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Monday, February 06, 2012

Book Review: The Berlage Survey

The Berlage Survey of the Culture, Education, and Practice of Architecture and Urbanism edited by Salomon Frausto
NAi Publishers, 2011
Paperback, 544 pages



On pages 515-516 of this book that "chronicles twenty years of diverse activities at the Berlage Institute," one can find the names of the individuals that have completed postgraduate study at the Rotterdam-based institution. Listed by year and keyed to their home country, it's evident by looking at the names that the Berlage has grown in popularity and in global reach in its first two decades. Seven people -- two from the Netherlands -- completed their study in 1992 (Generation 1), yet last year's class (Generation 20) consisted of 28 people, most from Asia (China, Korea, Taiwan) and nada from the Netherlands. These two pages come at the end of a hefty book loaded with essays, projects, and interviews, but, like the rest, they serve to situate the Berlage within a larger global context and describe the reach and influence of the institution.

For those not familiar with it, the Berlage is "a post-academic laboratory for design-based research in architecture, urbanism, and other issues related to the built environment." Further it "provides the intellectual climate and infrastructure to explore the forces that shape" the same. Unlike undergraduate and graduate schools of architecture, the Berlage is therefore a place of independent learning rather than a structured curriculum. Its strength is found through exchanges with "leading and emerging voices and practitioners" and through the "direct engagement in concrete conditions represented by third-party collaborators...the 'holders of the problem' that constitutes the basis of each research study." This unique structure is documented in over 500 pages and four chapters: About, Around, Within, From. Respectively these chapters present: A history starting with Herman Hertzberger's founding of the Berlage in 1990 (he was followed by Wiel Arets and the current dean Alejandro Zaera-Polo); essays that situate the Berlage within a context both local (Netherlands) and global; essays and projects by practitioners and people studying at the Berlage; and discourses from the lectures, publications, and other output from the school.

Highlights within the book are many, such as the transformation of Aldo van Eyck's orphanage into the Berlage, essays on a variety of topics -- Kenneth Frampton on Dutch architecture, Joan Ockman on OMA's Prada store in SoHo, Juhani Pallasmaa on the idea of home, Edward Soja on spatial justice -- and interviews with practitioners and academics, such as Peter Zumthor and Richard Sennett. These contributions and more aim to encapsulate the Berlage's first two decades, but the scope and effect of the undertaking is much bigger. Architecture and urbanism on a global canvas is the subject, and while a particular approach or direction towards them is not evident, this goes hand in hand with the myriad voices coming out of the Berlage and contributing to their postgraduate education.


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