I have heard this statement way too often to finally realize the settled truth and the discouragement in our profession. In such a deep housing crisis as that of the Netherlands today, with a huge shortage of affordable and qualitative housing, when thinking to build about the future, there is a huge potential in some projects that we should consider to build them again or at least to thoroughly consider the qualities or the values that were once driving the sector. It is not the nostalgia of the traditional way of building, but rather the holistic approach that designers had 100 years ago and that a century later we seem to be busy with the agendas or the technical requirements provided by the policy makers, loosing the focus from why and for whom do we build.
The last conversation about "projects that don't happen anymore" took place in one of the most recognizable urban blocks in Rotterdam, the Justus van Effenblok, with the municipal urban planner from a medium size city of the Netherlands. A rijksmonument today, the innovative solution for a mix of urban housing typologies with suburban row houses was once criticized as "un-Dutch" while the main intention of the architect was to only glorify the terraced house, the benchmark where the whole Dutch housing culture has it's origin from. The Justus van Effen housing complex - completed in 1922! - belongs today to a housing cooperative and until today has a numerous of "firsts". It was the first residential gallery in the Netherlands, the first elevated upper street (bovenstraat, streets on the sky) on the inside of the residential block, the first housing block with many communal facilities, where public infrastructure enters the block, the first where most units are reached from the inner yard, the first with a system of central heating for social housing, the first with a transition space between the public street and the living units and more. At the same time, architecturally, the complex has an extraordinary building detailing, clear circulation flows, amazing sense of comfort in and out of its indoor environments and after its multi-awarded restoration, a great level of sustainability. So, why projects like this don't (or can't) happen anymore?
Is there something that the market misses? Does it lie in the individuality of the factors that define a project? Or is it a lost in transition process where intentions and gained knowledge blurry in a repetitive agglomeration of tasks?
The concern I am expressing is not about building multi-awarded projects. There are good projects happening today and there will continue to be. I am concerned on the emphasis that is given on different and emerging issues, both in architecture and urban planning that are certainly shifting and placed below generic labels of green, smart, participatory etc., yet the responsibility of a project that "doesn't happen anymore", falls under the argument of "at least something is happening". A rather political statement that comes out of the mouths of designers, has defined the built environment of today. As if the ticking of at least one box of a policy agenda, in a project, is enough to rediscover the housing qualities or to build for the future of our cities. A kind of devaluation of a project, starts to occur when instead of being critical, we are satisfied by the fact that we, no matter the role, managed to get through the process and yet succeeded to see it being realized or enough developed for the next "phase". It feels today easier to plan and design 5.000 houses than to elaborate to the ground the need for 200 houses per time. When projects like Justus van Effenblok, are still relevant for until at least 100 years, as an architect and urban designer myself for some years already in the sector, I would like to believe that, that is the crossbar that we should at least define reaching and not lower. Socially, in an independent or a collective level, we own it to ourselves to be relevant after the end of the project in time and in intentions.