Originally published in the monthly paper of TU Delft’s ARGUS. Written and illustrated by Ben McGhee.
“We’re not trying to be glassy and stylie, like your Foster and Rogers. Rotterdam has a big working class population, so the building needs to be pop. We didn’t want that contemporary poshness, or for it to feel like Harrods food court.” -Winy Maas (Wainwright)
Growth of the Netherlands and Modernism
The population of the Netherlands increased by over 50% from 1950 to 1990. This growth coupled with a desire for larger modernized residences created an almost completely new built environment across the country. Along with so many projects being built concurrently, a large number were also for the same client, the Dutch government. These swaths of government funded projects ushered in an era of strict modernism with an emphasis on innovative mass-production methods.
After many years of rampant expansionism it became clear that the once vibrant historic centers had fallen into disrepair and no longer matched the living standards established by their suburban counterparts. Development turned back upon the city, with its newfound economic modernism as its modus operandi.
It didn’t take long to realize that the blasé modernism was ruining the architectural quality of the Netherlands. After decades of design-less building, the developers, builders, architects, and politicians no longer knew how to create culturally compatible architecture.
The first active move against this architectural stagnation was the Architectural International of Rotterdam of 1982. Organized by the Rotterdam Arts Council, the event was part of a larger movement by the Rotterdam creative class to revive the design side of architecture. The first AIR was themed ‘Image of the City’ and it brought together a wide sampling of international architectural talent to discuss the current state and future possibilities of Dutch architecture and urbanism, with a specific focus of developing conceptual designs for Rotterdam’s Kop van Zuid district (Ulzen, 107).
The desired outcome wasn’t focused so much on buildable designs as it was the reawakening of an architectural dialogue. This open format for discussion established Rotterdam as an international figure in the development of contemporary architectural discourse. The first AIR event was followed by several others over the course of the following decade, each welcomed an increasingly wide array of international architects to Rotterdam to join the discussion (Lootsma, 13)
By 1990, AIR was only one of many architectural institutions, the culture of architecture had shifted and the funding was following it. Political and third party funding sources had arisen to match the demand for a new architecture, all that was needed was willing designers.
The influx of international talent to events such as AIR was a calling to the architectural profession to rise to the occasion and bring the architecture of the Netherlands to the level of their foreign contemporaries. Understandably, the older generation wasn’t interested in changing their ways after decades of strict modernist refinement. This led to surge of new younger architects ready to answer the call.
Some of the early players were: OMA, MVRDV, Mecanoo, van Berkel & Bos Architectuurbureau (UNStudio), and MVSA (Pit). A defining characteristic of these firms is that they were all largely inexperienced. Mecanoo, for instance, was composed entirely of active students at TU Delft when they won their first commission. The work these firms and individuals produced was unhindered by previous notions of what architecture was allowed to be and was fueled by a cultural revolution clamoring for better architecture.
This ‘better’ architecture, while inspired from international sources, developed into its own genre; SuperDutch. Over the course of the 1990s the urban landscape of the Netherlands became home to a dynamic range of bold, iconic, poppy, unexpected, and original architecture. To gain a better understanding, some exemplary projects are:
WoZoCo, Amsterdam, MVRDV – This apartment block is easily recognized by its massive cantilevers and colorful sampling of balconies. While architecturally explained as a pragmatic solution to meeting the program’s requirement of 100 units, this extreme ‘tack-on’ solution was a clear break from the modernist solutions of the previous era.
TU Delft Library, Mecanoo – A true gestural interpretation of the site’s submissive location behind the brutalist Aula Building of van den Broek and Bakema. Mecanoo’s design shows that traditional notions of what a building must be are no longer relevant.
Kunsthal, Rotterdam, OMA – A less brazen example than the two previous but an influential player in the redefinition of the public’s place in contemporary Dutch architecture. The building is dissected by a publicly accessible passageway, a feature present in many projects of SuperDutch architecture.
Rotterdam’s new Markthal Building by MVRDV seems to be another defining member of the SuperDutch era. Its bold form was a direct response for the city’s call for a new iconic building to further expand Rotterdam’s central district. The integration of public and private space is taken to an entirely new level of literal interpretation by creating an arched roof of apartments over the public market within. While a relatively pragmatic approach, the design remains entirely unexpected and original.
With over 20 years passing since the rise of SuperDutch we may have already moved on to another era. Both public and private commissions for SuperDutch architecture has decreased substantially since its peak in 1998. Even the Markthal, with it’s design coming from the pre-crash year of 2004, is perhaps evidence of the demise of SuperDutch; while the foundations were being built, many in the public still believed that the building wouldn’t be built, their expectations of what was architecturally possible had already begun to shift.
Lootsma, Bart. Superdutch: New Architecture in the Netherlands. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2000. Print.
Pit, Merel. “De Architect.” Een Nieuwe Generatie Architecten. 3 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Ulzen, Patricia Van. Dromen Van Een Metropool: De Kreative Klasse Van Rotterdam 1970-2000. Rotterdam: Uitgeverij 010, 2007. Print.
Wainwright, Oliver. “Rotterdam’s Markthal: Superdutch Goes Supersized in Psychedelic Marketplace.” The Guardian. 2 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <theguardian.com>.