The New Ingenuity

The Rotterdam Design Prize celebrates a serious new chapter in Dutch design.

Picture this: a room fully occupied by tiny buildings, spanning architectural expressions from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries. Cheek by jowl, these blue foam models aggregate into a powerful image of Holland’s vacant government buildings—more than 4,000 of them. The installation, accompanied by wall diagrams and an elegant atlas that illustrates the location, size, condition, and a proposed use for each structure, is the work of Rietveld Landscape (run by brothers Ronald, a landscape architect, and Erik, a philosopher and economist). Vacant NL won the prestigious 2011 Rotterdam Design Prize this winter.

I was one of three international jurors called together by Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, where the nominees’ proposals were on display. Judging from the worn floor paint around the exhibits, this was a popular show. The 15 schemes each demonstrated a different view of Dutch design from the one we’ve been accustomed to. No witty objects. No glorious, idiosyncratic one-offs, which now seem to be products of a time long ago. As Europe and the world pick up the pieces after the crash of 2008, the mood is sober, earnest, politically savvy, and socially and environmentally aware. Designers see themselves as translators of data, as citizens working on behalf of their communities, and as interpreters of how complex systems work in an interconnected world.

The entries, nominated by leading Rotterdam designers, represented a step forward in how we think about design. Imagine watching microscopic, never-before-seen creatures writhing in a petri dish, while their random, magnified movements trigger an operatic soundtrack. This is science, art, and design that, aided by technology (and the work of designer Matthijs Munnik), makes our physical world visible. Imagine open-source design, its processes explored in instructive detail, that’s used to benefit people in another part of the world who are of meager means, and in need of affordable prosthetics (Waag Society initiated the book Open Design Now: Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive, which it copublished with Creative Commons Netherlands and Premsela, the Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion).

Then there was the bread. Yes, delicious breads, designed from the inside out by Dimitri Roels with Vlaamsch Broodhuys, a baker who connected his special dough mixtures to a system of graphics, packaging, store design, and advertising—a whole world built around a staple of human life. Roels won the people’s choice award, the Premsela Public Prize.

When Rotterdam’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Moroccan-born Dutch and Moroccan citizen with a degree in engineering, presented the main prize to Vacant NL, he showed a unique appreciation for designers’ ability to create political and social change. He imagined each community reclaiming their empty buildings to suit their special needs. Imagine if your state or city had a similar program.

Recent Programs