Archive for June, 2010

For a while it has been a desire of mine to track urban planning activities for a number of years to see how projects evolve and to map the reasons why projects evolve. This could generate much knowledge about why some projects are successes and other projects failures. Flyvberg has done something similar in the context of megaprojects such as new high-speed railroad connections (see his 2006 book, together with Bruzelius and Rothengatter) but whereas Flyvberg focuses on the quantitative part, I would like to gain in-depth knowledge of the day-to-day works of urban planners. The problem is that one needs considerable time and free access to all areas, as it were, to track those planners.

Now I got both. Last week my colleagues and I at the department finished a series of interviews with project managers of the municipal planning department. We got full permission to follow them for 3 to 5 years while they work on their projects. This is a marvelous opportunity to gain structural, longitudinal and comprehensive insight into the way urban planning works in real life. The project is therefore called ‘Anatomy of Rotterdam’. We will track those planners and will do regular rounds of interviews with all people involved to see how the project evolves. The projects include (but are not limited to) the building of a new football stadium and sports park, the developing of a downtown business district, the development of a new main academic hospital and medical cluster and redevelopment of a number of run-down urban areas. We will start in September 2010 and this blog will contain regular updates.


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As a social scientist I feel fairly limited in my means to describe and understand the city. I mean, I have the traditional tools such as statistics, document research, interviews and so on available whenever I want. In fact, my employer pays for access to most of the world’s databases and journals. The point is that those traditional means are still inadequate in conveying the true meaning of cityness from reality to the observer. If I use statistics to measure urban poverty it still doesn’t tell much about the experience of poverty. If I do interviews or participative observations I can get a little closer but there is still an analytical distance. This distance can be bridged by very different means. Sounds, music, pictures and movies are at least as powerful as any other means to do just that because they appeal to emotions rather than analytical reason. It has been said before but I will say it again here: we need all means available to understand the city and music is one of them.

So let’s start looking at musicians who use the city as a source of inspiration. The first artist that deserves much attention is Dutch composer Oscar van Dillen. His biography and his most important works are documented here so I’m not going into much detail about his background. In any case, he is an extremely versatile composer whose work ranges from world music to abstract modern chamber music. The work that deserves particular attention in the context of this blog is his first cd recording ‘De Stad’ (The City, Cybele Records). De Stad was originally commissioned by the local Rotterdam Historical Museum as a soundtrack to their permanent exhibition about the history of Rotterdam. The exhibition consists of a programmed tour of approximately half an hour that guides the visitor from the 18th century to this millennium. One of the main threads of the exhibition is Van Dillen’s music. His music safeguards the consistency of the exhibition and the exhibition would be much less involving without his music.

De Stad - Oscar van Dillen and Ensemble Gelber Klang

De Stad is a six-part  contemporary chamber music composition played by Ensemble Gelberklank, directed by Oscar van Dillen himself. The music ranges from relatively minimalistic punctuated compositions to busier and more detailed pieces later on. The challenges were extremely big for Van Dillen. First of all, he had to capture the experience of the city in music and I think he did that very well. But he also had to cover approximately 300 years of history and had to reflect this history in his music. It is with that reason that the first sections have a very different, emptier feel to it than the later sections when the city has grown tremendously. The destruction of the city during World War II is also well written in music. His music extends beyond ‘merely’ describing the city. It encompasses the evolution of the city over time. To convey that feeling in music is a major achievement and I can really recommend people to listen to it. The CD is still available from Cybele but the museum shop has sold all of its copies (among others, two copies to my!). The first six tracks cover the full composition. Track no. 7 is the museum mix of the original 6 pieces with added field recordings as used in the exhibition. The music is recorded on the SACD multichannel format. And for anyone looking for a challenge: Van Dillen has published the full scores of De Stad on his website. Highly recommended!

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American architect Robert Venturi hardly needs an introduction. He is one of the leading architects in what others later on would call ‘postmodernist architecture’. Nevermind the names or labels. The point is that he didn’t develop his style just because he thought it was pretty. There is a coherent reasoning behind all his choices and anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals should read his seminal “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”. The book was first published in 1966 after long research. The book focuses on the question why some architecture is interesting and fascinating while other types are not. It is mainly based on historic research and although some reviewers argue that he has only looked for examples that underpin his opinion while ignoring contradicting evidence, he has made an exceptionally strong case for the use of complexity and ambiguity in architecture.

So, what is the main argument about then? Basically, Venturi says, architecture becomes interesting when visual tension is introduced in the building. I use the word tension in the way he uses the term contradiction. It is contradiction but the overall result is a tension that catches the observer’s attention. But it is also ambiguity in the overall design, the position of the building in the space and vis-a-vis other buildings that contribute to this feeling of pleasant tension. In the words of Venturi himself: “Ambiguity and tension are every in an architecture of complexity and contradiction. Architecture is form and substance – abstract and concrete – and its meaning derives from its interior characteristics and its particular context. An architectural element is perceived as form and structure, texture and material. […] The calculated ambiguity of expression is based on the confusion of experience as reflected in the architectural program. This promotes richness of meaning over clarity of meaning.” (2002: 20, italics RV). And that is not just a simple trick because Venturi outlines in great detail the sources of pleasant tension.

His work was and still is a great statement against modernism in architecture. He regarded modernism with its focus on simplicity, symmetry and harmony, as boring and completely devoid of vitality. Interestingly, he borrows from many historical examples rather than from his own designs (although is designs are also used in the book) to make his point clear. To a lay person like me, his argument is extremely convincing. I can’t give a final judgment about the validity of his argument but I can see why it is important, how it works and why it has had such an impact on the world. And looking at the grand modernist projects that are currently being destroyed in my country, I start to feel that Venturi’s point is still very… to the point. All people with an interest in the deeper ideas of architecture should read the book. Or at least have a look at the nice pictures.

Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by Robert Venturi

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It sometimes seems as if all urban planners in any reasonably sized city have been reading Richard Florida’s ‘Rise of the Creative Class’. Many plans and visions for the future now include an area that, in some distant future, ought to be populated with high potentials, spending yups, creative artists and so on. The prospect is attractive but turning things into reality is an entirely different matter. So the local municipality has designated the Wijnhaven area for something resembling a cross between Manhattan and Sankt Pauli. It allowed a real estate developer to tear down old abandoned buildings to build a new skyscraper. So far so good, but so many things outside control influence the coming of an area. In this case, the destruction of the old buildings coincided with the global economic crisis and a housing market grinding to a halt. The difference between an attractive plan and reality can be harsh indeed.

View on the location of the 100Hoog skyscraper. This is not Manhattan or Sankt Pauli but an empty patch of land that attracts the homeless rather than the artists.

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