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Disgustingly Beautiful and Drearily Ugly

Artikel door Yixin Han & Fleur Groeneveld

One of the great universal sentiments we have about the modern world is that it is, to an unprecedented extent, an ugly world. Modern music, art, and literature strive to render these unpoetic, brutalist, and often monotonous facets of modern life into works that many of us find distasteful. Mark van Wonderen, a Dutch journalist and writer, is a great lover of such touching ugliness and travelled all over the Netherlands to find ugly landscape elements amid the idyllic polder scenes and the charming 17th-century canal houses. He captured his findings in a photobook and organises readings to share his curiosity and fondness for ugly places. Today we will briefly explore some of the places that he mentioned in his readings, and discover the allure of these ugly towns, cities and landscapes.

Figure 1: Nelson Mandelabrug, Zoetermeer

But what is seen as ugly? To obtain a better sense of which landscape elements are considered unattractive in the Netherlands, we need to dive deeper into the study of beauty and the nature of Dutch aesthetic taste and art appreciation. If you travel around in the Netherlands, you will notice the modest exterior appearance of churches, schools, and other buildings. Government buildings that are too flamboyant or pompous in their color, size and ornaments are generally absent, and Dutch landscape elements tend to follow this tendency as well - humble houses and windmills by a petty stream - a very stereotypical Dutch countryside setting. This sober and frugal ethos is also reflected in the lifestyles of Dutch people, and some argue that this modest attitude toward life is essentially rooted in the Calvinist tradition of the Netherlands. Today, the Netherlands is no longer a Christian nation and more than 80% of Dutch people consider themselves atheists, yet the cultural elements of Calvinism and the Dutch Reformed Church still linger in modern Dutch society. Its core values are based on respectfulness, moderateness, tolerance, and efficiency, and the saying 'act normal, then you act crazy enough' is widely known and very characteristic of this mindset.

Figure 2: Boulevard Zandvoort

Once we understand the impact of this 'don't-show-off'-way of thinking, we can then distinguish between two types of 'ugly', the first one being 'disgustingly beautiful' and the second 'drearily ugly'. In Van Wonderen's reading, many buildings he considered horrid were really by themselves quite wonderful. Nonetheless, they looked too eccentric and bombastic in comparison to their neighbouring surroundings that were rather modest and dull in color. Examples of this are the red mushroom-shaped snackbar 'De Paddenstoel' in the Nijkerkerveen village and the giant white spherical apartments called 'bolwoningen' in the city of Den Bosch. He suggests that they appear distasteful and kitsch as they stand alone in the urban landscape that is formed by rather greyish, brownish, and other concrete colours. This outlandish sense of beauty is considered graceless and almost vulgar, and is what we call 'disgustingly beautiful', the first type of ugly.

Figure 3: 'De Paddestoel', Nijkerkerveen

The second type of ugly has the immediate impression of faded splendor: town centers that were once bustling with local people but were somehow left in dilapidation, municipalities that were taunted with the legacy of failed town planning strategies in the 50s and 60s. Certain areas in the cities of Den Helder, Lelystad, Delfzijl and Zoetermeer are great examples of these missteps in avant-garde ideas about city planning. As becomes clear in the reading, Zoetermeer, with its famously ugly 'Mandelabrug', has won the award for 'ugliest city' in the Netherlands multiple times. This second type of ugly is thus more hidden away and does not call for our attention, since these buildings effortlessly blend into the soberness of its environment.

Figure 4: 'Ijsselhallen', Zwolle

What caused such blunders in Dutch town planning in the 20th century? Rather than an immature and underdeveloped planning process, perhaps the fault lies in the ineffiency and poor execution of the intended plans. To illustrate this, Van Wonderen examines Lelystad, the capital city of Flevoland province, as the primary example of failed town planning. The construction of Lelystad started in 1950, and according to the designers of Lelystad, the city should at least have 100.000 inhabitants by the year 2000, and become an attractive green city for the people of Amsterdam that wished to retreat from the busy Randstad. However, the development of Lelystad was initially rather stagnant, partly due to the poor connections with Amsterdam and the rest of the mainland. Futhermore, as the city was overshadowed by Almere and its development came to a halt, it faced serious vacancy and impoverishment. Lelystad has become a place solely to reside, not to live a gratifying life. In the mid-1990s, however, the city shifted its course. Eminent architects took on the challenge of giving the city a more pronounced personality, more optimism and self-confidence. Several pivotal decisions in this were to exploit the coastal strip to its fullest extent and give the city a new look through the restructuring of old neighbourhoods and providing high-quality housing and recreational facilities.

Figure 5: Agoratheater, Lelystad

When being asked what the takeaway point of his reading was, Van Wonderen responded with quite a surprising conclusion. He said that these ugly landscape elements and dreary buildings need to be preserved as for many they are a subject of fascination and can help shape the identity and character of a place. Once we see the charisma of these deserted industry areas, worn-out harbor towns, abandoned city centers, and gloomy Dutch polder landscapes in the rain, we can uncover the beauty of these ugly places with our own eyes someday.


1. (2016, 12 december). studioSK bouwt: Nieuwe entrees Mandelabrug Zoetermeer. studioSK.

2. Verbaandert, T. (2014, 20 augustus). Zandvoort heeft de allerlelijkste boulevard van Nederland.

3. Maak een Treurtrip en herontdek Nederland! | Atlas Leefomgeving. (z.d.).

5. 15 morbide lelijke gebouwen om je avond mee door te komen. (z.d.). Kakhiel.

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