According to novelist and critic Matthew Stadler in his new book, Deventer, the Netherlands has long been a place where “homeless drunks” debate museum design in soup kitchens and “housewives have opinions about architects.” It was from this localized foundation that Dutch architecture gained, in the last few decades, unprecedented international attention, as architects like Rem Koolhaas rose to prominence and shook up the status quo. There’s no better setting, then, for a book that believes sincerely in architecture’s potential to change the world.
Deventer is a true story about a hospital and an architecture firm in Deventer, one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands. The hospital is relocating, and the firm, helmed by Stadler’s protagonist, Matthijs Bouw, is tasked with turning the old medical complex into homes. Bouw’s nontraditional design wins praise from the city, but the developers who’ve bought the property balk, claiming that the plan is unfeasible. They want to demolish the buildings instead. The city planners and business experts are in there, hashing out the details. Then the historical preservationists get involved, and everything grinds to a halt. This is, more or less, the only plot. Things look up for Bouw, then they look down, then they look up again in a different way, when a bold plan for renovating another medical campus in Deventer seems to have better luck.
Deventer toes the line not only between nonfiction and fiction but also between narrative and theory. It reads like a case study, impeccably researched and elegantly arranged. Stadler is a generous and orderly writer, but there’s not much tension and not a lot at stake. Instead, we encounter mostly good people doing noble work, from the great Le Corbusier, “a prophet and a lyric poet,” to Rob Smetsers, the Deventer city planner who “loves his work” and “loves the city.” Stadler likes his sources too much to make anyone into a bad guy.
One might wonder what this book might look like if it took place in, say, Paris or New York. In Deventer, Stadler has one polite conversation after another, on bike rides and long walks, in cafes, over drinks, and in cozy living rooms. These characters are, for the most part, smart and insightful, and their conversations are often entry points into tantalizing ideas. What Deventer lacks in tension, it mostly makes up for in intellectual curiosity. Stadler covers vast territory, from architecture’s potential as a treatment for Tourrette’s Syndrome to French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s theory of state space. These plot digressions are numerous enough that they eventually amass into a shadow book, one that tackles from all angles the question of what architecture can and should aspire to be.
In one of his best digressions, Stadler proposes a way of measuring power by talking about “the conviviality of scale.” He borrows the idea from Ivan Illich, the Austrian philosopher and critic, who suggested measuring tools in the same way. “To the degree that a person can articulate their intentions, ideas, and talents through a tool without need of help or permission from others, that tool is ‘convivial.’” As Stadler explains, a hammer is a convivial tool because a worker can pick it up, use it, carry it around, or give it away without permission. The factory, on the other hand, is less convivial. No single worker has agency over it. Stadler thinks the same measure can be applied to networks. The more that individuals within a network have agency, the more convivial the scale. And the more convivial the scale, Stadler thinks, the farther reaching the network. One need look no further than social media to see evidence of such a claim.
For Stadler, Matthijs Bouw and his firm are further proof. In the words of Bouw’s wife, Bouw is not like most architects, who “hate their surroundings” and think a place is “broken and needs to be fixed.” “Matthijs, on the other hand, “gives space, so much love and space.” His is an open-source process. Instead of prescriptive designs, he talks of “grids of possibilities” and “family resemblance” among buildings.
Stadler wears his heart on his sleeve through much of Deventer. Not only is he smitten with Bouw and his approach to design, he tends to wax sentimental about architecture’s transformative power. Standing before a power plant encased in a black square, he is “shocked by the sight of this dynamic, shape-shifting living organism called ‘architecture.’” He trusts that putting basketball nets on those blank walls will keep graffiti artists from tagging it because the wall will “matter” more to them.
Bouw is a formidable architect whose influence has been far-reaching; his team has designed projects all over the world. But while Deventer might follow him briefly to Paris, to Seattle, to New York City, it’s mostly content to stay at home. “Like every city, large or small, a legitimate case can be made for Deventer’s exceptionalism,” Stadler writes, and he does his best to make that case, connecting Deventer’s legacy as an intellectual and political hotbed to its reputation as “a place that gets things done without much power, by being smarter than the rest; a place where power isn’t elite but always populist; a citizens’ republic at a scale that makes individuals the basic unit of work and meaning.”
But Stadler quickly acknowledges that, “at a certain focal point, the city’s exceptionalism disappears.” As he widens his lens, Deventer’s “plot” becomes microscopic. The neighborhood meetings, the city bureaucracy, the various personalities of minor players: they don’t hold up to the book’s most interesting ideas. In the afterword, Stadler writes that “Deventer tells a true story using techniques more common in novels.” The claim calls to mind the likes of Truman Capote and James Ellroy, but Deventer is not that sort of book. This is architecture we’re talking about, not true crime. But Deventer’s shortcomings are forgivable in much the same way as its characters: Though sometimes too well-behaved, they’re consistently smart, thoughtful, and ambitious.
Amanda Shapiro lives in North Carolina and writes for the Oxford American, the New Inquiry, and other publications.