imomus (imomus) wrote,

The isotype of Holland

Short visits are great for keywording and tagging impressions of what it is that makes the place you're visiting different from -- or similar to -- other places you know. Here are some tags I found myself using to structure my impressions of 48 hours in Utrecht, Holland: oriental, cerebrotonic, disinhibited, trad, Modernist.

Alongside Portugal, Holland is the most oriental-feeling of European nations. My first impressions to fit the tag "oriental" came at Schipol Airport, where I investigated a red-and-white checkered exhibition station showing photographs of checkered airport buildings in oriental places that used to be Dutch colonies: Padang in West Sumatra and Pekalongan in Central Java, Indonesia, for instance. I also noticed that the toilets at Schipol had a really temple-like smell -- they were burning incense in there.

In downtown Utrecht more impressions welcomed the "oriental" tag. First of all, this is a very dense city (Holland's population density is 393 people per square kilometer, Japan's is 339 -- average population density across Europe is 112, and in the US it's 31), and the scarcity of land makes for sights familiar in the far east. My friend Jip showed me a private house on a corner site with a tiny footprint, just a couple of square metres. Its microscale would have fitted Tokyo perfectly. Other parallels with east Asia: up to 25% of Holland is reclaimed from the sea, bringing parallels with Macau, Singapore, Tokyo Bay and Kansai Airport. 90% of its people live in cities (compared with 80% of Japanese). And the sheer density of zooming or parked bicycles makes you think of Vietnam or, again, Japan.

Something else that makes you think of East Asian countries is the enthusiastic co-existence of traditional and modern forms in Holland -- here, a love of the new and of the old is in no way contradictory. Just as in Japan, where you'll see people clopping down the street wearing wooden geta while video-chatting on a 3G phone, here in Holland some people really are wearing clogs for pleasure. The air is full of two sounds: ringing churchbells by day and skull-crushing gabber techno by night (I couldn't sleep on Saturday night because my very trad-looking street was boom-boom-booming until 5am).

The gabber is the "disinhibited" part. The cerebrotonic part is to do with the evident Dutch love of information -- cafes full of magazines and newspapers -- and the way the houses have such a big percentage of their surface dedicated to curtainless windows: they're "all air and nerve", cerebrotonic in the classic way described by William Sheldon (cerebrotonia is the personality type that develops when the ratio of skin to viscera and innards in skinny people makes what's outside predominate over what's inside: the cerebrotonic has "eyes wide open").

When they do Modern, though, the Dutch do it with brilliant primary colours, elegantly reduced forms, and real lab spirit. They do it in architecture (some brilliant use of layered brick) and in graphics, where there's an evident delight in sans serifs, aesthetic pragmatism ("the etiquette of public information display"), reduced forms.

I saw three really great graphic design shows on Sunday. First, at Casco, they had Forms of Inquiry, a show of "critical graphic design" featuring Dutch designers Experimental Jet Set amongst others.

Then there was the Dick Bruna house -- and Dick (an Utrechter) really is an information designer at heart, someone concerned to reduce (or do I mean "increase") empathy to its barest, clearest outlines. His Miffy isn't a sickly-sweet bunny, it's an objective isotype of pure empathy influenced, Bruna happily admits, by his love of Modernists like Matisse, Leger and Mondrian.

The genius of simplicity on display in the Bruna House dovetails perfectly with Lovely Language, the big exhibition of isotypes across the road in the Centraal Museum. "It is better," said designer Otto Neurath, "to remember simplified images than to forget exact figures." He and Gerd Arntz developed, in the 1930s, a visual dictionary of 4000 symbols or "isotypes" -- the direct ancestors of the logos and information graphics we have today. Visual tags, if you like.

In the isotypes show, each outline figure is the most economical, simple, accurate summary possible of a certain idea. Just like Miffy -- and what I've tried to do today with my idea of Holland itself. Tagging isotypical!

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