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Archive for August, 2010

The Dutch Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment released an interesting document about the possibilities of high-rise living in The Netherlands. Its main conclusion is that high-rise is an interesting way of creating dense cities with a considerable amount of (economic and social) activities. It can also function as a way to combat urban sprawl and although the document doesn’t explicitly mention this, I suspect that this is the primary reason why there is a governmental interest in high-rise. Either way, my personal view is that high-rise residential areas are an absolute necessity to create cityness.

The report mentions that the main target group for high rise are young people (either singles or couples) with an income above the national average. They are most likely to consider living in a tower. However, their income is often just too low to obtain a mortgage for the (relatively expensive) apartments. The elderly are also identified as a target group because they are looking for convenience and safety, and high-rise can act as vertical gated communities. The report mentions a couple of time that loving high-rise is very much about getting used to it and growing up in a culture where high-rise is deemed desirable. It is not without reason that interest in high-rise is highest in Rotterdam, the city with the highest number of residential towers in the city center in The Netherlands (and also the highest buildings in The Netherlands). The municipality recently conducted a survey among the Rotterdam citizens to gauge whether they are (still) considering high-rise a necessary strategy for the city center. A majority voted ‘yes’. You can download the report here Kunnen wij hierop bouwen

And, as a side note, I participated in the survey and voted yes. My only caveat is that the municipality should safeguard the urban experience at street level because closed walls and gated entrances are destructive for cityness. Vancouver may serve as an example of how to get it right.

Montevideo in Rotterdam, a design by Mecanoo, is an example of getting it right: apartments ranging from the affordable to the exclusive, offices, indoor parking and restaurants at street level. The tower on the right is a Norman Foster design and houses the port authorities and the municipal crisis center at the top. Picture by Jan Klerks of skyscrapercity.com

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Today I went to see the brand-new Blijdorp station on the newest branch of the Rotterdam metro. The station is designed by Maarten Struijs and is his last before his retirement as an architect. Maarten Struijs spent most of his career with the municipality of Rotterdam and ended up as the main architect. His career with the municipality started in 1981 when he became employee of the municipal office of architecture. He was one of the seven architects but the office employed a total of 140 people and there was considerable debate whether it was useful for a municipality to have its own office of architecture (especially one of such enormous size). The fact that Struijs became an influential architect in Rotterdam who designed numerous important buildings and engineering works is a retrospective ‘yes’ to that question – even though now the municipal architects have to compete with their commercial peers to win assignments.

The enormous concrete windscreen near Rozenburg marked a turning point in Struijs' career and got him an award. Picture by Chris Willemsen.

Struijs’ career and considerable portfolio is well-documented in ‘Maarten Struijs: Vijfentwintig jaar architect van Gemeentewerken’, published by NAi Uitgevers in 2006. The striking thing about his work is his personal signature style, or better: the lack thereof. His work is chameleon-like and that is because he likes to think of municipal architecture as the duty of purely serving the purpose and character of a specific location. Thus an unassuming concrete bridge for pedestrians in an office park (1988) contrasts with the award-winning stainless steel flue gas cleaner in Rotterdam Charlois (1993). But his work is much more than just doing something differently each time. He developed his philosophy of ‘under-structure’ (or onder-orde, in Dutch, something might get lost in translation with this term). In his own words: ‘under-structure’ is not about designing one, unequivocal solution for a certain problem because he beliefs that there are multiple solutions. ‘Under structure’, then, is about designing optimal conditions in a given space to let users define their own particular solutions. Architecture is then about compromising with the environment rather than compromising within the design itself. Struijs is primarily concerned with the well-being of the urban and not about making unambiguous statements we have come to expect from star-architects.

With all this in mind I visited his final work as an architect today. Blijdorp is a discrete but well-designed station. It lies at -30m. and is narrow because of the location and constructional limits but it accepts a lot of daylight. In fact, nowhere in the station did I feel entrapped in a dark hole as one can sometimes feel in metro stations. It is located outside the city center in a relatively calm residential area with a large park and the zoo nearby.  The station reflects that atmosphere and doesn’t show off. Still, it is impressive in its size, construction and details. Here are some pictures (all by me, taken on the day after the opening).

From level -1 to level -2, descending deeper down.

At the platform (level -3), looking south.

A present from the municipality to Maarten Struijs. The full story is here: http://www.mrserious.nl/category/murals/the-010-crews/

From level -2, looking up and outside.

Thank you Maarten Struijs for making such a wonderful contribution to the cityness of Rotterdam!

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Today I came across this most unusual request from the local authorities. One can only wonder at what the planners were thinking, and only marvel at what this does to our 2.0 generation of drivers… But I love it!

GPS uit? En dan?

[To non-Dutch speakers: the sign requests you to switch of your GPS. I guess too many people got confused because their satnav couldn’t cope with the changes made to the road. A good lesson in regaining your independence and self-organization!]

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In my previous post I talked about the strategy of using railway station development as a means to redevelop an urban area. One of the cases in Pol’s book is the Rotterdam Centraal station, to be designed by British architect Alsop. His design was brilliant (that’s my personal opinion) but the political tide turned against him and what should have been a grand master plan became a symbol of wasting public money on lavish buildings. The IP was bought by the municipality and a team of Dutch architects (Benthem Crouwel, Meyer & Van Schooten and West 8 ) was awarded the redesign of the station. The result is a severely watered-down design that reflects very little of the ambitions of the previous plan. However, Alsop got the last laugh as he was allowed to design a large housing block called ‘Calypso’ directly opposite the station he was never allowed to build. Look at the two models to see how Alsop responds to the bleak design of the station.

A model of the Rotterdam Centraal station as on display at the information centre. Picture by me.

Alsop's colorful and weirdly shaped response. Picture by Eric Offereins

Both projects are currently under construction and will take some time before completion. The station because it is such a big project, the Calypso because it is just complicated to build.

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Earlier I wrote about how the arrival of a new railway connection revived the fortunes of a somewhat sleepy town in Switzerland.  The question whether railway connections and new stations can contribute to a (re-)development of city centers is important for policy makers to help deciding about the heavy investments associated with those projects. Estimating the return on investment is very hard in such projects because not all added value can be expressed in monetary values. There are examples that are deemed successful (Gare de Lille Europe, France), examples of cases where success is questionable (the magnificent Liège-Guillemins railway station in Belgium, for example), and cases that were never developed because their added value was deemed unproven by policy-makers. Rotterdam Centraal in The Netherlands as envisaged by British architect Will Alsop is an example of the latter.

Overly ambitious or hampered by risk-averse policy makers? Alsop's design for Rotterdam Centraal Station. Magnificent design became a symbol for (presumably) wasting public money. Render by Alsop Architects

An interesting attempt to estimate the added value of railway stations is done by Peter Pol in “A Renaissance of Stations, Railways and Cities” (Trail Thesis, 2002). His book captures some of the projects where cities and railway companies teamed up to redevelop their sites. Perhaps inspired by the emergence of airport cities and perhaps fueled by a longing to the good old days of the grand railway stations but definitely with the ambition to bring back the city life that was slowly creeping towards the city edge, all over Europe large station projects have been started. They bring together a renewed interest in central locations in cities and an increase in passenger traffic because of the growing high-speed railway network (All projects discussed in the book are European. This book was published before President Obama announced his plans to invest in railways in the USA).

Pol argues that the redevelopment of a station can be seen as a window of opportunity to start the development of the full location. Pol is also convinced that such large projects should be headed by the local government because that is the level where the desired balanced growth-regime can be managed.

I can see where Pol is coming from but I dare to question his conclusions. To start with, his book was published in 2002 when a number of the projects he investigated where still in an early planning phase. Many plans have been abandoned, slowed down or trimmed down since that time. Rotterdam Centraal was severely downscaled to a station-only project that is a far cry from Alsop’s plans (but that is enroute to be finished in time), the Amsterdam Zuidas station development is on hold due to lack of interest from private parties, and Liège proved a bottomless pit for public money without much going on besides the station itself. It is easy to dismiss Pol’s work because his framework still stands but it is a lesson to remind us that it is very hard to make a successful case for large-scale station development. And also a lesson that one should not draw conclusions from projects before they are fully done. That is a reason why his book is not part of my recommended readings. Renaissance of stations? Case not yet closed.

Alsop's master plan for Rotterdam Centraal Station. The current design adopts some of the features of the master plan but lacks the broad area development envisaged by Alsop. Picture by Archined.

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Visp, in the canton of Wallis in Switzerland, used to be a small town of approximately 6,000  inhabitants. To the outside world it is probably mostly famous because it is the last major town tourists pass before they reach famous holiday resorts such Zermatt and Saas-Fee.  Visp is part of an urban agglomeration in this region, including Brig. It is an unassuming place, with some industries (chemicals) but mostly local entrepreneurs and small factories. I’ve seen it often when traveling through Switzerland but never gave it much thought. Until this year.

The building of a long train tunnel, the Lötschberg-Basistunnel, means that Visp is now directly connected with the heart of Switzerland. In the past, trains traveling to the south of Switzerland would travel between Kandersteg and Brig and then on to Italy or further east to Graubünden. The new tunnel arrives at Visp instead of Brig as it used to do. It required a fundamental rebuild of the station, the tracks and the area surrounding the station. The new station looks great. It is much larger than it used to be and it is very busy throughout the day with trains from all directions. It has become a node in the Swiss transport network and it shows. It is not the sleepy, slightly romantic train station of the past anymore but an important hub bustling with life.

Being hub with quick connections to other parts of Switzerland means that Visp has become an attractive place for business and people. The new marshalling yard means that the old one (owned by the MGB train company) could be demolished. It is now planned to build an underground parking lot there, with shops and houses on top of it. The new office buildings in the station area are all rented and there is pressure to develop more offices and retail.

I’m not a great believer in the idea that designing stone and mortar equals designing society but it is remarkable what the new tunnel and station have done for this little town.  I can see it growing even further and perhaps taking over Brig in the long run as the center of the canton.

Facade of the new Visp station. Picture from Fahrni AG, who build the facade.

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