Published in DASH #06 - Living in a New Past
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Editorial DASH #06

The lion’s share of both social and commercial housing is produced without the ambition to be innovative. This is nothing new, but as more and more commissioning is done by market parties and nearly everyone is paying lip service to the ‘articulate consumer’, attempts to reflect what is deemed to be familiar and recognizable, be it a new ‘garrison town’, a ‘1930s’ neighbourhood’ or a ‘castle’, have risen exponentially in recent times.

Architects, too, seem to be more and more interested in an architecture of housing that references images from the past rather than the future. Some recent publications go as far as to speak of a new trend in architecture that rejects the insidious and dogmatic rise of modernism in the profession. It seems to be touching a nerve: reactions from either side are heated and dismissive, with the two camps engaged in what seems to be a black-and-white polemic that leaves little space for nuance. But what surprises most is the implication that this debate is new.

This return to the architectural past is not a new phenomenon. At many moments in the history of architecture, designers have harked back to old styles and building methods: in protest against prevailing views, as a means to innovation or out of sheer nostalgia for past times. This harking back has seldom gone unchallenged. Attempts to replicate old forms in contemporary materials, especially, have often provoked derision in the field, be it the early nineteenth-century Gothic Revival, the work of the Delft School in the twentieth century or today’s ‘new traditionalism’.

Through the essays and project documentation in this issue, DASH seeks to place today’s debate in a broader perspective. Again, this is part of a long tradition: from the theoretical underpinnings of the Arts and Crafts movement by Charles Robert Ashbee and William Lethaby, the writings of M.J. Granpré Molière, to the postmodern reorientation on the past during the 1970s and 1980s (see, for example, ‘De hang naar het verleden in de architectuur’ (The predilection for the past in architecture), Wonen TA/BK, no. 16 (1978); ‘La Presenza del Passato’ (The presence of the past) – the title of the first Venice Biennale in 1980 and the critical regionalism of Alexander Tzonis & Liane Lefaivre and Kenneth Frampton in the 1990s). In different times and under different circumstances, the relationship to the architectural past keeps coming up for debate.

In the opening article Dick van Gameren traces the parallels between several historical approaches from the previous century, which are also explored in the project documentation. This is followed by a number of essays that take a closer look at various periods from that archi-tectural past. Wolfgang Voigt describes the work of the ‘traditional modernist’ Paul Schmitthenner in pre-Second World War Germany, while Cor Wagenaar argues that both the traditionalists of the Delft School and the early modernists saw themselves as an inevitable product of history. In a comparative study of Italian neorealism and the working methods of Alvaro Siza, Nelson Mota examines the relevance of critical re(gion)alism in this era. An interview with two generations of Bedaux architects and a critical analysis by Dirk Baalman of the nineteenth-century concept of ‘character’ in architecture mark the transition to the plan documentation, featuring work by Baillie Scott, Schmitthenner, Van Wamelen, Roggeveen, Ridolfi, Spoerry, Mecanoo, Krier, Bedaux and West 8/AWG.