From the Lands of Superfluity

In dit ruimtelijk statement vormt het verhaal van de verdronken stad Reymerswael een metafoor voor het traditionele architectenberoep, dat zich heeft gedistantieerd van de wereld die het probeert te dienen. ‘From the Lands of Superfluity’ kwam tot stand als inzending voor de Prix de Rome 2022.

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Situated along the Oosterschelde – between agricultural lands, rose madder fields and harbours – the city of Reymerswael arises. Amidst the production of red pigments, men drawing in fish and farmers moving their kettle, a flourishing community grows out to become one of the largest cities in the province of Zeeland. From a growing need for combustibles in the expanding city, a great demand for peat develops, since there exists little forest in the surroundings. When people discover that apart from fuel, the extracted peat also contains salt – which can be used to conserve food for travels overseas – a true salt rush strikes. Great amounts of peat are extracted from the lands around the city.

Thus, the peat is slowly excavated by means of ‘moernering’, causing the level of the land to drop. The ground becomes soggy and sinks further and further below sea-level. The preservation of dry land is thus becoming more problematic and dike management is extremely difficult. A series of successive storms and floods in the 16th century remove large amounts of land to even such an extent that the city of Reymerswael is completely cut off from the hinterland. As an isolated island it finds itself increasingly powerless against the whims of the sea. Moreover, the salty soil makes farming difficult and  consequently only fishing remains. The city falls into decay and while the water rises, the population empties. In 1631 the last inhabitants – some remaining fishermen – leave the city. At the end of the seventeenth century, only ruins remain on a small island that is eventually swallowed by the sea.

This lost city in the midst of the drowned land of Zuid-Beveland painfully illustrates how people can neglect their own living environment for the purpose of financial and personal gain. This is eventually is found to be even more important than the viability of the living environment itself. Due to the focus on trade with distant countries, the undisputed morality of money and a complete lack of long-term vision, the city is eventually lost. The story of Reymerswael is therefore exemplary for current climate threats, the exhaustion of natural resources and the urge to expand. But furthermore, it perhaps even more strongly illustrates the current position of traditional architecture. The discipline, namely, has been detached from the basic living human world in which it operates much like the people of Reymerswael have been.

While architects were once practical professionals who were mainly involved during the realization of a building, it is now even uncommon to be intensely involved during construction at all. The architect sometimes only seems necessary to acquire a permit. Afterwards, the builder and client will handle matters themselves. Moreover, the architect finds himself caught in a web of fellow architects, developers, clients, consultants and managers. Contact with users seems to be limited as much as possible, as this would only lead to questions and difficult issues that might eventually slow down the process. All the designer needs to know about the users are the dazzling numbers and area-sizes that are mentioned in the design brief at the start of the process.

But apart from (neoliberalist) external causes, the architectural discipline itself is structured in a way that retains and solidifies the distance between dwelling humans and designing architects. The discipline seems to continuously want to distinguish itself in order to maintain its relevance. By means of title protection, the profession of the architect has become increasingly ex-clusive (and therefore by etymological definition less in-clusive). This has only been taken further by the recent introduction of the professional experience period. In exhibitions, discussions, magazines, lectures and prizes an incomprehensible vocabulary is wielded that cannot in any way be understood by non-architects.

Designs, moreover, are only aesthetically reviewed by the very illustrative example of the welfare committee (also called aesthetics or decorating committee (!)). Here, designs are evaluated purely on their outlooks before receiving a building permit. It is eloquent that these committees exist mostly of architects, which poignantly illustrates the statement by Geert Bekaert:

“In the domain of architecture there appear to be two irreconcilable points of view, on the one hand that of the architect and on the other that of the living human-being. (…) [The architect] does not build for himself, but for the architecture (…) He is a slave of his own ideas and his conceptions of his profession (..) In no case he stands before his object as a free and unbiased maker. When designing, he seems to obey to the most curious of laws.”

Ultimately, architects seem to withdraw themselves from reality to live in a cosmos of hyper-aesthetic details and visual bonanza. The users languish in their basic spaces determined by all kinds of artificial dogmas like urban envelopes, grids and material measurements. With all sorts of expressive gestures and excessive attention to the most visible, essentially poor buildings are dressed up with an artsy jacket. All this contributes to an extremely autonomous position of architecture in relation to the living world. The architecture digs and digs around its self-established island to maintain creative autonomy, but fails to notice that this is precisely why it is in danger of being flooded by superfluity.

The issues society is facing today call for an all-encompassing view on the environment. Not only do we need to reconsider the materials we build our houses with or the installations we use to heat them, the issues at hand call for a much more in-depth review of how the world works and what relation exists between human-beings and their environment. This touches upon how landscapes, cities and buildings are organized, how they work and how they behave in the everyday lives of its users. But if we want to achieve this world-improving role, it may be important first to understand that world, and to ensure that we find a self-evident relevance and involvement in it. This requires an alternative approach towards the creation of the built environment. In other words: it requires a ‘climate change’ within architecture itself.

The spatial statement aims to do exactly that. Rather than being a solution in itself, it is a means to come to an end. Representing the current task at hand, it shows a place where this core task of the architectural profession can be (re)discovered, by studying, discussing and experimenting with physical realities in an environment where designers and non-designers can find common ground. Where not only the behaviour of the natural environment and its inhabitants, but more importantly the behaviour of the building in relation to them, can be studied and reviewed.

At the location where Reymerswael once was situated – and where a tangible tension of the past is roaming – a spatial framework is created that serves primarily to investigate spatially, materially and behaviourally what the future living environment should be like. The structure consists of poles reminiscent of the fishing poles that were used during the last years of Reymerswael’s existence and which can still be found in the area. The intervention is only defined by the fact that it forms anchor points that invite for spatial investigation, rather than being an architectural answer in itself. Reminiscent of movements in both the early twentieth century as well as the seventies, the designed structure encourages research and discussion on how people would like to live. It is precisely the living human being who is to play a leading role. In this remote place it will be investigated how we can achieve improved living environments in order to achieve the emancipation of the user in relation to the architect. Like a permanently moving scaffold, the structure recalls the lost solitary churches that once stood amid the water, once again portraying the significance and relevance of long-term thinking in its investigative program.