The Critical Landscape

In 1991, together with Arie Graafland, Jasper de Haan started extracurricular illegal lunch seminars for students at the Faculty of Architecture in Delft. The lack of theory in the curriculum in Delft at that time was shocking, so the students decided to provide it themselves. With Arie Graafland as a guide, we read through the contemporary discourse at that moment. With funding from outside the faculty, from the Netherlands Fund for Architecture and the Stylos Foundation, we managed to put together a conference, called the Stylos Hotel New York Conferences on Architecture. Many architects and theorists were invited, such as Michael Hays, Michael Speaks, Michael Sorkin, Michael Müller, Ben van Berkel, Rem Koolhaas, Alexander Tzonis, Liane Lefaivre, Mark Wigley, Beatriz Colomina, Kyong Park, Yorgos Simeoforides, Anthony Vidler, Karin Wilhelm. The main question was one that Michael Hays had put forward:
‘What should a critically conscious architect, at this moment in history, be doing?’
The conference on 15, 16 and 17 march 1995 resulted in a book in 1996 with the  titel "The Critical Landscape".
Exactly eleven years later, 16 and 17 march 2006 the sequel "the Projective Landscape" took place, again in Hotel New York and Delft.
The preface by Jasper de Haan of the first book seems uncannily topical today:

In the Netherlands it is possible, four years after leaving secondary school, to obtain a diploma from a University of Technology making you an officially registered architect. This implies that after four years of training you are considered capable of carrying out all the associated activities, and apparently also have sufficient insight into the ethical, aesthetic, and social sides of the profession  as well. Making this book, without any experience or training in making books, took five years.

The constant cuts in the budgets of Universities of Technology, and the introduction of a new curriculum at the architecture faculty at TU-Delft, means that this curriculum has been condensed and seriously impoverished. Courses aimed at applications and technical subjects are the primary elements of the program. Architectural history, art history, and architectural theory have been almost eliminated in the various rounds of economizing and reorganization. The number and the length of the design practicals has also been shrunk.

Student organizations like Stylos have tried in vain to resist this impoverishment. They have long realized that architectural education is not possible without reflection upon history, architecture, and the social field in which they must operate. And it is precisely at this moment in time, in our postmodern era where anything goes, that reflection is needed more than ever. It apparently no longer matters whether you are for or against something, and this makes even a simple student revolt impossible. There is little reason to go to the barricades only in order to protest the impoverishment of education and the rise in college fees. Students seem to be hungry for theory – as a last straw to grasp at, and in order to have something to hold onto in a world where good and evil seem to no longer exist. Students often lose interest when it turns out that theory is unable to offer simple answers to their questions and when the only outcome of any contact with theory merely results in the production of new questions.

Nevertheless, this hunger is extremely understandable. What can you do
when the timetable of a typical student's day picked at random looks like this:

9.00 : 10.00 – The umpteenth part of the course: 'How do I make a thoroughly modern building?'
10.00 : 11.00 – A teacher, who apparently once had coffee with Aldo van Eyck, tries  to convince the  entire year of students to only build  Dutch structuralist buildings
11.00 : 12.00 – Another teacher, using every rhetorical trick in his book, tries to make it clear that the only way to build anything in historic inner cities is 'the Krier method'.
Lunch break – The manifesto of Foreign Office Architects is passed around and looked over during the coffee and sandwiches.
Afternoon – A design practical by a teacher who is of the belief that our fragmented society can and must only be reflected by fragmented buildings.

The confusion sketched above is one which I myself was privileged to enjoy, but in the current Delft curriculum the compulsory lectures have almost disappeared. The curriculum has thus become a lottery where the teacher a student is assigned as his or her supervisor is a hit-and-miss affair. The same of course goes for which architectural dogmas he or she will have to swallow. Whether he or she will subscribe to them will depend not on the content of the course of study, but on the tastiness with which it is served up. His or her standpoint in the debate is thus influenced not by the persuasiveness of the arguments but by that of the individual teacher. This is due in particular to the absence of a meta-level analysis of the various ideas, a critical space from which different positions can be dissected, let alone that this meta-level is connected with cultural, socio-political or philosophical implications.

Stylos has not been content to simply  complain  about  the situation  as it exists at present, but has tried to alter the situation itself. These efforts have been reasonably successful in recent years, especially through the organization of events such as 'Context and Modernity' and 'The Invisible in Architecture', not to mention the numerous design seminars such as INDESEM, Object en Ruimte (Object and Space), and Ontwerp Contrast (Design Contrast).

This has been so successful that gradually it seems justified to ask which is the better training for architects: following the official curriculum, or spending four years participating in all the activities organized by Stylos and the various other student organizations. If you choose the latter, while in the meantime attending some courses such as supporting structures and building methodology, it seems to me that you will become a better architect than if you only follow the official curriculum. Perhaps that is also the reason why the faculty has continued to lend financial support to all these activities.

In fact, this is a unique situation in which students themselves set up the most important part of their education and in the process also publish their own book. And yet, at a time when the length of study has been drastically reduced and college fees are always rising, it is quite absurd that students have to organize their own education. Perhaps there is an opportunity here for the ultimate cut: no more official curriculum. Students could assemble their own program, select their teachers, and determine what is important and what is not. Every student would get a certain amount of money and with it could freely choose and thus determine the education he or she buys.

That would bring us back to the 1960s, when, if the rumors are to be believed, in liberal colleges students were able to determine themselves whether they deserved a pass or not. The magic Sixties – something my Lost Generation X never consciously experienced. Apparently we missed something important there.

As we, in all innocence, were building our first sand castles on the beach, elsewhere wars were being waged about subjects which one would hardly believe it possible to wage war about. The echoes of these wars are audible to this day. Somewhere in these echoes must be the reason why some of our professors still can't abide the sight of each other. And if they finally do allow themselves to recognize each other, then they are often so confused by their own courage at no longer being pro or contra whatever it may have been, that they cannot be expected to make any real contributions to the answer to the question of what the future of the buildings, the objects and the architecture will be.

Against this 'Delft' background, we started to think about this book five years ago. We determined that it had to be a book of theory which would cover a large portion of the field of architectural theory. It would contribute to an understanding of the current situation and the ways that we arrived here. It was also supposed to be an entrance for people who had never followed the debates and a way of taking up the thread again for people who had lost it along the way. In this way, the book, together with the conference in Hotel New York, would fill the biggest lacunae in the current curriculum. And in fact the book would also have to indicate where the escape routes from the Fin de Siècle are to be found. It was supposed to make clear that it is not enough to simply say that everything is permitted and that everything has already been done. That it is still possible to make meaningful connections and to make significant buildings. Discussion should perhaps focus less on defining concepts and more on the objects themselves, the buildings, and must judge these on their own merits before comparing them to each other. In other words, to value buildings not just for their connotation, for what they could possibly represent, but above all for their physical appearance. In brief, the book was to provide an answer to the question of what an architect should be doing at this moment in time, or what is left for him or her to do.

Now, five years later, the book is finally completed.  It is up to the reader to judge whether our ambitions and high expectations have been justified.

In any case, it has become an unapologetically non-comprehensive survey of a number of standpoints taken in the 'critical landscape'. Included you will find optimistic escape routes from stances which have grown rigid as well as apparently endless discussions. But perhaps we have already been overtaken by time and new developments  and exciting ideas have again been formulated.  In any case, that proves that it is necessary to continue making books like this one, and to continue organizing  the conferences  which precede them.  Stylos is already busy preparing part two of the Stylos Conferences.