Q&A: Wouter Vanstiphout

'First it was politically taboo to attach societal problems to the theme of immigrants; then 9-11 happened; then Pim Fortuijn linked female emancipation and gay tolerance to religious intolerance among Muslims, thus making it 'okay' to be critical about immigration policies and religious groups. Then he was murdered and total moral panic broke out, with even left wing parties tumbling over each other with tough policies on immigration and Islam. Then Theo Van Gogh, a family member of Vincent and a reasonable filmmaker but a hysterical columnist who called Muslims 'goatfuckers', made a movie with a Muslim apostate MP from Somalia that was a pamphlet against abuse of women in Islam but broke several religious taboos in its imagery. Then Theo van Gogh got killed by a Muslim radical as a message to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the apostate MP who is now in hiding. The whole thing is completely blown out of all proportion and there is a hysterical non-debate going on about the freedom of speech, with every columnist, politician, and comedian coming on television with opinions, opinions, opinions, opinions and opinions. The whole thing hit rockbottom when a couple of cabinet ministers came out and said that we are now at war. To be short Holland is in a state of opinion-panic. And now you've got me opinionating on it too; I think we should all just shut up.'

This is Wouter Vanstiphout summarizing recent events in Holland. Wouter, along with Ewout Dorman, Michelle Provoost, Simone Rots, Annuska Pronkhorst and Cassandra Wilkins run an office called Crimson. Crimson has an unusual trajectory; trained as dusty old academic historians, they have become something far less genteel. They describe their activities like this: 'Crimson designs for the city, researches it, writes texts and books about it, shows it in exhibitions and works of art, teaches about it, gives advice on it and makes policies for it.'

You're more likely to find Crimson in a converted tram house on the outskirts of Rotterdam next to a shopping centre car park than an ivory tower.

'We also used to design, small urban things, mostly interventions in difficult historical environments: a renovation plan for an old panoptical prison, a new approach for a seventeenth century harbor area in Rotterdam, an urban planning scheme for the inside of a huge building from the fifties. Now we have a commission for the revamping of a square in a housing area in Utrecht designed by Berlage. And we try as hard as we can to hang on the fact that we are dusty old historians: Michelle Provoost has written a monograph on a dead architect last year; and I will publish one next spring. The reason of all this is simple: we moved to Rotterdam, a city without an arts & humanities department in its university, just architects. We adapted; we knew more about architecture and planning than most of the notoriously anti-intellectual Dutch architects and somehow we met some really open minded and adventurous people, like Rients Dijkstra of Maxwan (now designing the masterplan for Barking Reach in London), who was working at OMA and got his first commission as an independent architect: to build an entire new town next to Utrecht. He saw potential in our capabilities to think about town concepts and invited us into his team. This gave us such a boost of confidence that we started Crimson as an office, modeled on architectural practices. And then everything just started to happen. We were all educated by Ed Taverne, a kind of anti-architectural historian, who believes that architectural history should be taken out of the context of art history and integrated with economical, historical studies and should also not be afraid of being bluntly operative. We simply did what we were told. Funnily enough, our colleague historians have a harder time in accepting our actions, than the architects have of our butting in.'

Their background as historians gives them an alternative view of Dutch architecture, especially the relationship between design and politics:

'In Holland, architecture and urban planning have actually been important for society, and still are, in a negative sense. Holland was very early in linking social housing, planning legislation and architectural norms to each other, thereby harmonizing the agendas of avant-garde architects and government bureaucracy. By aiming its ambitions and pretensions not at the singular object, but at the masses of housing, Dutch architecture policies have succeeded in actually having a broad effect on society and the landscape.'

However, it's exactly that kind of consensus that has dissolved in recent years. 'If you ask me about the current situation, a kind of bleak and embarrassing picture arises. The government is relinquishing its power over planning and social housing, without actually allowing anything else to replace it. Local bureaucracies and private developers are set free to compete among each other. There is no common goal anymore; but there has also never been a culture of developers or other market-parties having their own visions or ambitions. At least the boredom of old school Holland was ideological; now we just have boredom and mediocrity without any idea behind it. When I see the Bart Lootsmas book 'Superdutch' lying in foreign bookstores; I can only look away in shame and tell people that actually I'm Belgian.'

At the apex of hype surrounding Dutch architecture, it seemed there were no problems that couldn't be overcome by Dutch modernity. Dutch Modernism looked the world, and remade it in its own image.

'To be short: Dutch architects excluded from their view any aspects of Dutch society that resisted the ideal version they based their designs upon. While I admire the optimism of offices like MVRDV, and the cleverness and beauty of some of their work, I can't help but seeing the deficits: they were solving problems that weren't there, but their only 'mode' is that of problem-solving. The problems that are there are either unsolvable by architecture or too dark, complex, too morally opaque to be 'solved' by the Dutch design attitude which is all about transparency, secularity, efficiency and a geeky, adolescent type of fun. I'd like to stop talking about Dutch architecture now, if you don't mind. It's one dead hype and we should move on.'

Maybe it's trite, but perhaps there is a parallel between politics and architecture: The gap that has opened up between political ideals and the reality of extremists mirrors the gap between idealized architecture and the reality of cities outside of that tiny enclave. Can Dutch design un-Dutchify itself? Can it 'get real'?

'The Netherlands, just as the leading academic debates about architecture, turn out to have been embarrassingly provincial and inward-looking during their heyday in the nineties. Architecture was a celebration of Dutchness and cleverness and cuteness, and is being taken completely by surprise by new questions and new political or economic constellations. It has also built up an international loathing that is completely understandable because the basic spiel of Dutch architects abroad is a kind of ironic surprise at how difficult and old-fashioned things are being done in other countries while we in Holland do it like this: smarter, funnier, opener, naughtier, faster. I seriously think that we are back in the same state as in the seventies when the only Dutch architect with anything relevant to say to the world is - yes - Rem Koolhaas. But even the hopeless has the word hope in it and I do see a way out: Dutch architects should get out more and stop referring to Dutchness as a collective theme to their work. Why do they need a collective theme defined by nationality? They need to find collective themes with architects all over the globe and they should stop being so fucking friendly with each other.'

One of Crimsons larger and long-term projects is an organization called Wimby! - An acronym for Welcome Into My Back Yard. Against the context of rhetorical architectural concepts, Wimby! presents an alternative approach. Its aim is remedial action for post war planning for a satellite town of Rotterdam 'There is a lot of hindsight involved but I believe that what we have been trying to do is, to put it simply, get real. We don't want architecture, planning or whatever you want to call it, that just produces new opinions, new metaphors, new critical postures, new rhetorical tools. We wanted to escape from all that and do something useful for a change. So we went to Hoogvliet; a piece of city that has as its merit that there is about a million times more of its around than of the idealized innercity or extreme-infrastructure sites, that architects of our generation prefer. We saw a modernistically planned suburb being half demolished and rebuilt as a normal contemporary suburb. We saw vast amounts of public space and collective programme disappearing, and we saw how a planning concept that was not only ideological but also actually lived in by tens of thousands of people being thrown away. We did not like it; we did not agree. We wanted public space; we wanted collectivity, we wanted big planning ideals and we set out reintroduce these things into the deconstruction process that was going on. We shed all pretension of being hip, of using the right jargon, of fitting in with the debate, even of being visible to the architecture scene. We also shed all ideas of political purity and struck coalitions with right wing aldermen, left wing activists, project developers and situationist artists. We just want our stuff to be realized and used because we think that places like Hoogvliet should not be made to suffer from the fact that the current architectural debates just can't seem to be bothered by them. The things we do there are never extraordinarily glamorous, or expensive. We even resist the urge to make them unique. We believe that we are step by step filling up a collection of things that you can realistically afford to do in post-war new towns and massive housing developments, with normal amounts of money and an autonomous, improvisational approach to the job to compensate for the lack of political will to really help these places along. We also really like the old plans and believe that they still have a lot of unused potential; we are also so cynical that we believe that we should be careful with stuff from the fifties, sixties and seventies because every time they demolish something from that era, something much worse, much more banal and stupid comes in its place.'

Crimson are currently researching other new towns around the world. Places that were built for need but also with an ambition to make a better world after the war. It's almost impossible to talk about making a better world through design now - everybody thinks you must be being ironic. Our interest is double, or triple, but there is no irony involved whatsoever. Our first interest is in these places as facts on the ground. They were built as new worlds decades ago; then the planners left and the people figured it out for themselves how to live there. The new towns were built for a very specific form of inhabitation, one that hardly ever - except in Scandinavia - really happened. What did happen was a subtle nut massive form of appropriation, improvisation by all the people and activities that ended up in the planned cities. A kind of improvising, smart, not-sissy urban denizen grew up in these places. Then all of a sudden the planners and architects - or rather their children come back, sent by their newly market driven paymasters, and say that these places are not fit for current society and have to be demolished or changed into suburbs. Just when the new towns are reaching the layered-ness of mistakes and appropriation that belongs to a real city, they have to be broken down and replaced by something new, something with no idea of collectivity, emancipation or progress whatsoever. We mean to profit from the aggregated experiences and skills of the inhabitants of new towns to renew them. The second point of interest is the exhilarating contrast between a planning model that was implemented everywhere, notwithstanding climate, political context, religious tradition etcetera and the way that the existing conditions unavoidably turn up the moment the cities are inhabited and take over, forming a cultural, colourful crust of localness and contemporariness on the empty facades and abstract spaces of the new towns. This generation of planners has had the unwilled generosity to throw about thousands of empty urban canvasses waiting to be filled in by the citizens, and also giving them toilets, bathrooms, secretariat buildings and traffic systems. But the element that is beginning to interest us most is this: not only should we as architects take some kind of professional-collective responsibility for these cities - from Brasilia to the outskirts of Baghdad, from Islamabad to Magnitogorsk, from Hoogvliet to Cumbernauld - we can also learn or at least be inspired that the architects and planners worked from a big picture; they believed that they were building communities and that's also simply what they did. We as architects - I deliberately include ourselves - should get back in touch with our inner megalomaniac. We have to be able to reinhabit the dreams of our forefathers. I myself am still not resolved about the real meaning of our interest in New Towns; because it constantly swings between a purely passive interest and one of professional emulation. I don't know if we want to just know what these places look like, or that we also want to leave such traces.

Like Venturis 'Learning from Las Vegas' and Koolhaas' 'Delirious New York', Crimson look beyond architectural canon for inspiration.

'It's all out there already. We went to Nowa Huta in Poland, a neoclassically built new town form the early fifties and talked to its planner: a 85 year old firebomb of a man who designed the city when he was 25 and it took him four weeks. The city was planned neoclassically by modernist architects because they had to according to Socialist realism; but in their heads was modernist townplanning; after Destalinization they switched to Swedish inspired modernism, then to massive neobrutalism, mixing everything with each other overlaying Russian dogma, with models secretly picked from American and British handbooks. Now he's all into ecological planning, replanning the contours of a lake he never finished in the fifties as a wetlands with rare birds to trap European ecotourism and explaining this with swot-analysis sheets prepared for him by Nigerian business-students. All this in one planners lifetime. We have only just started out on our world wide trek through the new towns and have found more models and traditions just by looking around than can be found in the entire academic tradition of 'Complexity and Contradiction', 'Collage City' and so on.'

Crimsons approach demands that architecture is much more than buildings; it's the interface between all kinds of forces outside of the cozy professional world.

'I don't think that the experimental, innovative, playful or risk taking aspect of architecture lies in the design itself and even less in the rhetorics around the design: it lies in what happens as soon as you put it out there and it gets used by people over who you have no control. Architects should stop being so hopelessly essentialist about their position; they should stop philosophizing about what they do behind their desk and start philosophizing about what happens between what they make and the users.'

Posted by sam at January 10, 2005 12:14 AM


why can't I find any info about that WIMBY! thing, wich isn't in Dutch, or wery short? I would be really interested. give a link, please.

Posted by: tijuduca on November 2, 2005 9:09 PM

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