A national architecture institute? There's no need for one
A single institution for architecture is not a good idea, write Aric Chen and Josien Paulides in the NRC. Politicians would do better to work with the organisations that already exist – a far more effective way to tackle issues such as the housing shortage.
24 August 2023
Housing shortages, social inequality and the energy transition: it’s clear that the architecture sector has a prominent role to play in addressing all these challenges. So it was heartening to see that a recent motion in the Dutch house of representatives, to explore whether a new, national architecture institute could provide a louder voice for the industry, was passed with such a resounding majority.
Yet the motion also raised some questions. It surprised many in the sector. The call to boost the architecture sector was apparently made without consulting the sector itself. If politics and architecture were better connected, it might have been noticed that a national architecture institute has, in fact, been around for a long time.
Not as a single organisation, but in the form of a vibrant landscape of existing institutions, organisations and initiatives that contribute to the debate on spatial planning. There is, for example, the Nieuwe Instituut and the revitalised International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR) – both of which are dedicated (in whole or in part) to advancing the conversation about architecture through research, debate and exhibitions.
At the same time, the Royal Institute of Dutch Architects (BNA) represents the interests of architects and the Creative Industries Fund NL provides subsidies, while the Board of Government Advisors advises the government and ministries at national level. A network of city architects does the same for municipalities. Add to this a number of other local networks and organisations, and it is clear that there is no shortage of initiatives and collaborations.
This landscape already fulfils all the functions of a national architecture institute: providing space for discussion, debate and exhibitions; producing knowledge and spatial planning ideas; supporting professionals; studying and advocating policies and regulations; liaising with the government; and organising competitions and presenting awards.
Setting up a new institute, however well-intentioned, is likely to lead to an endless, time-consuming and costly debate. An unnecessary distraction from the fact that there are pressing problems, and that the infrastructure to address them already exists.
Instead, it would be more effective to capitalise on the existing players in the field, to better define, align and in some cases expand their roles, and to strengthen their links with policy makers and governments.
Incidentally, there used to be a national architecture institute. The Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) was merged with two other organisations in 2013 by government order to form the Nieuwe Instituut for architecture, design and digital culture. It was a controversial move, because the NAi was popular and effective. But times have changed. Today’s challenges are too complex and needs too diverse to be addressed by a single institution. More voices, more perspectives, more kinds of expertise and more energy from different areas: that’s what we need.
As the successor to the NAi, the Nieuwe Instituut is ready to play a leading role in this, together with our colleagues in the sector. It is our hope that the next cabinet will also be open to working with us.
This letter to the editor by Aric Chen and Josien Paulides, general & artistic director and business director of the Nieuwe Instituut, was published in the NRC on 24 August 2023.