Faced with landscape in which the only distinguishing feature are the mountains of red tape, Dutch architects have fought back with a joyous, renegade modernism.
Of all European countries, the Dutch can be relied on to produce the boldest architecture. Most new buildings, not least housing, are blatantly in the modernist tradition in which synthetic curtain walling, wide-span structures and sharp edges are celebrated. Admittedly, the baseline is industrialised structures that are uninspiring – and often dismal. But instead of reacting against such stark forms, signature architects such as Mecanoo, UN Studio, MVRDV and de Architekten Cie often exaggerate them, or jazz them up with crazy angles, syncopated rhythms of windows and colours, and the occasional curve thrown in for contrast.

To British minds, the result looks unremittingly artificial. Yet Holland is the one country where the landscape is entirely man-made, as most of it was reclaimed from the North Sea. And what architectural style could be more suitable to a such a landscape than modernism?

This land could only be preserved from storms by the collective effort of the residents – one of the origins of the Dutch talent for co-operation. In recent decades, this bias towards consensus politics has been woven into ever more elaborate webs of regulation and consultation, which now overlay every aspect of town planning and building design.

The great achievement of Dutch architects is that they have become mobilised rather than stultified, like artists in the old Warsaw Pact countries. In his recently published book, The Artificial Landscape, Hans Ibelings writes: "For many designers, the irritation, amazement and dissatisfaction aroused by the constraints act as a spur to immense creativity … Like superior escape artists, these designers succeed in wriggling out of every iron grip."

Over the next six pages, Building presents three recently completed Dutch buildings where the architects have shown particular inventiveness.

The Aluminium Centre, Houten
Architectenbureau Micha de Haas

It may look like a mutant version of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie supported on no fewer than 368 pilotis as slender as poles. But Micha de Haas' Aluminium Centre in Houten, near Utrecht, is not so much a machine for living as a showcase for aluminium as a building material. Nearly every element of the fabric and structure – load-bearing columns and trusses, cladding, window frames, roofing, and even the gravel in the landscaping – is made of aluminium, much of it taking unusual form and demonstrating innovatory construction methods.

The curious thicket of supporting poles expresses a basic characteristic of aluminium: it is structurally weaker than steel. So de Haas has reversed the natural inclination of designers to maximise the span between columns. Instead, he has restricted it to 600 mm. Not all the poles, which were extruded in diameters varying from 90 to 210 mm, are load-bearing. Some are raking to provide wind-bracing while others serve as drainpipes and services conduits.

Although the forest of poles may seen strange to British eyes, it has a special resonance for the Dutch. In the polders, square plantations of slender poplar trees are often grown as fuel crops – they even include the odd sloping trunk that has blown over in the wind.

The roof structure is even more revolutionary. Triangular trusses 14 m long were assembled from extruded aluminium tubes and cast aluminium connection nodes. The components were glued together using aerospace technology, here applied for the first time to construction.

Within the building envelope aluminium structural columns have been incorporated into the perimeter walls. They were extruded complete with fittings, to which window frames and cladding panels were fixed.

Even the rough pink pebbles in the surrounding landscape are not what they seem. They are in fact chunks of bauxite, the ore from which aluminium is smelted.

Maria der Engelen chapel, Rotterdam
Mecanoo Architecten

This tiny cemetery chapel in Rotterdam, designed by Mecanoo, is Dutch architecture at its most sculptural – and most symbolic.

Even before she first visited the site in 1998, Mecanoo director Francine Houben dreamed of what the chapel should look like. "It must be a jewel casket, with a big expressive roof, a golden canopy and a beam of light. I am thinking of a blue, continuous, narrative wall," she says.

Three years later, the completed chapel matches her dream extraordinarily well. The blue, continuous, narrative wall envelopes an intimate interior in a curving, amoeba-like form. Its external face is clad in polished stainless steel sheets, giving the pocket-sized building a jewel-like quality. A trough-shaped, honey-coloured roof canopy floats over the curving wall, separated from it by an inconspicuous band of clear glazing. At one end, the roof canopy is pierced to channel a beam of daylight directly on to the altar.

The continuous, organic, curving wall also plays its part in the Roman Catholic liturgy of remembrance, which emphasises the continuation of life. "You carry the deceased into the chapel, have a moment of reflection in a quiet, meditative building, and then leave the chapel in a single continuous movement," she explains.

As for the floating, trough-shaped roof, she likens this to "a beautiful example of a palimpsest – a roll of parchment that has been reused after the previous text has been erased or covered up". It is the architect's reference to two chapels that occupied the site since 1869 before disintegrating as result of ground subsidence. Along with human life and death, even buildings, it seems, are worthy of memorialising in architectural form.

Town hall, Enschede
De Architekten Cie

As designed by de Architekten Cie, Enschede's new town hall is a particularly refined example of contemporary Dutch civic architecture and urban design.

The building is in the current Dutch idiom of hard-edged megastructures filling city-centre sites. Out of this deep-plan six-storey volume, however, rectangular chunks have been carved out on three sides, adding sculptural quality on a monumental scale. More subtle modelling includes sloping eaves-lines created by the shallow roof slopes, and an irregular rhythm of mullions on the south-facing window wall.

In practical terms, courtyards channel fresh air, sunlight and views deep into the building. They also subdivide the 15,000 m2 block into office floorplates of suitable dimensions. Not least, they contain courtyard gardens that serve as amenities to the adjoining public halls.

The vast main entrance hall can be read like a large fourth courtyard, as it is visually open to the street and to the sky, and encourages the public to enter. The difference is that the hall's front elevation and roof have been glazed over to provide a light, comfortable internal environment.

The building has two distinct facades. On the north side facing the street, a clean-cut brick wall emphasises the urban character of the building, punctuated by rows of large identical horizontal windows. The south facade facing the city square is a contrasting but no less crisply detailed window wall. It comprises a double-skin structure that induces natural ventilation through its cavity. The window wall is clear-glazed and contains a second public entrance, both of which promote the transparency and accessibility of the town hall.