See you again next year?

Just as in the year before, I visited the Provada. Last year I was genuinely surprised at how few architects had attended – easily recognizable among the typical ‘estate agent’ suits – and this year was no different. This year saw only two architectural firms with a stand (Oever Zaaijer and Kokon) and only a handful of architects among the visitors. This is actually quite remarkable: you would expect that all the nation’s architects (and particularly the unemployed ones) would be descending on the Provada – the self-proclaimed meeting point for the Netherlands’ real estate community – like a pack of vultures. Last year I couldn’t understand why so many worthwhile opportunities were ignored. Those opportunities exist, certainly: what started as an amicable conversation with a stand holder resulted two year later in a project covering over 6000m2 for a German investor with whom I would otherwise never have entered into contact. If 80% of the firms in the Netherlands are small-scale businesses with 1-5 employees, they may indeed be less likely to find their next customers among the ‘big boys’ present at the Provada. However, if there was anything to see and hear at this edition of the Provada, it was that everything that seemed logical in the past – read: before 2008 – is now undergoing a major transition. This includes the partners you collaborate with, and the way in which this is done. Flexibility, speed and the ability to cooperate are becoming increasingly important. All of these are aspects in which smaller firms excel. However, there is another good reason for attending the Provada. The Provada does not focus on concrete products. There are no smartly polished BMWs exhibited here, like at the AutoRAI. Even stronger: any stranger walking into the Provada would probably spend the first half hour or so wondering what sector this trade fair was representing! Only from the various scale models decorating the occasional stand would he be able to establish a link to real estate. That is, however, not what it’s all about. People go to the Provada to meet one another and to network, to catch up and to establish links between business relations and parties that would not meet outside of the context of current projects. The Provada is the mortar in the brickwork of a sector that is actually very traditional and is kept afloat by personal relationships. In support of this, most stands have been built up as a bar with a seating area in front. Three halls full of bars: that’s all the Provada actually comes down to, with a few lounges and plazas in between where debates take place or prizes are awarded (such as the 2012 Golden Phoenix). The Provada also features a corporation plaza, and a Green Forum (with a green carpet!) where sustainable innovations are presented. Three busy days, in which the highlight of every day is the end of the afternoon, when people meet informally for a chat and a drink. With all the hustle and bustle, and the fleet of polished vehicles outside, you would almost forget the economic crisis going on outside. Nevertheless, the recession is inescapably present. Last year, you may already have heard it said that some developers and financiers were present only because they had reserved a stand several years in advance. This year’s attendance record confirms that rumour: with virtually no exception, this year’s stands are identical to the ones last year. Even stronger: many of the scale models and projects shown on posters or projected onto screens are identical, too. An entire year has passed by, and nothing has happened. And that having been said, a more structural crisis has become visible in the real estate world: nobody seems to have any plans for the future. An economic recession is a bother, particularly if it is immediately followed by a second one, but it is, in fact, no more than a ‘normal’ commercial risk. What is afflicting the seemingly still high-spirited real estate sector lies, in fact, somewhere else. Although an attitude of reticence is still prevalent in the sector, a significantly more far-reaching awareness has surfaced in other areas: the rules are structurally changing, which raises the question of whether there is still a future. During the trade fair the themes associated with these new rules were often only hinted at in debates and discussions. An exception to this was made at the stand held by Syntrus Achmea, an investor in primarily commercial real estate, where these issues were openly presented as a topic in various presentations and debates. Syntrus Achmea’s stand, Wikistedia, is the offline version of its platform for blogs and other forums discussing new and broadly defined key topics in location and area development. Topics such as sustainability (which is no longer the distinguishing factor it previously was), identity, bottom-up processes, transience and flexibility have little in common with what has been achieved by the established real estate community in the past few years or even decades. In many cases the topics are only touched upon superficially; genuine commitment is clearly lacking among most of the community’s members. Taking into account the ‘hit and run’ attitude that has dominated the real estate sector for so long this is not so remarkable. The common thread running through all these topics is that they assume long-term, sustainable involvement with a specific area. It cannot be purely coincidental, I believe, that these topics are put in the spotlight by an investor. This, in turn, raises the question of whether or not the ‘big boys’ in property development will be – or will be able to – work with them in the future. Adapting a few Excel sheets simply won’t suffice in this case. Could the Provada be compared to a party on the afterdeck of the Titanic, as someone twittered? It may very well be an apt description, in any case for a portion of the visitors and stand holders. The big ‘shake-out’ in the sector is, in any case, continuing at a rapid pace and many of the people now working here and cheerfully joining the drinks parties will probably be doing something quite different next year. Those still working in the sector will, in all likelihood, be doing other things than what they are used to. Neither will they be wearing bespoke suits, I expect. I believe that the architects who were absent know this, too. Builder and developer Heijmans, although present last year, did not attend this year’s Provada. Was it too expensive? Or was the firm’s absence prompted by what they twittered earlier: that the Provada is not or no longer the place to meet those prospects that really matter, for projects in the present and in the future? 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.