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Single stories — The Netherlands and Portugal by Rui Moreira

Rui Moreira was one of the first people to answer our Call for Submissions with this short essay entitled “Single stories — The Netherlands and Portugal by Rui Moreira”. The text is an investigation into the relation of a Country (according to its history, people and ethos) with the Design work there created. Rui has introduced this concept by comparing two countries, The Netherlands and Portugal, and analysed how Design is perceived and practiced in each counrty.

Single stories — The Netherlands and Portugal

In 1579, some provinces located in the north of France decided to unite in order to protect each other in the war against the regency of the kings of Spain. Two years later they signed a treaty which was the origin of what we know today as the Netherlands. The war against Spain was only the first step in the creation of a nation. As the country is geographically situated below sea level (which makes floods constant and agriculture impracticable), there was a need to build dikes, artificial mountains and dams[1]. Motivated by the distinct origins of its people, the Netherlands were also innovative in terms of religious tolerance, passing legislation in favor of freedom of choice and multi-religiosity. In a more recent context, the migrations of the 20th century brought a substantial number of individuals, mainly from Turkey, north of Africa and Asia, to immigrate to the Netherlands. What could be an uncomfortable situation for the locals, made the country pioneer in integration[2].

There are only a few countries in the world where the society is based on similar values. Compared to other countries, the people of the Netherlands has had the opportunity to experience very distinct situations, to listen to multiple sides of a story and thus, formulate various viewpoints. The Dutch citizens have been educated in an environment of tolerance, learning to accept difference and live in unity. Is reason to believe that this historical basis of the Netherlands, has allowed the country, in this century, to become pioneer in matters of individual freedom, such as being the first nation to accept marriage between individuals of the same sex, to liberalize the use of soft drugs or to decriminalize prostitution, continuously developing a tolerant mentality in the citizens.

In terms of design practice, the country has some of the best professionals in this area. The Dutch architecture and design are a reference in the whole world, due to the visual simplicity and clarity but also due to the creativity, synonyms of distinct, bold and often surprising ideas. In its core there is also a strong social component, which reflects the strong link between designers/architects and their basis, the people, towards a collective development. The relation design/citizen takes up a singular mutualism, due, in one hand, to the freedom, tolerance and acceptance that the designer’s work faces on a consciously open society, and in the other, to the contribution that it provides to the community through an activity devoted for people.

I believe the process (more than the outcome) in which countries are built, has extreme importance in the creation of a collective conscience. After all, what we call “country” is basically the aggregation of all the citizens, and all the connections that they establish between themselves and with the institutions. The Netherlands have roughly the same size and number of inhabitants as Portugal, however they are very different. I think some of the current problems in Portugal, can be explained by historical factors involving the construction of the country and the way (the process) in which the mind of the Portuguese people has been molded. Unlike the inhabitants of the Netherlands, the Portuguese have had limited access to other ways of being in the world. This situation may be due to a geographical isolation but also because of distant relations with their only neighbour, Spain. This (ideological) isolation is reinforced through the conversion (or eviction) upon the confrontation with different ideals, as was the case of the Sephardic Jews, and is still reflected in the constant need for the preservation of past traditions and achievements. Although the existence of a sense of moderation on the part of the Portuguese is not questioned, everything suggests that tolerance is not a part of the culture and  education of individuals, which prevents Portugal from reaching a point of social openness that motivates quick and valuable changes for the common good.

Therefore I believe the Portuguese design and architecture should play an important role in this difficult task of the changing of consciences. However, not most of the designers, institutions or population, have yet realized the power of transformation that can be found in design. Take for example the way the word design continues being used in Portugal, as an adjective, referring to a particular aesthetics or drawing (desenho) ability of a certain piece, rather than being used as a verb referring to making, planning, implementing. As long as it continues to be only a finalizing tool of a longer process, the designer’s role in “telling the story” will always be limited. In order to have an actual influence role in the construction of that story, the participation of the designer will have to arise in an initial part of the process. In Portugal there are a series of several internationally renowned personalities, in architecture and design—although in a much lower number than in the Netherlands—, who might lead and encourage the introduction of design thinking, that will become useful to people. This awareness, by itself, won’t generate more tolerance, however, maybe a long exposure to those same methods might establish different habits, strengthening the mutual relation between designer and citizen which has diversity as its core point, leading to social openness.

[1] Betsky, Aaron with Eeuwens, Adam (2008). False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good. England: Phaidon.

[2] This essay doesn’t take into consideration the recent anti-multiculturalism restraints of the Dutch government because they don’t represent a centennial position of the country in this subject.

November 2012
Rui Moreira
Translated by Eurico Sá Fernandes
Proofreading by Carmo Fernandes and Maria José Rodrigues

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25 May 2013

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