Pasztor, Erika Katalina | media artist
Budapest, Hungary
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in 2003
Aaron Betsky was the director of NAi
The Netherland's Architecture Institute

Architecture is a cultural issue
interview with Aaron Betsky, who talks about


the reality of the Netherlands
The house where I live is 6 meters below sea level. Our entire country was constructed by human effort: people devised an infrastructure system, a geometric grid and an arrangement of spaces which completely define the reality of the Netherlands today. In other words, the whole country is a piece of architecture, which is being remade continuously to embrace more and more people and activities. It is like a three dimensional puzzle that is being played again and again.


policy making
In the Netherlands, the ministry of housing is the Ministry of Spatial Planning, Housing and the Environment – which I think is unique in the world. This ministry considers space as an integrated concern: how we use it, how we preserve it, what we do with it and how we live in it. The Dutch realized in the 80s that things were not going well in architecture, so they created the first of the three architectural white papers, or policy papers, called the Architectuur Nota. (The fourth one is currently under development.) The first Architectuur Nota basically drew up questions on how the built environment could be improved. A series of activities and policies were proposed with each policy papers: supporting the education of architects, supporting them in experimental design, supporting the education of the public through NAi and many other organizations, and supporting a sort of integrated education of policy makers. Now there is a much higher awareness of architecture here. Our institution have a budget over 6 million Euro in a year. The whole Dutch Architecture policy spends about 20-30 million a year only to support the awareness of architecture. The NAi's mission is to collect the cultural heritage of the Netherlands. We have archived all Dutch architecture after 1800, we preserve it, we organize it and we make it available for both studying and exhibition purposes. Based on this knowledge, we organize exhibitions helping to understand our physical environment. The NAi works in co-operation with many local architecture centers and lots of other initiatives.


sustainability and the architecture of democracy
My last book, Landscrapers, discusses buildings that are built with the land instead of on the land. We need a more considerate approach to how we use and reuse the land, instead of taking a piece of land and building boxes with heating and air-conditioning all over it. According to the historical necessity of making this land, architecture is not a luxury but a necessity here. Space is regarded here as a community good. Anything that doesn't pay for itself is luxury. In the French tradition, architecture is a style imposed by people with money and power to create monumental focal points, behind which everything else disappears. In centrally planned countries, like communist countries or in the fascist dictatorship, architecture completely disappears behind planning. In a social democracy, architecture translates the common good into a visible form. This is why you find better architecture in social democracies, and this is why social democratic parties support architecture more emphatically.


Sustainable architecture usually means two things in contemporary tendencies. One is to install gadgets or machinery in buildings. We often forget that to maintain machines and keep them running often costs as much energy as it saves. The second is that we try to make our buildings as long lasting as possible. It seems logical, but facts often justify just the contrary. Actually, in the case of almost every building, the building’s originally planned use is changed even before the construction is finished. I cannot mention a single building I have ever worked on or been involved with that didn't change. Between the time, when the client accepts the first sketch and when it is actually built, a building changes quite substantially. As soon as the building is finished, sometimes even before that, clients begin to change it, and rip out all durable things and throw them away. Why should we think in terms of buildings that last as long as possible, instead of buildings that last as little as possible, which are easy to tear down, and their materials can be reused?


Architects want to build for the ages, they want to create perfect buildings, like monuments. This has to do with the whole history of architecture and its definition. People have to live with these buildings and in them, while their lives change continually. They grow up, have children, move, or just change their minds. The more monumental and ideal the building is, the harder it is to accommodate it to those changes. As Aldo Rossi pointed out, in the past people used to live in the same place, they grew up and died in the same place, and adapted the building over time. Now we move several times in our lives, we have to be able to build history into things much more quickly.


new technologies
Computer and communication technologies, which are strongly linked, have been changing our physical environment. There are not just new forms appearing, but also old forms are being used in new ways. Here is a simple example: everyone knows Amazon, one of the most famous, more or less successful company in e-commerce. Amazon stores many books, and the physical results of this are huge, 200,000 sq. meter warehouses. They need to have all the books in a central distribution place to be able to send them to everyone. So one effect of computer technologies is that buildings are used in a different way. The other is that we can build almost everything that we can draw, because of new computer aided design and construction technologies. This has interesting implications both in terms of the discipline of the designer, and in terms of the disappearance of the original, which raises intellectual rights problems.


the relationship between form and material
I think here is an other, more complex and interesting problem. When an architect translates imagination directly into form, it does not go through the phases of materialization. In the past, architecture was tied to familiar materials and nothing else. For example, if you created a curving form made of brick, and someone would not recognize the form, they would know the brick, what is an understandable material. Now this curve is possibly made by laser-guided cutting tools out of plastic or out of continuous sheets of metal. The form loses its direct relationship with the material. So the question for the architect is: "how should I create a relationship between the radically new and the already existing? Or could I say I don't care, and let people think whatever they want?" If you think so, than the question is: "what does it mean to create a really new experience?" Obviously new and strange spaces and shapes are appearing. Some of them are exciting, some of them are failures. I have never seen a completely computer designed building that finally looked as sophisticated as any car, industrial product or spaces seen in movies, also designed by computers. Architects aren't there yet.


the changes in the work environment
Now the architectural firm is a kind of cluster of project based, collaborating workgroups. This seems to be OK for me, but for some it is just a bustle. If you would give me a commission to design a skyscraper, I could do it by myself, as long as I get the necessary software, organize my time well enough and know the right people to hire as consultants. There are many small architecture offices, who work project-based and hire consultants. I could easily assemble a team of consultants and design a sixty-storey skyscraper, I don't need to have 60 people waiting around at drafting tables for the next skyscraper to come in. When the client finds out how easy it is for an architect, he or she withdraws the money from the commission and builds cheaper, standardized buildings. I had already seen design firms outsourcing the drawings to the Philippines, Mexico or China. This kind of development could have very negative effects in the future.


star architecture
The star architect problem belongs to the more and more globalized and rationalized society. For private developers and sometimes also for public developers, the main motivation for hiring a star architect is his/her advertising value. It is similar to the question of finding the suitable rock star. Big corporations try to get Sting to their corporate retreat, and they try to get Frank O. Gehry design their building. In the Netherlands it works a bit differently. Companies are subject to continual changes, they are in the process of permanent identification, so sometimes they prefer young, experimental designers to help them.


personal fascinations and the future
I don't know anything about the future. All I know is, that at least once in a year, when I see a great new piece of architecture, it gives me enough faith to keep on doing what I'm doing. The last two buildings I have seen and found really exciting are both massive buildings. One of them is the Scharnhauser Town Hall (Stadthaus Scharnhauser Park und Marktplatz) designed by Jürgen Mayer, a very young architect. It is a small town hall outside of Stuttgart, a beautiful, strange, brown building, which is out of kilter, out of balance but it is absolutely fantastic. The other one I saw in Basel two weeks ago, and it is the Shaulager designed by Herzog & de Meuron.


Earlier this year, I curated the Diller and Scofidio exhibition in the Whitney. I am trained as an architect, I work as a critic and a writer. I have written about 12-15 books, several articles, and I regularly contribute to architectural magazines in Europe and in the United States. Earlier I have written for newspapers like LA Times or New York Times, and I have taught a great deal. When I moved back to the Netherlands two years ago, I thought I would spend more time in London and Paris. In the last two years I had been in London twice, each time for a day, and in Paris two or three times, always back and forth on the same day. I was completely fascinated with visiting East-European cities like Prague, Brno, Cracow, Ljubjana, and Zagreb. They have an amazing legacy, layers of everything from the Habsburg and the Russian to the Soviet influences. But now, of course, there is a difficult question they have to face: "what to do with all this now?"



Questions by Ivan Andras Bojar [Octogon Architecture and Design] and Erika Katalina Pasztor []

2003-09-04 Rotterdam
edited by Erika Katalina Pasztor
2003-10-04 Budapest



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