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Building aesthetics – good idea

A short while ago, on the way home after a relaxing holiday in the Swiss Alps, I noticed something significant in the vicinity of Bern. What drew my attention was something seemingly trivial: the width, thickness and legibility of the temporary orange lines the Swiss had painted on the roads to guide you through the 20km of roadwork around Bern. As a thick, lustrous orange line of Scotch tape, 15-20cm in width, these temporary lines were so much more legible than the permanent lines, let alone the spindly, half-missing, worn-down, practically invisible temporary lines, painted by the Dutch on their roads. That got me thinking. Of course, the Swiss tend to be almost excessive in their thoroughness and efficiency. And they probably spend twice as much as we, the frugal Dutch, do. But, as a famous traveller (was it Hemingway?) once said: through travelling you do not only learn about others, but all the more so about yourself. So: what is this saying about the Netherlands? Why is it a matter of course that the Swiss paint thick temporary lines on their roads, while we in the Netherlands try to achieve the same effect with scrawny little ones? The demand and the functional requirements seem clear, and one would expect the execution to be identical in both countries. But where the Swiss lines show the motorist how to proceed in the most compulsory manner possible, Dutch lines convey a sense of ‘barely enough’, reflecting our much-discussed academic culture in which passing marks are deemed more than sufficient. In the Netherlands we tend to attain our goals using the most frugal means possible. We – or the Department of Public Works and Water Management on our behalf – call this frugal and efficient and seek to attain a sensible balance between costs and the envisioned goal and, in doing so, always endeavour to operate at the very cutting edge. This can sometimes result in falling short of the envisioned goal. We will then regret this briefly and move on, praising ourselves for having been very, very prudent and saved taxpayer money. What good boys we are! In the Netherlands we have an untranslatable word to describe this attitude: ‘goedkoop’. ‘Goedkoop’ can best be expressed as ‘value for money’, but in the Netherlands this is not as clearly defined. Here, ‘goedkoop’ means that we were able to attain an intangible compromise between quality and price through what we call ‘poldering’: the endless discussion of problems without daring to make a decision. And in this, we are also more than prepared to consent to a lower quality if we are able to attain relatively more cost savings. If we manage to do that we are really getting value for money! The danger is that, during the negotiation process, we put aside our initial objectives (e.g. visible lines on the road during road construction projects): quality and price become merged in such a way that any kind of fixed benchmark disappears. The only reference point is the ‘bottom line’ we stick to. However, a bottom line wasn’t what we were originally after, wasn’t it? This attitude is prevalent in the construction industry, and in architecture in particular. In these sectors money and quality play an unsurpassed game of cat and mouse, in which, when I mean quality I am not referring to the quality of ensuring a building’s watertightness, or the ability to meet the requirements of the Buildings Decree (speaks for itself!), but to ‘conceptual’ quality. This cannot be expressed in money, but determines the ‘value’ of a building to a large extent; not only in the financial sense, but also its cultural and societal value. And similar to the temporary lines during road construction, the Dutch have no ‘benchmark’ for this, either, and proceed with a lively round of ‘poldering’. Who determines the bottom line for this quality? In Switzerland this bottom line is often a highly effective (and often thoroughly unimaginative) simplicity, where buildings are concerned. They simply do it and, to be honest, sometimes they don’t take it any further. Built in accordance with clearly defined regulations, with a high standard of ‘standardized’ quality, they are ‘simply’ good, without any decorative elements. The same applies to public spaces: the Swiss are clean, well-tended and effective. Anyone who has ever visited Switzerland knows that we in the Netherlands cannot believe blindly that what is ‘normal’ here can actually be this good. It seems as if we Dutch lack that collective ‘intuition’ for that kind of quality. That, however, does not deter us from seeking it, even if it will take us more effort to attain it. Nowhere else in the world are so many things designed to that quality standard, of which the entire world is envious. Looking at it from this perspective, you could say that the Swiss have a restrictive headstart in this. To maintain this standard of quality in design we have called into life a mass of institutions, working groups, policy teams, research centres and so forth, to collectively generate a collective awareness of quality, also in the public spaces and the built-up environment. Buildings aesthetics committees, supervisors, discussion rounds, image quality plans, schedules of requirements, architect selection: all of these resources can be deployed to collectively support this quality standard. However, nobody knows who is ultimately responsible – and what this quality standard actually is and how it can be achieved effectively remains very vague. Particularly in the last decade municipal real estate professionals, developers, housing corporations, estate agents and contractors dodged each other in a vague game around residual ground values, subsidy regulations, settlement funds, deed-in-hand property purchasing, residential segments and target groups. Where the financial part of that game could still be expressed in a universal unit (the euro) the answer to the question about what quality that would buy and who would be responsibility was still even more vague than before. In the murky search for ‘cheap’ urban space (which was, of course, to everyone’s benefit, wasn’t it?) quality was often relegated to an inferior position. It is therefore not so remarkable that, with a few exceptions, building aesthetics committees, architects of plans and sub-plans and often supervisors, as independent as they were with regard to the financial side of the ‘negotiations’, almost found it expected of them to offer ‘resistance’ and plot a stubborn, obstinate and quirky course towards a specific quality standard and, in doing so, resign themselves to being suspected of being part of an ‘architecture maffia’ that held developments hostage as a hobby. ‘We’, as a professional group, still suffer from this stigma. Additionally, ‘we’ were not always capable of actually attaining the level of quality that we should be dedicated to producing. The personal preferences of architects, buildings aesthetics committees, and supervisors were sometimes raised to an arbitrary benchmark or, in an endeavour to ‘objectively’ set down that quality standard, were reduced to a list of criteria that was narrow-minded and suffocating. And the tools used in the previous decade to monitor that quality ideal in the shape of strictly organised objectives may have reflected a static idea based on the spatial quality of nineteenth-century urban Gesammtkunstwerken rather than quality as a flexible unit that transcends space, time and the parties involved. Despite this, the partial failure of that ‘system’ is no excuse for dismissing it entirely, driven as we may be by a noncommittal revolutionary enthusiasm. And in doing so, also dismissing the buildings aesthetics committees, as Minister Donner has now ordained. Of course, we understand the need for change, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water! We simply cannot afford to do that in the Netherlands. I refuse to think about it until I see generously painted, perfectly straight lines on the road the next time I encounter a detour on account of roadwork being carried out.