It definitely was a grand opening – the Ministerie van Maak’s exhibition at Ferrodome in Rotterdam. It reminded me of the techno temples of the 90s in Berlin – big, dark, a lot of people and some odd things happening. The only thing missing was the doorman, filtering ‘in crowd’ from the rest. If it wasn’t for what was on display – one could have mistaken it for a whole different event. But it is exactly the exhibits that bothered me. Many of them – most of them – were also stuck in the 90s.
For those who are not familiar with the Ministerie van Maak’s mission: there is a housing shortage that – some experts have calculated – amounts to 1 million units. This number now also has become the political goal to reach by 2030. 100 design teams were chosen to show how 10,000 of them can be accommodated in squares of the country of 2 by 2 km. The locations covered everything – from existing dense urban fabric to completely rural areas and water bodies. Everybody got a box delivered with the site and cut little wooden blocks representing 10,000 residential units in a number of building types. The profession got going – finally one could design again with no strings attached. Removed from the pain of real life projects, everything seems possible. It seems to me that many thought that finally they got the chance to worship the good old Dutch ‘maakbaarheid’ (the possibility to fully make one’s own environment). Everything is possible if you can design it!
The result is an impressive collection of irresponsibility and a wilful surrender of almost a whole profession to uncritical facilitation of whatever politics or the market seem to want. The result is a cynical picture of the divide between what we do and what we should be doing. This was emphasized even more by a clock showing how little time we have left to become carbon-neutral.
I have to confess – my own practice also contributed with 4 square kilometres and 10,000 new homes. We could have done even more. But in contrast to most other proposals, we did not add a single building. All we did is redesignating an industrial area that to a large extent is greatly underutilized. And we raised the question if 57 m² of living space per person is actually what the average Dutch resident really needs. The average Swede has 40 m² and apart from North America and Australia, the rest of the world can do with a lot less. If the Netherlands opted for the Swedish standards, one could house another 6 million people in the country – without building a single new home. We suggest reconfiguring the existing housing stock and adopt a lot more sharing of facilities. On a district level, a lot of new uses can help activate our urban fabric again. Where shops have disappeared because of online retail and centralization, local shared community functions can take their place.
I had hoped that more of my colleagues had asked themselves what the question behind the question actually is: How we come up with adequate solutions for a demand for housing that is in tune with all the agenda’s that we have to find answers for: climate change and sea level rise, loss of biodiversity and nature, nitrogen and carbon emission reduction, energy transition, a more just society, more sustainable economic models, circular material streams and many more. For many of these agenda’s the answer is not building but ‘not-building’, ‘un-building’, repurposing or radical reuse. Obviously these are tools for the most part we have not learned at architecture school. It is high time to do so. For me, the Ministerie van Maak showed how we should certainly not build a million new homes. I am not sure if that was the outcome the initiators have hoped for, but no matter their intent, a negative example also can help define what really is needed – maybe even more than a positive one.
by Markus Appenzeller
all pictures: author