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The Innovation at the World Expo programme at Het Nieuwe Instituut includes the exhibition What is the Netherlands: 14 Entries at the World Expo. Curator Stephan Petermann of AMO, the research wing of OMA, explains what the exhibition is about and why the Netherlands should just commission the design of another beautiful pavilion for the next World Expo.

What is the Netherlands — what’s the exhibition about?

Stephan Petermann: ‘The exhibition reflects on the fourteen Dutch entries to World Expo from 1910 to 2014. Although the Netherlands had taken part before that, it wasn’t until 1910 that it had its own pavilion built for the World Expo in Brussels. The fourteen entries to the World Expo constitute fourteen snapshots that show what the country stood for at particular moments in the past, how it saw itself and where it wanted to go. If you see all those entries one after another, you see how much energy and inspiration you can draw from such a moment. We live in an era of uncertainty about our future. That’s precisely why it’s good to look back at how we presented ourselves in the past. Not in a timid or nostalgic manner, but with an open, curious mind.’ 

The subject of identity has played a big role in the public debate in recent decades, hasn’t it? 

SP: ‘But amazingly enough, very few answers have been formulated. Politics could do better at shaping this by creating opportunities in which we could deal in a more relaxed way, free of all emotion and populism, with a subject that has definitely become charged.’

A quote from Peter Sloterdijk played an important role in compiling the exhibition. Could you say something about that?

SP: ‘Sloterdijk argues that the World Expo is the perfect convergence of lyricism and capitalism. Lyricism on account of the imaginative power expressed in the pavilions. Capitalism on account of the bureaucracy involved. National pavilions are always created through the government, a bureaucratic structure that stems from a democratic order. Various forces of imagination and bureaucracy converge nicely at the World Expo. To me, that’s still the strength of the World Expo. How can a government express and represent its plans for a country and thus take it to a higher level?’

Can you mention a Dutch entry to a World Expo that brought everything together in the right way?

SP: ‘The 1958 pavilion in Brussels is a strong example. The pavilion was the work of a collective of architects, among them Gerrit Rietveld. On the site of the pavilion there was a seven-metre height difference in the landscape. The architects and engineers exploited that to construct a functioning water system with dikes. Parts of a boat, a train and an aircraft were incorporated into the pavilion. But there was also attention for contemporary art. Karel Appel added a painting inside a dome, and there were wonderful cartoons about the welfare state by the artist Opland. Everything that the Netherlands represented at the time, not only in terms of technological progress and industrial strength but also culture and society, was perfectly integrated into a fairly anonymous yet connecting work of architecture. If you look at some of the earlier pavilions, it’s inspiring to see that many of the future visions of the country actually became reality. The Netherlands was promoting the theme of water as early as the 1930s, and now we’ve become the world leader in that field. In part it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. In that sense the exhibition can be seen as an invitation to become involved again in shaping the Netherlands.’ 

Is the World Expo still a relevant platform?

SP: ‘That question has been posed since the nineteenth century. The phenomenon emerged spontaneously and quickly became very popular. You expect amusement in an amusement park and shopping in a shopping centre, but the World Expo is a little bit of everything. It rides the waves of the times and is thus something of a barometer for gauging what is demanded at a certain moment. Maybe in fifty years Disneyland will have been abandoned, but the World Expo will still be alive and kicking. I think it will still be there precisely because it doesn’t rely on any formula, but it’s certainly true that it’s in a bit of a dip at the moment.’  

Why did AMO think this was an interesting subject to take on?

SP: ‘Our involvement follows on from the recent architecture biennale in Venice, for which Rem Koolhaas was curator. Based on the theme Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014, we invited countries to describe the history of the modernisation of their country in their national pavilion. One of the suggestions we gave was to look at the national pavilions that were entered for international presentations. That prompted Het Nieuwe Instituut to approach us. In particular the excellent study by Marie-Thérèse van Thoor of the Dutch pavilions from 1910 to 1958, and with the help of the pavilion architects still alive, it was feasible to compile the exhibition in a short space of time.’

If you survey the fourteen Dutch entries to the World Expo, can you say what unites them? What’s so Dutch about them?

SP: ‘They’re always quite good. If you consider the various pavilions and presentations from a distance now, then it’s always impressive to see what people managed to achieve under severe time pressure and with limited funding. Apart from that, you do recognise a certain level of common sense, restraint and modesty, particularly on the political side of design. They certainly don’t try to stand out too much, for that usually comes in for severe criticism in the press, certainly in the past. In that sense, I think that every object in the exhibition is political and, at the same time, deals with our collective identity. That makes it exciting for me.’