In Holland, the pressures of American-style urban sprawl

After decades of socially conscious architecture, the Dutch lean toward more isolated, car-dependent suburban models

Water is to Holland as plains and hills are to America – a clean slate for building. Yet, for all its history in pluckily turning bog and sea into buildable land, the Netherlands' dedication to urban and social planning is equally heroic.

Rich in urban and environmental skills, Dutch architects and engineers have shaped civilized cities, doted on mass housing, and tooled well-crafted buildings. Notably tolerant, its citizenry has endorsed "social housing" or low-income rentals – foreign to market-driven America. From public transport and bicycling, to sustainable space and environmental protection, the virtual island nation has framed standards for the world.

Now, however, some see a shrinking of these urban and social values. In the wake of the conservative election after the murder of far-right candidate Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch worry that market dictates and the move to the right could undo progressive living policies. Some fear that social housing, which once accommodated 70 percent of the population but now is down to 30 percent, could descend still further. Others watch anxiously as suburbanization and motorization expand and new shopping centers spin off the freeway.

Boom times in Europe's new global economy have fed the urge for more space for a swelling population of l6 million in l3,000 square miles (the size of Connecticut). Like the sprawling US population, the affluent Dutch display both a real and a perceived need for more living space. Even before the election, privatization and motorization had begun to worry planners.

There's more of a "free-for-all for developers," says Aaron Betsky, the Dutch-born head of the Netherlands Architectural Institute and former director of the San Francisco Museum of Art. "[It's] the most densely built country in the world," he says. With almost half its land below sea level, "every plan, every road becomes one giant 3D puzzle."

Launched after World War II, the public-housing initiative sought a goal of l00,000 homes a year. This was reaffirmed in l990, and planners expect that number to reach 1 million by 20l0.

Dutch citizens don't shy away from standards and subsidies that make Americans blanch. Strict building and design codes set minimum standards for everything from height to sustainability, but architects exceed them.

At the entrance to a university campus in Utrecht, for example, the handsome Minnaert building by Neutelings and Riedijk features a 30-by-l50-foot pond collecting rain to cool the heat from the classroom lighting. In a handsome library at the Delft University of Technology and a management school in Utrecht, Mecanoo architects combine their "poetic modernism" with a green roof, geothermal heating, and good ventilation for ecological goals.

Beyond the immediate city as well, wind turbines line the highways. To tour from city to city, site to site, is to see the adaptation of the ages: Wooden windmills and steely new turbines churn and spin beside farmland gridded by the canals that recall their reclamation from the sea.

Still, concern is growing about development trends. Allard Jolles, architectural historian at Amsterdam's Planning Department, points out Amsterdam's l965 Zuidoost project, now a grim landscape of antisocial high-rises. Despite its new stadium, the wind-whipped landscape seems as ready for uprooting as rehabilitation, with a proposed shopping center and high-rises. "Collecting rain on the roof" does not compensate for a failure to plan the density that supports urban life, Mr. Jolles says.

Likewise at Rotterdam's old harbor, the environs of Kop van Zuid, site of the barracks for Jewish deportees during World War II, offer new urban redevelopment that seems sterile compared to the vivid past.

The office of Rem Koolhaas, the Netherlands' peripatetic star architect, shows some of the contradictions in today's Dutch planning and design. Mr. Koolhaas's Educatorium in Utrecht, is a handsome building; his "Delirious New York" book and high-tech Prada store have put him in the spotlight. Yet the office models in his Office for Metropolitan Architecture look more like techno-trick tools of the computer than the orderly planning of Holland's so-called "beauty commission," defining urban space with grace and urbanity. His zany and noncontextual museum additions, now under wraps, should be kept there. His plan for the Netherlands' New Town of Almere, begun in l976, is not only anti-city but antisocial.

In Almere, a space as big as Amsterdam, his motorization impulses played out on a ghost land of office buildings as isolated and car-bound as America's sterile office parks. They do little to focus the stretched-out landscape. Even the attractive and flexible new housing on well-groomed canals by the firm MVRVD seems as mute as an empty dormitory suburb.

Despite good design, this mode of housing plan on the outskirts of a city perpetuates the dominant mode which spurs many Dutch commuters to travel from single-family homes in single-occupancy vehicles to distant jobs, say planners. The models in the information room at the new town of Ypenburg, the site of a former airport "tenanted by rabbits five years ago," show dwellings with l.3 parking spaces, remote from schools and services. Even a superior settlement for young families by architectural firm UN Studios, complete with pebbled walkways, gardens, and playgrounds cannot escape the isolation.

And yet, for all these ominous intimations, the tradition of accomplished architects working within this small canvas endures. Amsterdam, vigorous and vital, has managed to maintain strict planning rules to keep urban design afloat.

In the past decade, splendid new five-story rowhouses have sprung up along canals dredged from the city's Eastern Harbor area, in a shoulder-to-shoulder style of close walls of housing on manufactured land. Row houses poised on canals in Borneo Sporenburg, Java Island, duplicate the city center of unity and diversity. And KNSM Island provides lively shopping.

Drenched with light from sky and sea, the upstairs-downstairs life goes on, for everyone from young families to artists. Facades, virtual frontispieces of design, shaped one by one by different architects, sidle along the street in a gallery of styles: Mondrian spartan, beside pre-cast concrete, beside a glass facade fronted by an airy, steel-wire design. The largest showcase of planned new residences, these dense townhouses, with their attractive interiors by individual architects, create a splendid showcase destined to reach 8,000 houses and apartments for l7,000 people.

This happy outcome to "the future of the spatial debate," says Mr. Betsky, is in stark contrast to the "scandalous lack of debate" at the World Trade Center site, he observes. "The Dutch do things very differently," he says. Perhaps "this insane landscape" makes it so, he adds.

Will it remain?

Certainly, the transportation system continues to fortify the Netherlands' urbanscape. Trains of all sizes dominate. Streetcars spin down streets in a national web of reliable rail. Bikes offer transit for more than 10 percent of commuters. Half of all Amsterdam traffic is two-wheeled, moving on safe lanes that bypass car traffic. And even today, Dutch developers must adhere to planning restrictions that make America's zoning guidelines look as permanent as chalk lines after a hard rain.

And yet, Harm Tilman, editor of de Architect magazine and a self-described bicycle addict, fears for the future. Today's Holland is no more immune to the pitfall of scattered settlements that swallow land and starve cities than it was to the 1960s high-rise craze "without concern about the neighborhood," as Mr. Tilman puts it.

"Land has become a market commodity" with a "bigger role for developers" in a period where the old model is subject to change, he says. "We have had a very social development," and now, the old model is "in revision," he adds.

A tilt to the right and a tilt to the road threaten Dutch life. "We have to rethink," he says.

• Jane Holtz Kay is an architecture critic and author of "Asphalt Nation."

QR Code to In Holland, the pressures of American-style urban sprawl
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today