Archive for September, 2010

Yes, my academic alma mater is a drab collection of 1960s concrete brutalism and 1980s functionalism (built in the 1990s…) and yes, it is about time that the campus receives a major overhaul. Occasionally, however, a touch of light enlivens this dull concrete landscape. Here are some pictures from my room during rain and sunshine.

Rainbow, picture by me.

Two rainbows. Pictures by me.

The reconstruction of the Erasmus University Rotterdam received approval and the board of trustees has given the go-ahead for a 63 million investment to improve and expand the campus.


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Earlier I wrote about the recent policy papers covering high-rise living in The Netherlands. In a follow-up on these documents, the municipality of Rotterdam (arguably the only Dutch city where residential towers are common place) released its own update of its skyscraper policy. Interestingly, the core of the update is counter-intuitive because it limits the maximum height zoning to 200 meters in order to promote the construction of more residential towers. At first sight, this appears to be limiting skyscrapers and consequently discouraging the construction of new towers. The planning department, however, argues that this policy does the reverse. The former practice established certain zones where buildings of any height where allowed. This resulted in a strong price increase of the land within those zones, to the extent that it became near-impossible to develop new real estate. After all: there was a theoretical opportunity to recoup the investments by building a very high tower. Reality showed the the construction costs for such high buildings exceeded possible revenues and super high-rise never took place. The municipality hopes that a limit on the maximum height will dampen the prices of the land, in order to make high-rise more feasible.

Possibly the highest building in Rotterdam is Zalmhaven Urban (212m, including spire), a project that is now in the planning stage. Render by architect Dam & Partners.

As a side note: exceptions to the 200m limit are actually possible by special permission from the board and current projects that are higher, such as Zalmhaven Urban above, may continue. Head of the planning department Mercè de Miguel i Capdevila said that the need for a revision came from the desire to have a densely populated city center but to retain and improve the urban experience at ground level, as explained in the urban lounge concept. The maximum height zoning is not the only new rule to improve living in this city. Other changes include: utility spaces never allowed at ground level; floor space limited to 40m x 40m and a maximum of 0,5 GSI for high buildings; an obligation to develop so-called green roofs (i.e. sedum or better), and an obligation to design good connections between the different buildings on different plots. More information can be found here. An interview with the head of the planning department can be found here (members only).

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It is an understatement to say that quite a few urban planners and architects would like to keep local communities at bay during the process of developing the urban. Main reasons? Fear of NIMBY-behavior, fear of delays, fear of less-than-progressive ideas about what should be done and, in some cases, fear of people who are not part of the cozy inner-circle of architects, planners and designers. Occasionally, this attitude changes and officials then try to get in touch with people living in a neighborhood or urban area to listen to their ideas rather than just decide-announce-defend their own ideas. Such meetings between officialdom and community may result in unforeseen favorable results. Sometimes a dialogue of the deaf is the only result. One of my recent experiences (documented in great detail here and here) taught me that the problems with developing urban projects were rooted in the municipal organization itself and not in the community, as was always assumed in this case. On the contrary, the farmers and citizens in a mostly rural area generated ideas about nature development, luxury housing and recreation beyond the ambitions of the officials. In the end, the project was killed because of internal struggles within the municipality. Such a waste of time and effort.

However, initiatives such as the one described here are becoming more common, if only because officials experience an increasing inability to design and execute projects. Yet another step is to let go of own ideas and to facilitate community initiatives without imposing one’s own designs. The Peckham Vision (UK) is an example where things went differently but with favorable results, as even architects in the Architects’ Journal acknowledge. Peckham Vision is a communal gathering in order to generate new ideas about the future of the Peckham town centre and its buildings.

View of Peckham, London in the background. Picture by Matt from The Londondist.

The stakeholder group who initiated this consists of citizens, artists, business owners and so on. A while ago I met one of the instigators, Ms. Eileen Conn. She works tirelessly and fearlessly to get things done and to prove that communities can come up with good ideas for urban regeneration that actually work. It requires unorthodox approaches, with an emphasis on horizontal information processes that interact with the formal hierarchical system in which Peckham is embedded. I’m impressed with the results that seem to generate a lot of praise, not only locally but also nationally as testified in the Architect’s Journal article above. The first tangible results are now appearing after much preparatory work, including the restoration of the Peckham Rye Station and the establishment of artists’ workshops. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that all everything runs smooth. Government sometimes still gets in the way. But lets quote the Architects Journal here: “Localism can, and does, improve the quality of the built environment by enabling professional skills and community ideas to coalesce. For example, Peckham Vision, a consortium of residents, artists, businesses and The Peckham Society, campaigns for a renewed Peckham town centre. The consortium is an important force for change. Its main focus is the improvement of the public realm in Rye Lane, making it more amenable to a wider demographic.” Public officials: take note. There is no need to elaborate endlessly on Richard Florida. The key is around the corner, literally.

Restoration of the waiting room at Peckham Rye Station. Picture by Benedict O’Looney

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There was a time when churches were the most important buildings in villages, towns and cities. This is still the case in some countries. However, the importance of the church has diminished significantly in most big cities, especially in northwestern Europe. Most of them are now used as touristic attractions, a monument of the urban past and a final testimony of ongoing secularisation. Besides, with many cities being nodes in networks of migration, the city has become a hotchpotch of religions with each having its own houses of worship but in very few cases those houses display the grandeur of the churches of the past. Yet, the churches may still fulfill important roles although such roles are often hidden away from the public eye behind the facades of our most favored temple, the mall.

Today I visited citykerk Het Steiger (city church ‘Landing Stage’) in Rotterdam. The building is a typical 1960s box of concrete and bricks and has surprisingly few of the ornamental details one expects in a Catholic church. The Dominican order who owns the church was first established in Rotterdam in 1449. By fits and starts they re-established the order within the city in 1625, after the 80-year war against Spain had turned the tide against them. Their previous church was destroyed during World War 2 and the current building is the one they built some fifteen years after the war ended. The design was commissioned in 1954 and architects Kraaijvanger and Knol designed a new church that reflects much of the styles favored in those days. Apparently, Knol visited a church in Haarlem that was build into an old school building. That building had a glass wall, showing a garden. Such a glass wall is the main design feature incorporated in the building. Someone entering the church will first note the stern, large hall, the colored light emitted from the stained glass above the entrance, and the garden visible to the left.

Het Steiger after completion. Picture by Het Steiger

The garden and glass wall as seen from the church hall. Picture by Puangjita.

The garden was build inside the building, enclosed by walls on each side, offering a place for contemplation. Or, as the architect framed it: it provides a threshold between church and the city. There is also a separate church tower, a chapel for the Holy Virigin and a dorm for the monks. The church is situated next to the water, which explains its name, and is build on an elevation to emphasis the route from street to God. Contrary to the picture above, the church is now enclosed by large buildings as the city continues to grow.

Inside the church, facing the altar and the organ. Picture by Puangjita.

The stained glass above the entrance. Picture by Puangjita.

Detail in one of the chapels, garden in the background. Picture by Puangjita

Now, returning to the issue raised in the introduction: does the church still have a role in the big city? I talked with one of the members of the parish. He said that the mass on Sunday is attended by a relatively small group of people (the church has room for 750 people) who are mostly from outside the city. In fact, this parish member was one of the few people actually living close to the church. He explained that this area was never densely populated and he hoped that the construction of residential towers would help attracting more people. The masses on weekdays are barely attended by others except the monks. He echoed what has been said before: people don’t go to churches anymore. However, almost hidden from the main church (right from the entrance) is a small chapel for the Holy Virgin. This chapel is open during day times (or longer if required, said a small note at the door) and can be attended by anyone seeking refuge from the busy, crowded city. And people do. From beggars and junkies to business men, there are always people who need a minute or two to recollect themselves. There were many small candles burning and people had scribbled their worries in a large notebook to address Maria. It is a small, almost serene place in a big city. It may not be as big as it used to be but as long as people can find peace of mind, the church is still important in the city.

Detail of stained glass in the small chapel. Picture by Puangjita.

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Last week we started to work on our large research project Anatomy of Rotterdam by developing an analytical framework for the urban projects included in our research. Our ambition is to develop a polycentric view on urban development and to map the dynamics from the planning process itself to overall developments such as socio-economic change in neighborhoods and to see how the one influences the other. The large database of the Rotterdam Office for Research and Statistics provides us with a considerable amount of data to track how neighborhoods change over time. We hope to discover more of the drivers for urban development by correlating this data with data from the in-depth case studies of project managers working in this city.

The Katendrecht area is one of the cases in our research program. Picture by me.

One of the first things we discovered (or should I say: rediscovered) is that none of the projects qualify for the title ‘project’. All of them show the characteristics of urban programs for certain areas because they are not fully limited in time and space. All of them include a high variety of interrelated sub-projects, ranging from physical upgrades or new constructions to local community development and interactive decision-making. The current stage in our research focuses on defining the variables and means of data collection. We have assembled a group of ten researchers who will devote time to this long-running project. Results will have to wait for a while because this requires time to develop, but it is certain to bring about some interesting results.

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Today the Doelenkwartet (string quartet) performed Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains‘ (1988) live at metro station Rotterdam Centraal (designed by Maarten Struijs). Listening to this extraordinary and emotional piece of music is already a cause of celebration but today’s performance added a whole new dimension to it. Sitting at one of the platforms, amidst travelers and listeners and trains arriving and departing, the quartet performed Different Trains commemorate the Rotterdam Blitz in May 1940. The location of the performance at the station marks the area between the part of the city that survived the war and the part that didn’t.

Doelenkwartet performing Different Trains at the Rotterdam Centraal station. Picture by Puangjita.

Reich’s piece is about World War II, as the musical theme changes from trains in the USA in the years before the war to the European trains that took the Jews to their final destination during the war. Listening to such a masterpiece, at a live station, at such a special location to commemorate such an event is, by any account, an extraordinary experience. The person who thought of this deserves a medal.

You can download a short sample of the performance here. Note how the trains arriving at the platform chime in perfectly with the music. Superb.

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