Architecture and Heritage in the Netherlands by Job Roos (TU Delft)


By URBACT, on February 8th, 2012

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URBACT LINKS network is focused on the ways to conciliate cultural heritage and city development

Job Roos is a rare example of Dutch architect dedicated to the retrofitting of existing buildings. His expertise has become highly requested now that it has become clear the urgency of adapting our cities for sustainable development and that the most sustainable way to do it is to upgrade existing buildings. The paradigm shift from demolition&new building to retrofitting of existing buildings in the Netherlands has been symbolically marked by a traumatic event: the fire that destroyed the Architecture Faculty of the TU Delft on 13th May 2008. That shocking experience and the quick and smart re-birth of the Bouwkunde Faculty from its ashes was the subject of Job Roos’s presentation in a workshop of the URBACT LINKS Network in Veria (Greece). After the workshop I had the chance to ask Job a couple of questions about the relationship between contemporary architecture and heritage conservation in his country.

The Netherlands is a man-made land where almost nothing is natural. Dutch people are well knows for their capacity to face problems and find innovative and pragmatic solutions. Sometimes they do it without caring too much about legacy of the past or the so-called genius loci. Is this attitude changing in recent years?

‘One can sense the changing attitude. What certainly does help is the world-crisis since 2008. More and more we are forced to use the existing building-stock, about 70 % of the design-task for next generations is in the re-use of the existing. For instance there is a lot of office space empty in the Netherlands (about 7 million square meters), and another example in 2020 about 1200 churches will be without use. Not such an easy task to transform these buildings into more economical use, but there is a strong wish to do so. Government supports this approach, but the market is still not on the real move. As far as the legacy of the past is concerned, it is positive that we have to deal more and more with the existing. Economically driven yes, innovation and pragmatic will come up as is the Dutch attitude for ages already in this by man controlled delta. But there also is the chance for professional designers and developers to train ourselves and the public in the unique possibilities our frozen culture offers us. And we do need to work hard on this.’

Is the restoration of built heritage a sustainable cost for municipalities with scarce resources and a real estate sector in difficulty?

I would rather answer the question out of the perspective of the developer. My experience that the projects which are still on the move are those with a thorough link with history. In fact one could add to the previous question, that the public is still willing to invest more for their houses in something with a profound link to history. I can see this happen in my own projects that are still on the move such as the re-use of an old rope-factory (added with the presence of nice landscape), the re-use of military complexes and also on locations of industrial heritage. The real problems for redevelopment one can see in the vast stock of office-space where culture is not the strongest feature. Here we need a total new approach for redevelopment which really goes beyond the individual objects. It concerns sustainable investment in city patterns with the focus on added value. Success is dependent on multidisciplinarity and unorthodox approach.

What are the cornerstones of a coherent, creative, sustainable and future proof management of historical city centers?

I would say a wide perspective on future possibilities. Therefore a good sensibility of what was, what is and what could be. As a matter of fact a lot of knowledge and skills concerning the past to manage the past into the future. To be successful in process one needs a good balance and communication between (local) government and their civil servants and advisers. This means being very professional and having the right expertise and attitude and a real and good managed involvement of the public. The understanding of value and how to handle it (cultural, social, emotional, economical value etc.) in a good balance may be the main cornerstone for the development into the future of our past. Therefore we need social and contextual intelligence amongst our the important stakeholders.

Prof. Roos suggested to conclude and illustrate this short interview with some pictures of a much debated project in Rotterdam: the renovation of the Post building proposed by UN-Studio. The project is about the radical transformation of the old Post Office in the center of Rotterdam into a shopping center, while keeping its main architectural features. His opinion about it is that  “if one can look (and is willing to search) behind the design task and its possible meaning for the city, it could work.”

by Antonio Borghi, expert for the LINKS network, first published in his blog Well Designed and Built

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