Diary note 1: Maaskant International

Friday, 4 November 2016

When late in the evening I came out of the Town Hall of Rotterdam I barely escaped breaking a bone or two. As I took leave of two other dinner guests I was completely blinded by a floodlight fixed in the platform. Thinking I had not yet reached the flight of steps I quickly passed forward and fell into a void. While falling I instinctively reached for an ornamental lamppost and already in the air managed to grab it. So nothing happened of what could have been a bifurcation in my life. The quarter of an hour afterwards needed to reach the railway station I was hindered by images of blue balloons drifting in front of my eyes. They were the imprints of the floodlight that blinded me.

Still, over the evening from 7 to 11 pm I had imbibed one glass of prosecco and two whites. I had also spoken fervently as the final orator at the dinner party for the Award winning Tracy Metz. As we were finishing dinner, the presiding host, the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, pretended to remember that his Moroccan mother always taught him to listen to his seniors, and so gave me the floor.

I had been babbling with my neighbours about their children and was not much prepared. But during the previous discussions and talks I had been mentally sinking back into my past experiences with architecture in Rotterdam some half a century ago. I wondered what differences, not in detail, but in the abstract could be noticed. I chose two themes, the political and the international. As I spoke from the heart I seemed convincing and a sustained applause followed.

What did I try to point out? Somehow politics had lost out to bureaucracy or technocracy and commercial interests. Policy no longer was a driving and binding voice in the debate. At the table the discussion had been much about how to arrange the city in such a way that there would still be a place for the common man and not only for the successful professional non-losers (like the people around the table), the investors and the tourists. Tracy Metz had eloquently expressed her belief in a conjuncture of a globalising capitalist substratum with a voluntarist, Jane Jacobs-like bottom-up revitalisation of the spirit of the city. Aboutaleb had mentioned the inconclusiveness of the Rotterdam social housing policy, which finally had led to a referendum among the population. I myself saw this referendum as a failure of the political class to solve problems. Basically every referendum was the capitulation of policy as such. All this was too heavy to handle in a speech at the end of a festive party. So I spoke about architecture.

The Awards, which brought us together, were created by the awareness of the architect Maaskant that not only the profession of designers and builders should be honoured, but also the researchers, the writers, the critics, the thinkers of architecture. Meanwhile during the same period (the end of the seventies) I myself had been director of the Rotterdam Arts Foundation and had come to the conclusion that architecture should be central to cultural policy. Not from the point of view of Maaskant only, but from the angle of the citizens of the city.

There was hardly any art that touched people so daily and directly as architecture in the form given to housing, public buildings, public spaces, street furniture and so on. If there was any field in which a progressive vision of improving the quality of life for the population should employ itself it was architecture. Architecture was not only a technical question, it was also a moral and aesthetic challenge. Much depended on the will and courage of the political class. So when the then mayor André van der Louw and the first secretary Saskia Stuiveling of the Maaskant Foundation approached me to join the board I could only say yes. Good architecture needs good public policy.

Now it seemed that present cultural policy no longer had the will and the power to be progressive in that sense. Another ideology had undermined confidence, both within the population and in the political elite.

This was a distinct change since the seventies till now.

Secondly, internationalism.

In the seventies I was convinced that Rotterdam, like other important cities, was entering a new context of development, also in culture. In a sense there would no longer be the traditional hierarchy of cities, with Amsterdam being a cultural capital, not only for The Netherlands but also for Rotterdam, London and Paris being cultural capitals of Europe, and New York being the cultural capital of the West. Every major city, like Rotterdam, would become part of an international scene that was more horizontal. As director of the RAF/RKS I initiated the international festival as a way to plug Rotterdam into this upcoming global scene, for instance of poetry, film and architecture. These festivals are still there and have been imitated elsewhere.

Now the Maaskant foundation has a difficulty here. While the global scene has quickly developed, also in architecture, the statutes limit the awards to writers, critics, researchers, thinkers that are Dutch, or at least speakers of that language. The board, not wanting to miss out on quality, which is measured nowadays by global standards, has stretched this interpretation. It has awarded Belgians, Germans and today an American, for good reasons. In this way over the years a hoard of internationally oriented publicists had been awarded, beginning with Gerard Bekaert, the regretted Belgian architectural critic, including global visionaries like Koolhaas or Weber, and today the Dutch speaking newly Dutch, Tracy Metz. These people, in their orientations are not national, they are international.

So I wonder if it would not be a good thing to bring some major prize winners together to discuss the international future of the Maaskant Awards. These prize-winners would not only refer to Dutch commentators on architectural matters. They will know inspiring people elsewhere. I am sure that Tracy Metz, who mentioned Jane Jacobs herself, will also know living America luminaries such as the critic and historian Ann Huxtable.

Whether this plugging into the reality of global architectural thinking would take the form of a new award, or some other form, like a symposium, will depend much on the input by our amassed cultural capital, like Tracy herself. ‘I hope to see this outcome before I leave the Maaskant’, I finished my intervention.

I did not say all I had to say about this, in these brief improvised comments. But perhaps I should have pointed out that both developments, the political and the global hang together. The identity-oriented, nationalist reaction to the wrong-headed abdication of policy in the face of globalization makes it most necessary for the political elite to become creative again. The lack of cultural policy should not lead to loss of quality in the city. Nor for its citizens.


Wednesday, 9 November 2016

In the days before the vote that brought Clinton down and Trump in the saddle, I have started to reread The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Why Gibbon? I think because of his focus on the causes and effects of a changeover from the republic into a monarchy. What gives inevitability to his description of the decline of the polity of Rome, is the understanding that the decline followed naturally from the betrayal of the republic and was linked to the causes and effects of its rise.

The protagonism of the emperors, the reliance on ham forms, the role of the court, the importance of the individual character of the ruler, the importance of family relations, all flow from the adoption of a monarchy over a republic.

This morning I saw the victory speech of the president-elect. It was all scripted. He was acting presidential in a regal way. He moved slowly, with the support of music, ritually towards the rostrum. All spontaneity had gone. He used a teleprompter and stuck to his text, though with difficulty and sometimes with mistakes. The text was a fake. It contradicted his true behaviour. He had been told by his advisers what to say. He would be the king of everybody. He would be generous in victory. He would start working for everybody.

Then he thanked people. And suddenly he became more natural. Out of the shadows came his family, the true inheritors of his conquest. His second-rate, but wily advisers, typical courtiers, came reptilian into the limelight. He specially thanked the secret service.

I felt very sad. I had been born only a few days away from the burning of the Reichstag and the Hitlerian ascendancy in 1933. I had been liberated 11 years later and read Jefferson and adopted his belief that all of the people could not be fooled all of the time. They were fooled this time. I felt very worried, not knowing whether they had just voted out the republic and introduced monarchy.