Archive for July, 2011

About a year ago I wrote how Peckham (UK) was regenerated through community development. There are good reasons to promote community-driven urban renewal. Some will argue that it is a democratic right to do this. Well, perhaps. On a more pragmatic level I think that communities bring in more local knowledge than the planning departments can generate. Also, involving communities now can be cumbersome but reduces the risk of long legal procedures. And as a final point: (local) governments are not fairies who can make everything happen by magic. Too often, citizens have come to expect a form of magic and many local governments have felt it necessary to respond with the promise of magic. Inevitably, much disappointment follows. I think that it is necessary for communities to feel in charge again and to know that urban development is not about putting ones wish list up to administrators but to be responsible for decisions and trade-offs and to feel responsible again for the urban. This responsibility can’t be fully handed over to administrators.

The interaction between governments and community is fascinating. For that reason I often find myself in cramped rooms full of people debating the future of their street and the color of the pavement and other prosaic things. I did so again recently. The local municipality intends to reconstruct a road running through a residential area in the city. This road is 240 meters long. Keep this length in mind if you continue reading.

The evening was started by a project manager who explained what they intended, which is about narrowing the road so that cars will slow down when they go through this area. Also, trees will be planted alongside the road and some other changes will be made. The overall impression was that of a friendly street with more room for pedestrians. The plans were the result of a series of meetings with community leaders. This is were all the fun begun. For example:

“Why haven’t you removed some parking space, to give more room for pedestrians?”
“Well, because last time you protested against having them removed since you were afraid of having people park their cars outside the parking zones.”
“Right, perhaps it is better if you remove the parking space here and put them somewhere else.”
“Where else?”
“How would I know, this is your job isn’t it?”

It went on like this for about 45 minutes. It was amazing how the discussion was really not about the street but more about who could shout down who. An old lady behind me whispered “isn’t this exciting?” in my ear. I’m sure she didn’t catch my astonishment. After a while I suggested that the main complainers could present their own plans. They rebuked that this was not their task. That was not a surprise.

As the evening progressed, we came to the bit about planting trees. As gesture, the municipality had allocated 300.000 Euros for trees and plants, provided that the locals would help in keeping the green stuff alive and growing. This met approval. The most interesting part was the woman from the municipality who was not afraid of saying “shut up for now” to some of the most vocal complainers. They would then make theatrical gestures but they were ignored for a while. It seems to me that community involvement is not only about listening to the community and trying to do something with their wishes but also about being very clear about the limits to involvement.

I left before the end of the show. Outside, I met one of the municipal planners who was just taking an aspirin against headaches. I asked him why they went to such great lengths for a street that is only 240 meters long. He told me that it is a good way of avoiding mistakes. At the same time he agreed that it was necessary because this was a very vocal community and that the municipality had promised this change 10 (!) years ago. So, there was a real need for some diplomacy. The furious discussions made more sense now that I knew this. I think the people from the municipality did well to engage those people and to face the fact that the relationship had not improved over those ten years. The question remains: how did this situation emerge in the first place?


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This book by Patricia van Ulzen received much attention and a good press when it was first released in Dutch in 1999 (Dromen van een Metropool: de creatieve klasse van Rotterdam, 1970-2000; 010 Publishers). Van Ulzen argues that there is a symbiosis between the creative class of Rotterdam and the development of the city as an imaginary metropolis. This book is the English version of Patricia van Ulzen’s PhD. thesis in which she tracks the origin and development of the creative class in this hard-edged port city. Mind you, this is not the wine-sloshing, salmon-eating elite that hang around in some other places. This is about punk, resistance, stubbornness, DIY, concrete and neon-lights.

Van Ulzen’s original idea was to analyze the coming of age of Rotterdam as a metropolis. That was, in her own words, not a good plan because Rotterdam doesn’t compare to cities such as New York or London. Statistically speaking, the Rotterdam Metropolitan Area is about the size of Helsinki or Zurich or Lodz. That is far removed from the urban powerhouses in this world. However, many seem to agree that Rotterdam has a distinct metropolitan feel to it, despite the fact that it is not a metropolis if measured by demographics or economic clout or other variables. Van Ulzen attributes this metropolitan feeling to the influence of the creative class in Rotterdam, which can be seen in all aspects of urban cultural life such as photography, music, architecture and film. Most importantly, she analyzes how images of metropolitan life have influenced the portrayal and design of the city. In other words: by defining Rotterdam as a metropolis through pictures, stories, movies and architecture, it actually becomes one. Van Ulzen uses plenty of comparative material to show how the portrayal of Rotterdam focuses on metropolitan features. Going through this material shows that nice 17th century facades, canals, small shops and overall coziness are very much absent from the way Rotterdam is presented since World War II. Basically, Van Ulzen demonstrates that the old Thomas-theorama (if men define situations as real, they become real in their consequences) has been and still is at work in Rotterdam.

This is an interesting book for those who would like to know how a city can punch above its weight. One thing that I found particularly interesting is that the city’s modernist ambitions of urban renewal and metropolitan feel is rooted in the pre-war period. Before the war, administrators, planners and politicians visited the USA to find inspiration to design a city of the future. Especially Chicago turned out to be a great source of inspiration. It is therefore not surprising that plans for reconstruction were developed immediately after the full-scale destruction of May 1940 and that the chosen designs were much more modernist than the original city looked like before the bombs were dropped.

Van Ulzen does a great job of showing the dynamics of Rotterdam as an imaginary metropolis. It caught much attention when it was released and that closes the loop: by describing how the cultural class has developed and contributed to the city, her own work has become input to that very process!

The book can be found here.

[previously published on PAUME]

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The Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) in Rotterdam reopened after considerable reconstruction of the building originally designed by Jo Coenen. So I went there to check out the changes. Two things have changed: the built construction and the programming. Previously, the NAi could only be entered through a narrow and steep bridge that looked inhospitable. A renewed entrance should make the building look more open and welcoming and should, in theory, attract more people.

A new entrance to the NAi. Compare with the early designs and previous situation (below). Picture by me.

Early design skecth by Jo Coenen hints at a similar entrance. Picture from the NAi website.

And this is what the old entrance looked like. Elegant but not user-friendly, so it must have been real architecture 😉

Upon entering, one sees the restaurant, the NAi Bookshop and the entrance to the exhibition halls. Previously, the restaurant used to be hidden in the proverbial basement and never attracted many people. Now that the entrance is next to the restaurant and can be accessed without accessing the exhibition halls, it seems more popular. My overall impression was that it looks much more inviting.

Opposite the restaurant is the bookshop. The old bookshop at the first floor was a favorite of mine, with too many cool books and too little money in my wallet. The new bookshop has moved to this floor. It felt smaller than the old shop but I think that this is an optical illusion. It may be somewhat more compact but the old bookshop never was that big. The books on offer are still very interesting.

One can find the entrance to the exhibition halls between the restaurant and the bookshop. The exhibition halls have not been redesigned. Interestingly, the face-lift is a further development of the temporal changes made during the last Architecture Biennial. Those changes included a normal access into a the main exhibition hall, with restaurant and bookshop directly accessible. The current new program isn’t that much different, which may show that the previous experiment worked out well. My overall impression was that the NAi is now more open and accessible than in the past. It has lost some of its architectural sternness and has replaced this with a friendlier face. This is all positive.

But there is no shape without content. The second transformation concerns the programming of the NAi. Previously, the NAi would address architects, urban planners and other professionals. While there were some great exhibition (I recall with fondness: the Architecture Biennales by Francine Houben and Kees Christiaanse, the Sao Paulo exhibition and others) many other exhibitions drowned in the self-congratulatory unreadable prose of architects talking to other architects. Especially the more experimental things presented at the top-floor often gave me a headache because there was usually an abundance of inaccessible texts and I suspect no-one else except the author knew what it was about. It gave the overall impression of a closed circle of people who had developed their own particular jargon and didn’t bother telling others about it. ‘Pretentious’ was the word that described the whole affair perfectly.

So, is it any better now? As far as I’m concerned: yes. There is a permanent exhibition that presents a tour of Dutch architecture (Stad van Nederland). It is a reworked version of the old exhibition, this time presented with more dynamism and flair through playful lights and visuals. The top-floor now houses a temporary exhibition (Testify!) about the relationships between architecture and community. Although small, it was really interesting and gave me plenty of things to think about – a great presentation of things that matter. The main exhibition hall features a presentation of Chinese and Dutch design (DwarsDesign). The inevitable Rem Koolhaas and Ai Weiwei were present, as were others.

Overall, the quality of the presentation has improved greatly and there was much to look at and to think about. Although still too early to tell, I think that the aim to reach a wider audience may be achieved. The accessibility of the exhibitions is much better than before. My only complaint is the audio-tour that comes with the permanent Stad van Nederland. The audio consists of people giving uninformed opinions about the buildings on display. My guests were genuinely puzzled because they were expecting some explanations instead of actors going “Oh, I don’t like this building.” There is only thing more annoying than having an uninformed opinion and that is listening to other people with uninformed opinions. I´ve been told that this fits a society were opinions matter more than facts but that doesn´t make it any better for me. Give me facts, please.

This complaint aside, my overall impression is a very positive one and I´ll make a return visit soon. Below some more pictures (made with my cell phone).

The NAi lies opposite the renewed Museumpark, originally designed by Rem Koolhaas. For years, this place was inaccessible because of the garage built underneath it. Now it has been rebuilt according to the original OMA design.

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A while ago I posted that I participated in a research to track the behavior of people living in residential towers. The final results will be published later this year but some preliminary results have already been presented by the TU Delft and Veldacademie. These first results suggest that people in residential towers enjoy their views and lives. However, they lack green spots in town for recreation (e.g. walking, sunbathing etc.). The emphasis on cars and car parkings receives a negative evaluation. No surprises here, then. More detailed and elaborate results will be published later on.

A map of GPS trackers of people living in the Coopvaert Building. Picture generated by the Veldacademie

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