Who asked for a New Institute? A farewell to the NAi

The dissolution of the Netherlands Architecture Institute is incredibly short-sighted: not only will it be translated into less visibility for architecture, but also endangers the remarkable accomplishments of Dutch architecture in the past twenty-five years.

 

Op-ed / Sérgio Miguel Figueiredo

Dutch architectural culture is quickly changing, and not necessarily for the best. After being a fundamental element in the development and promotion of Dutch architectural culture since its foundation in 1988, the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) in Rotterdam has been closed. In its place, a new institute dedicated to the "creative industries" opened on the first day of 2013.

Under the guise of economic efficiency and unsubstantiated ideas of possible synergies, the Dutch government decided unilaterally that cultural institutions receiving public grants and subsidies in the Netherlands were due for a structural reorganization. The drastic overhaul of the cultural infrastructure was publicly announced in June 2011 by (then) State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science, Halbe Zijlstra, and was followed immediately by widespread outcry. Criticism of the government's plan mostly condemned not just the 26% cuts to subsidies, but also the reach of the proposed reform. Beyond a reasonable and realistic reorganization of resources and allocation of funds, the new cultural policy presented a purely market-driven approach to culture. The approach, emerging from the aptly titled policy plan "More than Quality," suggests that cultural activities are no longer appreciated for the quality of their intellectual contribution to the edification of Dutch society, but are instead primarily valued by the quantity of euros they can generate for the country's economy.

While the effects of this drastic change of policy affected all cultural sectors, architecture's inherent proximity to economic systems implied that the consequences of this reorganization were especially felt in a dramatic contraction of the discipline's support infrastructure. Beyond completely defunding most smaller organizations dedicated to architecture — such as Architectuur Lokaal, Archiprix, the (Dutch) Europan, the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), and even the Berlage Institute — the funding of the NAi, the only remaining architectural institution, was substantially reduced and greatly conditioned.

To complement the shortcomings of public funding (reaching approximately 22% of its yearly subsidy), the NAi was encouraged to procure additional funding through commercial collaborations with market partners. Through these commercial partnerships, the government intended for the NAi to increasingly attain a self-sustainable cultural production. Facing the prospective cut of 1 million euros in its yearly budget, the NAi was quick to react, applying an economic-oriented cultural policy in its August 2011 cooperation agreement for low-cost housing with VANKE, the largest real-estate developer in China, signed in a ceremony presided by Secretary Zijlstra. More handshakes and photo-ops ensued one month later, when the institute signed another partnership with Gispen, the historical Dutch furniture company.

Beyond imposing an overtaxing economic orientation, the vision for architecture in this cultural policy effectively required the dissolution of the famed Dutch architectural infrastructure. Despite the NAi's capacity (and willingness) to establish profitable partnerships and progress towards greater economic sustainability, the institute also had to prepare for the major deliberation included in the government's neo-liberal cultural policy. From 2013 onwards, the institute would only be eligible for public funding if it was subject to a merger with the Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion (Premsela) and the industry institute for electronic culture (Virtueel Platform). According to Secretary Zijlstra's plan, the New Institute (a name eventually adopted by the organisation that resulted from the merger) was to capitalize on the increasing overlap between architecture, design, fashion and e-culture and consolidate the efforts supporting these "creative industries."

While such interdisciplinary cooperation could (potentially) create opportunities for a renewed interrogation of architecture (but also of design, fashion and e-culture), the economic undertones of the cultural policy strongly indicate the constitution of an institute for "creative industries" primarily intended for the facilitation of business and the development of coordinated economic strategies. The New Institute has already begun its operations, despite its benefits lacking proper substantiation, and being publicly denounced by the Rotterdam Council for Arts and Culture. Conversely, what is abundantly clear is the demotion of architecture in the Dutch cultural apparatus through the comprehensive dissolution of the network of institutions dedicated to the promotion of the discipline. Such dissolution is incredibly short-sighted: not only will it be translated into less visibility for architecture, but also endangers the remarkable accomplishments achieved by Dutch architecture in the past twenty-five years.

The international acclaim that Dutch architecture has enjoyed since the 1990s has been mostly supported by the activities of institutions like the NAi (and the Dutch Architecture Fund). In combination with other architecture-oriented cultural institutions, the NAi has fomented an almost unique context for the development of architecture in the Netherlands, establishing the conditions for Dutch architecture offices to succeed on a national and international level. While the exact financial rewards of these institutions' activities is difficult to quantify accurately, it should be clear that they have fulfilled an important function. It was their support — financial and otherwise — that allowed Dutch architects to experiment, explore new ideas, devise original plans, develop new skills, as well as ponder on the social, cultural, artistic, and even economic implications of architecture, in a way that would have been impossible otherwise. The disbursement of grants, the production of exhibitions, the organization of lectures and symposia, the publication of books and magazines, all served to stimulate the development of Dutch flavoured architectural innovation. This system not only nurtured new talent, but also conferred a remarkable competitive advantage to Dutch architecture in an increasingly globalized market.

To further extend the business analogy, the institutional support from the NAi and other public architectural organisations should have been perceived as the research and development (R&D) department of Dutch architecture. These activities were never intended to generate immediate profit and involved a great deal of uncertainty as to the return of investment. But these activities were also crucial in creating the conditions for innovation to emerge, often a decisive factor in the ability for any commercial endeavour to remain relevant (and profitable). With the dissolution of this network of architecture-specific institutions, there is already an erosion of the strategic advantage enjoyed by Dutch architecture in the past two decades. In an increasingly competitive architectural market, the Dutch don't need to look too far to see their original strategy of governmental support deliver strong results in Denmark, as the international architecture community is already abuzz with the new talent emerging from the Scandinavian country (in an ironic twist, Bjarke Ingels — the poster-boy for Danish architecture — is a notorious alumni of Koolhaas' Rotterdam-based OMA, and the Danes have notably based their architectural policy in the original Dutch policies of the early 1990s).

After 25 years, the Dutch architectural-support system was certainly due for a reassessment, bringing it into line with the contemporary challenges facing architecture. A maximization of resources and the development of greater synergies is a laudable strategy, but the merger of loosely affiliated "creative disciplines" based on a neo-liberal economic ideology was perhaps not the best solution. Dutch architecture would have been better served by another type of merger, one that effectively capitalized on immediate synergies and emboldened the discipline. By consolidating the efforts and resources that support the development of architecture and promote its appreciation, certainly some redundancies would have been identified and savings achieved (satiating the thirst for cuts). But by centralizing the diverse array of instruments supporting architecture, a new super-institute of architecture could be created. A super-institute, that could be even stronger in directing architectural discussion, stimulating architectural innovation, and emboldening Dutch architectural culture. A super-institute solely dedicated to architecture, where rather than being displaced by economic objectives, cultural ambitions could be significantly reinforced. A super-institute in which the authority and legitimacy of architecture would not be under attack, but vigorously renewed.

However, without any type of discussion or conversation, bureaucrats in The Hague decided differently. We can only hope that, against all odds, the New Institute will be able to overcome the ideologic determinacy of its economic orientation, and expand the veritable legacy of the NAi to design, fashion and e-culture.

Sérgio Miguel Figueiredo (@sergiophd) is a trained architect and urbanist, a graduate of Lisbon's Technical University and the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture. He is currently a Fulbright scholar at UCLA, concluding his doctoral dissertation on the Nederlands Architectuurinstituut (NAi) and the role of architecture museums in the production and consumption of architectural discourse and practice.