It is clear that the age of abundance has been over for a while now. It feels like the world is in a constant state of crisis and spinning more and more out of control. Major environmental and social challenges such as climate change, agriculture, public housing, energy and healthcare compete for our attention, not to mention the recent pandemic that acted as a catalyst for turning the way we live totally upside down. And it doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon.

This bitter scientific reality has presented us with a vision of the future of ‘rebellion against extinction’ and of ‘do or die’. The depiction of the future as a time when everything will be better has changed into a doomsday scenario that we want to prevent at all costs; the idea that ‘we can make the world’, has changed into ‘we can save the world’. And somehow this seems to have paralyzed our ability to explore the future with curiosity and imagination.

When we take a closer look at most of the architecture that is currently being produced in the Netherlands, it isn’t hard to see that the struggle to find optimistic ideas of what the future could look like is also reflected in the buildings we make. This problem was addressed last year by Aaron Betsky, the former director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI), in an article for Dezeen Magazine titled ‘Architecture in the Netherlands has become notably boring’. In the article, Betsky stated that whereas in recent decades, the Netherlands had been a frontrunner when it came to architectural explorations, in the present, the country’s architecture has lost its experimental character. For this, he mainly blames a lack of political support.

By mainly blaming the government for this epidemic of boringness, Betsky essentially marginalises the role of the designer into a slavish executor of plans that have been carefully laid down in advance by a client. But perhaps that’s the painful truth. Haven’t we always been only witnesses to history? Perhaps our current situation requires us to have more audacity and brutality to stand up for all that architecture has to offer.

Or maybe, Betsky is wrong altogether?

Perhaps it’s not so bad that architecture is currently being more introverted. In the face of the current exigencies faced by the profession and the society it serves, it is at least logical that a better kind of ordinary is sought; architecture with an appropriate modesty, where expressiveness of form is no longer sacred. Today, the architecture that Betsky wants to return to would rather stand up like a caricature, being totally irrelevant. But still, I can’t blame him. Hasn’t it always been the case that in the absence of a story of progress, we are mainly guided by what the past tells us?

But being sentimental about a bygone era won’t get us anywhere, since architecture is, of course, a dynamic thing that exists within a specific time and place, which makes it subject to constant change.

Architects are therefore constantly challenged to respond to these changes. When I look at today’s buildings I wonder whether or not we are losing our ability to respond with our imagination to these social developments. It seems like compromise is taking precedence in order to take care of all conceivable problems.

But we are supposed to be pioneers, not caretakers!

Office in a Small City (1953, Edward Hopper)

The pressure that comes with the challenges we are facing often leads the architect to resort to a naive trust in the possibilities of technology, subsequently forgetting that architecture as a cultural act has much to offer. Most buildings today are designed like a new iPhone; power supply here, camera there. These buildings have become conversations without any content. The conversation goes no further than a convulsive smile held together by excessive Botox, and when we look into the building’s eyes we see nothing but a dull sheen looking right through us.

The role of architecture as the new technical avant-garde has resulted in compromise taking precedence. There is however no crisis of technology; there is a crisis of the imagination…

In a time without any good prospects, we long for vistas of a possible future, a new epoch with better conditions for everybody. Therefore we must accept that we are truly reliant on ourselves to initiate a change. We must accept that addressing the issues of our time is a prerequisite for achieving relevant architecture but that it is not a checklist that ultimately results in environmentally or socially sustainable buildings. It’s time for us to recognize the enormous opportunity that this time presents us, to lift the self-imposed blockade and to let the experimentation begin; we must experiment, or else we won’t learn!