Risky living

Austrian-based architecture critic and author Bart Lootsma observes that society has an issue with finding freedoms. As people become more individualized, he argues, freedom does not result in more difference but instead a generic city in the face of unfathomable risks. Up against an uncertain future, should we protect ourselves in isolation or instead become greater risk-takers? While in Australia for the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, Lootsma talked to Timothy Moore about the problems of risk and the Australian dream.

Timothy Moore The freedom to buy and build one’s own house reached a crescendo in the late twentieth century. The Dutch have a term for this, Het Wilde Wonen (“Wild Living”); Dutch architecture and urbanism practice MVRDV called it Light Urbanism. Here, it is called the Australian Dream. It refers specifically to the freedom of house buyers to build their own home. In Australia, a First Home Owner Grant was established in the year 2000 to give first-time home owners $7,000 to spend on this dream. What does the freedom of buying one’s own house mean?

Bart Lootsma First, I do not see it as a freedom but instead as a part of the process of individualization. Individualization is where, obviously, people are getting more individual. Individualization is not only fought for, but forced upon us, and this is evident in welfare state economies like Australia. There is the idea to give people a start in society, and from that moment on, they can capitalize on this head start. The welfare states, however, are coming to their limit – they are in a crisis. This makes the consequences of this individualization process problematic. People are told that they can realize their dream despite the fact that its achievability is quite limited. There are laws, regulations and budget limitations.

The traditional Dutch Zaanse huisjes reappear with a twist as the lnntel Hotel Zaandam by WAM. Image:  Martien Uiterweerd

When we researched is phenomenon at the Berlage Institute in the Netherlands, we discovered that the number of typologies, of floor plans, in free-market housing estates that we studied were much more limited than those found in the Vinex [state-controlled] locations. There is populist rhetoric that still continues that modernist architecture would limit people in their freedom. This was one of the arguments to seduce people towards a liberal individual model. However, under free-market conditions, we have witnessed a limited number of firms with a limited number of typologies while the role of architects in housing becomes smaller and smaller. In the Netherlands, like in Australia, if people want to build their own house, they generally seek a firm with a catalogue of housing models. These firms take care of all the regulations, and limit the costs. They reduce the risk.

Timothy Moore There are many risks in society for the individual to avoid: rising interest rates, litigation, urban violence. Being an individual also assumes much more personal responsibility today when welfare policies contract. How can we act “freely,” then, when faced with instability and risk?

Bart Lootsma We do not need stable lives anymore like we used to. We change jobs more often, we change partners more often, and we move houses more often whether we want to or have to. The important factor of the welfare state was that these risks were calculated in statistical research and dealt with collectively. Now one takes an individual risk. And this risk is not calculated – it is chance. Risks today – such as a nuclear disaster like Chernobyl or the tsunami in Japan – are enormous, ungraspable and invisible. We cannot really calculate for them. Another risk is the financialization of the economy, where risk-taking is not related to real things. In its totality, it is guided by complex, collective movements produced by many individual decisions, as in flocks of birds. Individually, though, we cannot know if we lead or follow. So when we take risks today, it is very intuitive.

Timothy Moore There was an optimism in the 90s with risk-taking – in this potential to be “like a surfer to the waves” as Rem Koolhaas wrote in Delirious New York. However, this period of heightened globalization also saw an architecture where many buildings could be distinguished by a lack of communication, in terms of their symbolic context or function. Is there an ongoing move towards a contemporary vernacular as a reaction to this period of openness hand-in-hand with a rise of political populism?

Bart Lootsma In the generic city, postmodernism is the style of choice and we cannot avoid this. As buildings become less and less distinguishable as they are all different, they become more of the same. In juxtaposition, the debate about the contemporary vernacular you see in Australia and in the United States is different. It is about the country trying to come to terms with its own lifestyle. The vernacular work in Australia is very modest, almost puritanical. Somehow it tries to take the environment extremely seriously and reflect on the mediocrity of the Australian city. It turns the banality of the everyday into something worthwhile.

There is also a difference between the vernacular and constructing identities. Populist tendencies in architecture try to reconstruct a historical vernacular that never existed in that form. An example is the WAM building in Zaandam. It is a strange, nationalistic, postmodern hotel. If it is indeed vernacular, then it returns with a twist. The hotel in Zaandam is much bigger than the traditional green houses in the region, and is the culmination of over a dozen houses stacked together. One is blue, and one is upside down, perhaps to suggest that it’s not all taken too seriously. It’s a very ambivalent work. It tries to relate to tradition, but it cannot because of the different building technologies present today. With this type of market populism, people are turning away from the contemporary world. But closing yourself off has no effect these days.

Timothy Moore Australia has managed to keep itself somewhat financially open. As a result, it has experienced a golden age, perhaps similar to the second modernity or golden age of Dutch society at the turn of the millennium that you comment upon in your publication SuperDutch [Lootsma’s book on twelve Dutch architecture practices]. It began in Australia with liberalization of the market towards an open economy in the 80s and was cemented with the growing population and resources boom of the early 2000s. Having gone through a “second modernity,” what should we expect on the other side?

Bart Lootsma These days, that is a very difficult question [laughs]. We are in an enormous crisis beyond economics and the environment. A crisis that is extremely fundamental, where it is hard to predict where we are going. What I do expect for the next period, on the one hand, is that what we started with individualization and liberalization of the housing market will also come to being with property laws – they will slowly evaporate, as we can see in the growing part of the world where informal urbanism becomes dominant. All these factors will force us to take greater risks. This risk-taking is actively promoted in a culture of adventure, like in the mountains around Innsbruck where I reside. There risk-taking can be absolutely breathtaking. Just as in a Hollywood action movie, we seem to forget about the casualties and collateral damage, though. Victims are eerily quiet. Maybe they will stand up some day.


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