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design embarrassment

The full scope of the environmental challenge is finally starting to be broadly acknowledged. This is accompanied by renewed morality and all sorts of shame currently flying around right, left and center; from shame for balloons and package or food delivery to shame for flying or eating meat.

The construction and architecture branches are also under pressure. Partly because of the nitrogen and PFAS issues, construction as such is almost suspicious already, but the much-discussed ‘boxification of the Netherlands’ is also topical. “If you want to enjoy the Dutch landscape, you have to go the Rijksmuseum,” said landscape architect Adriaan Geuze in de Volkskrant. Among Twitter architects, a discussion recently arose about airport projects such as our new pier at Schiphol. Can one still commit oneself to assignments like this as a designer, or would that be reason to feel ashamed? 

In itself, these are valid questions, because related to environmental awareness, by now everyone realizes that not all growth is unlimited and that there are other values as well. Therefore, many parties on various fronts are already working on new forms or production, consumption, transportation and services. For example within the Schiphol-organization itself, there are also strong promoters of high-speed trains as a replacement for short flights. 

But there is false nostalgia and hypocrisy to some of the contemporary opposition as well. Much of what one now experiences as an authentic meadow landscape is in fact the largest industrial area in The Netherlands; a monoculture of over-fertilized grassland adorned with mega cowsheds, that has little more to do with nature or cultural property than all those box-like distribution buildings. And anyone who is against these boxes has nonetheless probably ordered many a package as well during the recent gift season. 

The fact that today’s landscape hardly has anything to do with the landscape Geuze refers to, does not mean that we have to saturate all green areas between our cities; neither with distribution boxes nor with uniform residential areas. Precisely here lies a major task. In every healthily developing society, (re)construction remains inevitable. But do it fundamentally better then; sustainable, nature-inclusive, adaptive and with minimal environmental impact. In order to do so, looking away in design embarrassment is not constructive. On the contrary, it requires all inventiveness and design power available!

Ronald Schleurholts, architect partner cepezed   

Cobouw, 28 januari 2020 

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