There has been an interesting debate going on in Dutch newspapers in the last couple of weeks. The government plans of building up to 1 million new homes were either welcomed or questioned or rejected by different parties – depending on how their interests were affected. Bouwend Nederland, the representation of the building industry, welcomed it. Developers ideally want to build a lot at the edges of the cities, since the buck is rolling in more easily from there. The Agriculture and Horticulture Organisation LTO that represents the big agro-industry quickly calculated that such a housing production would partially (they name 350,000 homes) have to take place on agricultural land. Of course that is something they detest. Also, other former politicians and ministers – now acting as lobbyists for different groups – also entered the debate. It is important that this discussion takes place to determine what a new balance between urbanized land, agricultural land and nature can be. Relieving the pressure on the housing market will need some more housing production. We will have to create more natural habitat to keep and promote biodiversity and less agricultural land might not be a bad idea, given that industry is the biggest contributor (about 40% of all) to the nitrogen problem the country faces. But of course that is not what a farmer’s lobby want to accept. In the contrary: they develop a doomsday scenario where the Dutch will not have enough to eat anymore in the near future. And they show a way out: they need more space.
And what do architects do? They embrace the ‘opportunity’ to come up with a plan: According to their website, MVRDV’s think tank NEXT “develops and implements computational workflows and new technologies. Through a mixture of project-based work and standalone research,… [they] rationalize designs, speed up processes and make projects more efficient and adaptable in the face of change. … [Their] methods allow us to explore a future that is equitable, data-driven, and green.” And boah – have they been innovative: They undertook a study how the proclaimed need of a powerful lobby can be accommodated. Their proposal: build more land in the North Sea. In typical fashion, a simple and powerful story is translated into a series of diagrams accompanied by a speculative text, praising the potential for more than 100,000 hectares of new land in the sea. Of course all parameters that matter are taken into consideration – they say: shipping routes, natural reserves and existing infrastructure are cut out of the area as is any visual pollution of the coastline. This is supposed to become the new province in the sea. So all problems solved – houses can be built, farms get more space and – amazingly, there is even room for more nature. Win – win – win. Who could be against it?
I am. Pretty much everything is wrong about this plan. Filling in the sea treats it as if it is not nature and only the protected areas of it are. Nothing could be more wrong. The sea in its entirety is a crucial and sensitive ecosystem and removing parts of it damages our planet even more. To make land, vast amounts of sand are necessary. Globally there already is a shortage of sand since reclamation and construction use all the existing resources. Creating a vast new island will not only destroy local ecosystems, but it will also destroy those in places where the sand is taken from. If we add climate change to the equation, this newly reclaimed land will create vast amounts of CO2 for all the concrete needed for flood protection and the massive drainage systems that will be necessary to keep the sea out. New land needs new infrastructure and create more traffic. All will further drive the carbon emissions.
When it comes to new construction, one has to understand where the drive for development in suburban areas comes from: building in dense urban conditions is expensive. Not only are construction processes often more complex – think of low impact piling or spatial constraints due to neighbouring buildings, they are also more time-consuming because stakeholders need to be involved and permissions often take longer. Some of the typologies with the highest profit margins are difficult to realize in inner city locations. In suburbia all is a lot more simple. No neighbours, little red tape, quick building processes for simple typologies and better branding and marketing possibilities just make building in this part of the city a lot more attractive. That it eats away nature is a collateral that they make us belief we have to pay for cheaper houses – and higher profits for them.
In the light of this, architects developing such plans are breathtakingly naïve. In the face of climate change and a massive loss of biodiversity, this old style modernist way of thinking is exactly what we do not need. There are no simple solutions to complex problems. Calling for more land to solve a complex problem in a seemingly simple way es trying exactly that. Just drawing what might be technically possible in such an unreflected way serves as a fire accelerator of the increasingly life-threatening destruction of our very livelihoods.
If we keep doing it nevertheless, then we should not be surprised if we lose the last remaining bit of credibility we have as architects. Ever since architects claimed to have the key to a new society under the modernist movement, the self-aggrandization and total over exaggeration of our skills and knowledge is a big problem of our profession. We should use the Anthropocene of climate change as a path back to humbleness and as a calibration point for a different understanding of what architecture is.
by Markus Appenzeller