THE NETHERLANDS AT THE 14TH BIENNALE D’ARCHITETTURA – VENICE 2014
OPEN: A BAKEMA CELEBRATION
The Het Nieuwe Instituut choreographed the exhibition for The Netherlands at the Biennale. The Jaap Bakema Study Centre is one of their ongoing programs. Their stated premise was to see that “The centenary of World War I is an occasion for He Nieuwe Instituut to reconsider the history of progress. They chose to do this by making the exhibition about Dutch architect Jaap Bakema (1914-1981).
Co-curator Guus Beumer stated, “We consider Bakema not so much an architect of buildings, but an architect of a new idea of what Holland could be–a new national identity, a new national landscape…with an architect in the center of this particular ambition.”
This was at the core of the Dutch concept of a new “open society”, as was Bakema. Beumer’s exhibition is a research-focused display to encourage identification and thinking about the elements – how they were intended to work, how many are still in use today, and how they might inform design for the future. Laudable concepts and hopes, not dictates.
“Jaap Bakema aimed to build a new, open society that was democratic, egalitarian and all-inclusive. He believed architecture should accommodate the emancipation of the masses while allowing for the self-realisation of the individual citizen.” They asked, “What is the relevance of such idealism today? What was the open society then And what could it be today?” Bakema has been celebrated as a “compelling exponent of the Dutch welfare state,” and was deeply involved in the planning and design of mass public housing for the reconstruction of Rotterdam after World War II.
The result was a crisp, simple installation of many parts – all multiples of a series of components for user-arranged systems. In other words, in my view, plain modular boxes to be used by all of society to populate interior spaces – democratic, egalitarian and all-inclusive.
Bakema’s intent to use architecture in this way to “accommodate the emancipation of the masses while allowing for the self-realisation of the individual citizen” seems to result in “one size fits all”, like having the entire population wearing uniforms, only in this case completely furnishing their spaces with wooden boxes. No independent design – the “self-realization of the individual citizen” would only be through arranging the pre-determined boxes that were made available to them.
The development of interchangeable modular units that integrated with one another in a broad, perhaps limitless variety, limited only by the parameters of the surround and with the imagination of the user simplified to an utter extreme to rearrange those boxes in their assigned spaces was quite well done. Many years ago, I studied Operation Breakthrough proposals and helped develop a completely modular system of components that could be fabricated and assembled by local communities as a method of providing lower cost – but quality – housing, using under-utilized community industrial spaces (even off-season agricultural processing facilities) and labor to provide their own solutions. That is emancipating and self-realizing, at least. My advice? Do not write off the value of modular design thinking and application, but do not settle for repurposed definitions of “egalitarian” to fit any political agenda!
I struggled to find the concept presented as a celebration of Bakema’s work to be emancipating, self-realizing, democratic, or egalitarian for the people – but find it certainly intended to be all-inclusive and efficient. I can imagine that the elite who would impose and manage such a system would live to a different standard, as is usually the case with alleged “utopian” programs.
I did not struggle to contain satisfaction that this view of “emancipation, self-realisation, democratic, and egalitarian” has failed to gain traction – other than through the much broader and more freeing form of IKEA furnishings that perhaps Bakema might find appalling and petit bourgeois. I know that this is an overly harsh reaction, since limiting the materials and forms presented certainly aids comprehension of the system concept, yet too many slavishly copy the presentation without comprehension of the freedom it can bring.
My advice? Do not write off the value of modular design thinking and application – it benefits life and society all around the world, and it has often served well in free modern societies, from household products to building systems, to automobiles. Even the good old American 4’x8’ plywood sheet and 8”x8”x16” concrete block are the baseline modular components for an incredibly vast array of building, applied with surety and in great variety without constraining the life of the people within (except in prisons, of course…).
A caveat: Do not settle – never settle – for any agenda that repurposes “egalitarian” to be the prescription a self-appointed elite requires of the masses. Too often, they soon follow with “you must conform, or else”, as more than amply recorded by the history of modernism in countries recently freed from the yoke of tyranny.
The exhibition was beautiful and will pack up very easily.