Aaron Betsky, 46, is the director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, and one of the most important critics and proponents of architectural discourse today. His experience as an architect, critic, curator, educator, lecturer, and writer on architecture and design have positioned Betsky as one of the 21st century's architectural power brokers
Although Betsky grew up in the Netherlands, he is not Dutch, as he emphatically exclaimed during his lecture, "Why Dutch Design Will Save You" at Dutch Sustainable Communities Conference in Chicago. Recently, at the conference Chicago-based Archinect editor John Jourden spoke with Aaron Betsky on his perspectives on Dutch and American architecture.
Firstly, I'd like to say congratulations on your recent marriage and your new book, False Flat.
Thank you very much.
I understand you were born in Missoula, Montana and then spent your formative years in the Netherlands; I wonder how this opposition of landscape and geography influenced your understanding or thinking of architecture?
Oh boy the weird thing is, they say the landscape you spend the first two years of life in, is the landscape you always desire - that feels real to you. And its true my favorite landscape is mountains, forests, and lakes and is exactly the opposite of the Dutch landscape. I think maybe that distance also makes me more aware of the kind of artificiality of the Dutch landscape. I think of course that in Montana the experience is equally artificial, certainly by now it is, but the bones of the geology are so overwhelming you wind up not understanding how both the physical manipulation and the perceptual manipulation of that landscape have changed it. It allowed me to come to the Netherlands and see this artificiality more clearly.
Previously, you have said that "architecture must be an unfolding of the landscape." Within the context of a city, where there is a pre-existing fabric, how can architecture unfold within this context? How does a city exist within that idea of unfolding?
Well, I think too often we are caught within the false dichotomy between wanting to build something that is resolutely and fundamentally new and in opposition to preexisting conditions, and the notion that whatever is new should look as if it has always been there which never works anyhow. What interests me is how you can take these different fabrics of the city and unfold them and allow new possibilities to open up out of them. It seems to me you can see examples of this in Chicago when you think about Millennium Park as a kind of unfolding of the possibility of what had been, into something that at its best moment articulates the grid and the kind of magic wall of buildings around it, and reflects in the Anish Kapoor piece quite literary, and in that sense allows a whole unpeeling of that land. Again I think of the Gehry band shell as a kind of icon of that act of unpeeling, but that maybe at kind of a grand scale. A lot of the Dutch architecture I have tried to show uses that spiraling motion I was referring to (during the lecture), to weave all of the existing ground plane together with new square footage and new program all the way into a new matrix of continuity, and this kind of unfolding really amazes me. Actually the McCormick Center here by (Rem) Koolhaas is another great example of it, I mean a lot of what made that structure so great is that he accepted the existing building and he studied or had his people study the paths people took and all the uses which they engaged, mapped them and then built it. So it articulates and unfolds what was already present and makes it into a coherent whole.
When considering the limiting factors of the American system of capitalism and its building codes place on architects, such as in San Francisco, which I'm sure you're aware of, as a young architect myself I wonder where can the architect enter into this discourse when market forces and developer bottom lines control so much of the process?
Good question. Kees Christiaanse has some answers for that. They include lines like "fuck the program," and "never believe what the developer tells you." Those are typically aggressively said Dutch phrases, but I think the fundamental idea is you don't accept what you're told all the rules of the game are. You question those rules. Ben van Berkel talks about deep planning in which he says, when you are designing a building it doesn't just start with the square footage requirements, the FAR, and the height limitations. It starts with gathering all the information about the site. From it's geology, to the wind conditions, to historic data, FAR, adjacencies, materiality, and all of that becomes information that you all have to map and calibrate to use as the building blocks for a new building. And that I think is a more fundamental way of making architecture, instead of starting with a program.
Interrupted by members of the conference departing from the event.
Sorry. Now you have a bunch of Dutch on your tape.
That's okay. I have this question and one more. The last is pertaining directly to your lecture and is something I wanted to clarify for myself.
What are the strengths of the Dutch approach in contrast to the American model, which you spoke about?
Well again I think”¦
Interrupted by the drone of the Metra train passing.
It's quite beautiful (speaking of the train passing).
I think that what the Dutch have to teach is that if you think of reality as artificial, that we as human beings have made collectively, that we have to understand, we have to research, we have to map, we have to mirror. And we can then in mapping and mirroring it begin to reorganize it, reuse, and reconceptualize. Then you can get, I think at a more fundamental way of making architecture.
Ok, my last question relates to this. The idea of artifice or recreating nature, do you think there is some danger there - even though we create our own reality as you just said. But doesn't this take us beyond what we are, at a certain level? Does this take us away from, or push us to a certain level from being what we are, just animals within an environment? Or does this relate more toward the position of what Michael Pollan described in his book (The Botany of Desire) that plants are in some way inflicting their will on 'us,' but through a different set of processes?
Yeah, when you get down to the chemical level and you begin to understand that we're chemistry and buildings are made out of chemistry - for instance the American architect Michael Bell talks a lot about wanting to break architecture down on the chemical level, and the understanding that there are properties and fields, to stone, to brick, and wood you have to understand as being related to the body and to grass, trees, and everything else - and you begin to understand the mutual relations between what we think of as found objects at this fundamental level, then you're going to start to get somewhere. That's a very abstract way of saying it, but abstract systems are a lot of what it's about. A simpler way to say it, is that if you understand - if you can get yourself out of the romanticism of the tree and the cow in the open field versus the hard stone building as evil, and begin to think of what it is we want from nature and what nature means to us. In a very simple sense I think it means open space; means things that are not built; means some sense of the reality of place. And if those are the values you want out of nature then how do you get them out of nature.
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John Jourden is an (a)rchitect and pathological thinker living in New York.