The Labyrinth: trusting the power of doubt

In the Embassies of the future, designers work together with civil servants, citizens, carers, agents from the neighbourhood, you name it, on today’s issues. Climate change, the increasing housing shortage, increasing inequality, rampant digitisation and a disruptive society. Intended to look at solutions in a different way, not in a straight line, focused on profit or short-term results. DDW ambassador and former Government Architect, Floris Alkemade calls it “the art of changing direction”. He wrote an essay about it and in this edition of DDW, where he lets you experience the art of changing direction in the Labyrinth.

Type Update
Published on 7 October 2021
The Labyrinth: trusting the power of doubt
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Het Labyrint - Overtreders W

Gardens of Versailles

Together with Overtreders W, he designed a maze based on the 17th-century labyrinth in the garden of Versailles in France. “The maze represents the pleasure, but also the seriousness of the wandering. Here it is not certainty but doubt that points the way”, Alkemade explains. There are works of art and images on display that make you think, maybe even confuse you.

According to Alkemade, the best way to move into the future is to embrace the movement itself. And from that movement, to constantly look for new possibilities. “The straight line from A to B has become a deadly strategy. Now it’s about the art of changing direction. Hence the choice for the Labyrinth”.

Awareness of blindness

Over the past decades and perhaps centuries, the world has been incredibly successful in developing market thinking and political brainpower. Market thinking has become a principle where return on investment for more than two years is unthinkable. Whereas all the big questions require an approach of at least twenty or thirty years’.

During his time as government architect, Alkemade organised competitions for designers. For example, Who Cares, for health care issues. “One of the conditions was to have someone from the health world on every design team. Two worlds must be brought together. It is remarkable to see how differently people design when someone from their team takes care of the elderly. The person knows about the regulations that apply and what it is like to do the work. I always call that the realisation of blindness. When you realise you don’t know, everything you design is a kind of meaninglessness, a lightness that is unbearable”.

Or link designers to farmers. ‘Fantastic, try convincing a farmer what to do with his land. By working together, you also discover that farmers are not stubborn, conservative or change averse, but very pragmatic problem solvers. They’re people who are continuously trying to keep a company running day in day out, with everything they have in them. A company that has been in place for generations”.


The Labyrinth also tells a story about solidarity. “Solidarity towards the realization that you are working towards a different context. How much do we actually know about how other people live? In our country, about 12 per cent cannot read. What problems do they face on a daily basis? Yet we design residential areas, we devise solutions as if everyone lives the way we live. As if everyone recognises the opportunities we have. I think it is extremely important that designers pay attention to this”.

A video artwork by Anouk De Clercq can be seen in the Labyrinth, called One. She herself calls it “a protest song for the 21st century”. “I love to see how the woman in this film inspires, incites action. In this, this work beautifully summarises the ambition of the entire labyrinth. She doesn’t want to tell her story, she wants you to think: you know what’s going on, so why don’t you do something? One is at once a wake-up call and an invitation: embrace the complexity and face the world full of energy.


Hence the power of doubt. “The ability to doubt the direction you choose is essential to change”. The work of Constant Nieuwenhuys can be seen in the Labyrinth. “Where others had stopped long ago, Nieuwenhuys brazenly thought through everything. He always wondered: why? And how come? For example, why should we work? The idea that unemployment is a blessing, not a punishment. Or, why do we get so freaking nervous when we don’t know what to do to survive? I find these kinds of questions incredibly interesting because they’re linked to what is coming our way.”

The problems we now face have nothing to do with boundaries, Alkemade says, “but with our inability to think beyond those boundaries”. “It’s not limitation, but rather freedom that’s the biggest problem. The inability to cope with freedom. That’s the key: we can do a lot more than we do. It’s like playing the piano with only two fingers. The fact that so much more is possible, that freedom makes people very nervous, even though that’s the logical way forward. As if the only way forward would be to give up everything we’ve ever acquired. While it is not about that at all.”

In the Labyrinth, you can also see the work of Jenny Holzer, “Protect me from what I want.” “Why is it that we apparently intuitively don’t want the right things? Isn’t it ultimately a kind of self-destruction? I think where our instincts fail us, culture begins. That is what the Labyrinth is about”.

The Labyrinth can be seen during Dutch Design Week in the Klokgebouw on Strijp-S.

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