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What links a neighbourhood square in Amsterdam, a tower that turns smog into clean air in Beijing and a high-density super block in Daegu, South Korea? The Dutch. “Dutch design and architecture is not about just another building, lamp or table, but to improve life,” says Daan Roosegaarde, the artist anddesigner at the helm of social design lab Studio Roosegaarde. “True luxury or true beauty is not about Louis Vuitton, it’s about clean water, energy and air.”

Roosegaarde’s work creating structures that reduce pollution is a crystal-clear expression of this idea. His Smog Free Tower, for example, uses “positive ionization technology” to suck up the air around it, clean it and release it, all while running on wind energy. One tower is in Beijing and more are in production for other Chinese cities. He’s also using similar technology in bicycles and has signed an agreement with bike-sharing company Ofo for it to be included in the largest scheme in China. Since starting his company in 2007 his designs have focused on ways to make the world around us better. He says his unique outlook is the product of his country’s ongoing battle with geography.

“We live below sea level so without creativity and technology we would drown,” he says. “If we had only been pragmatic we would have just moved to Germany, away from the water. I think the Dutch have this balance between being poetic and pragmatic. We have to be creative to survive.”

Of course, Dutch architecture is not just about surviving but also about thriving. “We do have a relatively happy population and our built environment is a big part of that,” says Nathalie de Vries, co-founder of mvrdv, one of the Netherland’s biggest and best-known firms. “It’s egalitarian, it’s safe and, as much as possible, it’s centred on the wellbeing of people.”

mvrdv is the brains behind Rotterdam’s Markthal, an ambitious arched residential building with a permanent food market at its centre, restaurants around the edges and flowery murals throughout. Since completion in 2014 it has become a hub in the city centre, winning dozens of awards and the attention of city-planners the world over.

“Many mayors are interested in it because it’s about how to make a public space,” says Winy Maas, a co-founder of mvrdv, which has tripled in size since 2014 and relocated to a postwar building in central Rotterdam. “It’s also an eye-opener for many developers about how to do something other than towers and contribute to something more collective.”

The 200-strong team, led by founders De Vries, Maas and Jacob van Rijs, includes French and Chinese departments (the firm also has a Shanghai office) and is often hired for city or state projects. In 2015, for example, Seoul municipality hired mvrdv to create Seoul Skygarden, a pedestrianised park stretching across a former overpass next to Seoul’s main station. Today it is visited by one million people a month and is home to an alphabetic display of South Korean plant species. It provides a place for people to meet, regenerating the surrounding area and injecting some much-needed greenery into the city.

This tendency to go well beyond the built environment and into the realm of urban planning, healthy living and social cohesion is a trademark of the best Dutch architecture cropping up at the moment. “Sustainability is such a big word,” says Ben van Berkel, founder and principal architect of UN Studio, another of the Netherlands’ major players, based in Amsterdam. “For most it’s only about making the environment green but it should also be about social sustainability, making sure that people walk more in buildings and don’t step too easily into a car. Lately I’ve even started hiding the elevators in the buildings I design – although not in towers, of course.”

Even when asked to work on large, densely packed residential towers, UN Studio, whose first high-profile project was Rotterdam’s Erasmus Bridge, manages to include this approach. Its Daegu Wolbae Ipark megablock in South Korea, for example, features a shared garden at its centre, with running and cycling paths, landscaped courtyards and playgrounds.

“In many places governments are retreating and the market economy is the most important factor in urbanism and development,” says Caroline Bos, UN Studio’s other co-founder. “The consequence is that architects are becoming involved in shaping entire parts of cities.”

That the Dutch are often the ones called in for such projects comes down to their desire – and ability – to build something that has a real social function rather than just being aesthetically pleasing, a task that Concrete has proven to be expert at. A smaller firm with 54 people, its quirky, colourful office is in Amsterdam’s red-light district. “Our projects are really about the fact that you are living together and could become a community,” says founder and creative director Rob Wagemans. “People forget that your neighbours can add value and create social cohesion.”

“People need interaction with others so we put more effort into that,” says Erikjan Vermeulen, head of architecture and a partner in the firm. “A place where people can hang out and be together is more important than creating a nice building that does well on the front page of an architecture magazine.”

This idea of creating a meeting space is evident in its Mongkok Skypark, a rooftop recreation space for residents living in the densest part of Hong Kong, and its playful US-based Urby project, a series of middle-income residential complexes featuring an urban farm, food shops and a public café in place of a private lobby.

This playfulness, combined with a willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things, is typically Dutch. “It goes back to the circle of the canals, the Afluitsdyke, the polders; these big projects that are experimental in a social and technical sense and that are seen through,” says UN Studio’s Bos. “There is real experience built up, not simply a history of beautiful ideas and utopias but experience.”

The result of all of this is a worldwide architectural movement that makes people’s quality of life central in a genuine and creative way. These projects look snazzy but they also challenge conventional thinking about how to deal with city life in the future. And as the Dutch way of doing things gains ever more approbation and headlines it will also have a knock-on effect on other architecture firms, as well as developers, mayors and urban-planners. The Dutch: coming soon to a city near you.


What the Dutch do better

1. Flood defence:From China to the US, the Netherlands’ water management know-how is sought after all over the world by everyone from city-planners to construction companies.
2. Revolving doors: Dutch firm Boon Edam is one of the world’s leaders in entrance technology and in recent years has invented a revolving door that generates energy with every turn.
3. Land reclamation: About 17 per cent of the Netherlands has been reclaimed from the sea or lakes via a system of canals and pumps, forming land known as polders.
4. Cycle infrastructure: The Netherlands only started getting serious about building bike-friendly cities in the 1970s but these days cyclists are at the center of all urban planning.
5. Humour: People in the Netherlands don’t like to take themselves too seriously and humour is a big part of their design and architecture. Or as the Dutch say: “Just act normal, that’s crazy enough.”


Dutch development
Beyond the creative sphere of its architects and designers, the Netherlands’ developers are forming concepts that challenge convention. Within the Lijnbaan Quarter in central Rotterdam, for example, developer Manhave is experimenting with a new model to attract investment to the area and create a buzz, forming a mixed-use venue in the truest sense.

Manhave is working with the UK’s revered designer Ilse Crawford, who is the creative director for the development. Here commercial and private spaces will merge to form restaurants, bars and social spaces that can forge a strong community spirit in the area.

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