A Generous Inheritance

If we think beyond our lifetimes, buildings start to seem like good investments. The late 19th and early 20th century building schemes of Amsterdam have given us and this city such a generous inheritance. The people who built these buildings (Berlage, Kramer, de Klerck) are long gone, even those that took up their mantle in the 60s and 70s are either gone (Van Eyck) or on their last legs (Herzberger, Bosch).

Now, we have the pragmatic cynicism of MVRDV, the ironic forms of OMA, and the digital fetishism of UN Studio. Even architects who claim to be about the physicality of ‘building’””Claus en Kaan, Neutelings Riedijk””suffer from a fussy obsessiveness that sucks all the humanism out of it anyway.

What is driving this? When did quality or liveability or social connectivity cease to be enough? Our contemporary ‘cleverness’ seems to be directed at peer acceptance and media exposure, not to healthy cities. The only group bold enough to acknowledge this agenda are the New Urbanists, who seem to be universally mocked by the profession (although very popular with city mayors).

This may be tending toward the clichéd nostalgia of Jane Jacobs””that ‘new ideas need old buildings’””but I don’t think this issue is about new versus old at all, however it does have to do with time. We may live in a far more complex age than 100 years ago, and our cultural artefacts such as architecture should reflect this. But if we build for timescales that are seemingly inconceivable””beyond our lifetimes for instance””then the urge to ‘express our age’ should fully recede, and we can get back to providing quality neighbourhoods of which the requirements have barely changed at all in centuries.

All photos taken in Amsterdam’s Oud Zuid, masterplanned by H.P Berlage between 1904 and 1925.

Posted: November 17th, 2010
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