After six years leading the renowned Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi), Ole Bouman recently stepped down to pursue independent projects, following a government-mandated reorganization. William Menking sat down with Bouman to discuss the role of the Institute, its evolving mission, and the future of the discipline of architecture.
William Menking: You recently left the Netherlands Architecture Institute. But why did it appeal to you to begin with?
Ole Bouman: Because it crystallizes more than a century of faith in the power of architecture. It combines the national architecture archive, a well-equipped museum and an active debate center. Together, it does not defend the interest of architects but cultivates the timeless role of architecture as a cultural discipline and as a contribution to society.
From an American point of view, The Netherlands seems to have a highly sophisticated architecture culture. Is that the reason why the NAi was created in the 1980s, or did the NAi kind of help create that?
There was already a very strong internationally acknowledged architectural culture if you think about famous names like Van Doesburg, Van Eyck, Habraken, and Koolhaas. There was also a strong tradition among politicians and some enlightened clients to translate their social objectives into architecture. But in the 1980s a new phenomenon emerged, seeing architecture as a kind of vehicle for political and institutional profiling, and as an instrument to create economical value. These new energies helped to make the case for an architecture institute to foster broad awareness to help people understand that architecture could make the difference.
Did the NAi encourage that kind of thinking?
It always tried, but it was not necessarily successful. The ingredients were all there. There was the great collection; there was a podium to discuss ideas in architecture; and there was a place to exhibit both. This was its wealth, but also its problem. Because how do visitors relate to all of them in some way? How to profile an institution if you have so many different characters working there, for different audiences, if you have all these different interests to address? When I was invited to this job I came with one unifying proposition: reconnect architecture to urgent issues that most people will acknowledge as such; either in terms of preservation, or in terms of ordinary daily concerns of citizens. Or as an agenda for the future of our society. We called this approach an “Architecture of Consequence.” First meeting some tough criticism as it went beyond the professional discourse and leaving some professional defense mechanisms shattered, now it is a widely accepted new direction in architecture that picks up more and more momentum.
What do you think are the highlights of directing the NAi for six years?
First of all, the renovation of the building to make it much more a civic space. It used to be a pretty solid bastion across a pond, which many people not even dared to enter. Now it provides a public experience to many more visitors. It has the best of the collection permanently on display for the hardcore architecture lovers, while it offers a variety of programs to kids and families to enjoy making things.
This public character of architecture also translated into the Architecture of Consequence agenda, relentlessly producing evidence that architecture can help resolve big issues. With the NAi building itself, but also for instance by way of matchmaking projects, directly connecting the potential of design talent with the urgencies of our time and the key decision makers. I’m proud of the way we worked with housing corporations helping them to rely more on architects in their tough choices. Finally, I will always remember how I could end my serving term with the celebration of the love for architecture, showing the major exhibition on Louis Kahn.
What about your work at the Venice Biennale?
Another very rewarding experience. The Dutch pavilion designed by Gerrit Rietveld is a perfect place to demonstrate the power of architecture in so many ways. That’s what’s what I tried to do in the last three installments. The first time in 2008 we asked big questions about the future of this discipline in the wake of the terrifying fire that destroyed the Faculty of Architecture in Delft. We asked ourselves the question what a faculty of architecture actually is, how architecture should be taught and how in our time it should be represented in a building.
Two years later we presented Vacant NL, an abysmal image of the scale of abandoned architecture in a country that is so famous for it. It became radically clear that traditional architecture increasingly is an answer to questions that are no longer asked. Last year we completed the trilogy by showing how architecture still could be powerful and resourceful, breathing new air into the old foundations of existing buildings with very few means. One moving curtain designed by Petra Blaisse multiplied the building many times and enhanced its experiences profoundly—pure value creation.
Why did the government make the decision to change the structure of the NAi, if it has been such a success?
Good question, with no single answer. First of all architecture is no longer as popular among politicians as it used to be. They now have different bets, topics like creative industry or design thinking. We have been through a re-appreciation of terminology. Also the meaning of words became much less precise. Whereas architecture became a name for more or less any spatial practice even beyond building, also design lost its meaning as “making things look nice” and becoming more about the organization of life and its processes. So these concepts have an increasing overlap. Designers are dealing with issues that until recently used to be called architectural. Vice versa architects have no problem to enter the design world.
Has architecture has been submerged under this rubric of design?
Yes, also because of its economical weakness. It’s a survival technique. For many it begins to sound more viable to be a designer than to be an architect. Many architects are pretty okay for instance with defending themselves as being part of the creative industries because then they belong to a growing sector rather than one in decline.
What do you think about letting the market decide over the destiny of architecture?
Well I think in general it is a very sound principle: not just to let the market but to let society decide where culture should go and to escape the bubble in which civil servants and culture managers decide where the culture should go. Nobody should be against that kind of stress test. It’s not related to a budget cut, it’s based a principle. However, you have to get suspicious when a budget cut is defended with the reality check. Government is smart enough to know that just taking money from culture is a very unpopular move but if you do that by claiming that this is reality check it sounds much better. In the case of the NAi one also can ask the question how much reality we can find in an enforced merger that government wants for ideological reasons.
How is the merger going to work?
I don’t know yet. There is a risk and there’s a potential. What I have done the last year is to minimize the first and to maximize the latter. The government said you no longer can count on any support if only you decide to remain as the NAi. It’s like saying I kill you, but maybe you can survive as a different guy with a different mission, which is to become a support office for the creative industries. But there was some space to maneuver and to invent a new intrinsic motivation. For me that was the Bauhaus potential, to develop an institute that could play a similar role in culture, rallying some diverse disciplines behind a heartfelt purpose: to preserve, explore, and deploy design for the good cause. To glorify creativity as an indispensable dimension of social agency. I am happy that I was able to leave that idea as a solid legacy. The Council of Culture even sanctioned this new idea with a positive report.
Will all of those things happen in this new organization?
It’s up to the new director to decide. The most important is that he can present a strong vision based on the overlap between the disciplines involved. But you will also need the government to give it some time and space to manoeuver and build up something for some time, instead of another major intervention as happened two years ago, when it stated in a way that it didn’t want us to be fully dedicated to architecture anymore. That’s also why for me this implied the end of my term, because I signed for being committed to architecture out of free will.
So what are you going to do now?
Doing architecture in some way, of course, and creating value with it. I will continue to work in terms of identifying the issues that matter, and applying the potentials of design to them, in any way I can: by designing, funding, moderating, writing, curating, teaching, imagining, and other forms of creative leadership. I think I may be able to contribute to the honor of architecture because there is so much where architecture can make the difference. I’m talking about the self-esteem of a discipline, which is not the same as egomania.
I don’t know yet to which extent I will do this in response to clients, or out of unsolicited action, but undoubtedly I will do it with the spirit of a volunteer.