projects the personal signature of the architect is legible as a statement about architecture itself. But, as Gideon Boie remarked, despite this personal signature, the projects are also about the culture that produced them. The houses by GAFPA and Raamwerk are both exemplary of the classical Flemish architecture that stems from the construction of freestanding villas in a green setting, while it is no accident that HCVA showed an urban project for a public client, which fits with the Dutch architectural culture in which the urban environment is primarily defined by public-sector housing blocks. Rather than revealing similarities, this would seem to confirm the clichés about both architectural cultures. Despite the assertion that architecture speaks for itself, it is clear from these examples that they also give voice to the underlying architectural culture.  This is then perhaps the implicit question in the story of this ‘weaving generation’: what does it mean to let architecture speak for itself if the meaning of the architectural object is ultimately determined by the underlying culture in which it is manifested?

The answer to this question possibly resides in the position that Koen Van Velsen took during the discussion when he posited that architects must do their work ‘well’. With this simple answer, he highlighted the fact that architects must make architecture, i.e. they must build. Of course this position implies that architects must withdraw from the mediagenic discourse developed by the ‘Superdutch’ generation, in which architecture is presented primarily as imagery. In this sense, the exhibition, and the ‘wunderkammer’ in particular, is primarily an attempt to look beyond the discourse and interpretation to the architecture itself. 

This places the emphasis once more on the materiality, the detailing and the construction, and it is here, despite their persistent cultural differences, that Flanders and the Netherlands seem to be finding common ground.

This ‘weaving generation’ is a diverse collection of architectural practices that encounter one another in the sobriety and clarity of construction. If this discussion has taught us that the architectural object is shaped by the underlying architectural culture, by the client and, by extension, by the economic, social and political conditions of the context, this generation believes nonetheless that the architectural object can also derive meaning from its materiality and construction without always having to explain itself. It is, in other words, a quest for an undefined significance that cannot be explained by a theoretical discourse, a quest for the beauty of building or, as the title of the next dialogue puts it, a search for the radicalness of the poetry that must be found in the fabric of the architecture itself. 

Text by Bart Decroos

Thursday Night at Het Nieuwe Instituut
Luca Napoli

Thursday Night Live! is a weekly programme of lectures, screenings and discussions on architecture, design and digital culture. Developments and critical insights are discussed by thinkers, designers and makers from the Netherlands and abroad.