Archive for the ‘Urban observations’ Category

December and November are notorious for their workload and deadlines. However, much fun was to be experienced. Here are some pictures instead of words.

A different context for academic work: lectures in the old Lantaren-Venster cinema give an entirely different atmosphere and improved interaction between audience and speaker. We will return here! Picture by Fred Ernst

Urban planner and author of the great book 'Cities, Design and Evolution' gave a great lecture about conurbations and urban planning as an evolutionary process. A great evening and a fully packed house, i.e. a definitive success. Picture by Fred Ernst

Meanwhile, storms and full moon tested Rotterdam's defense mechanisms against high water levels. Things got a bit wet but not to the extent that the Nieuwe Maas had to be closed off. The problem with good water management is that you rarely get the chance to test how good it is. This was one opportunity. Picture by Andres Dijkshoorn

BJ Nilsen was our guest last Thursday and he performed an extended version of 'The Invisible City'. It was a truly inspiring performance. For those who wonder what Mr. Nilsen does during a performance: here is a view from his office space, as seen during the sound checks. Picture by me.


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City Rat Race

If you really, really miss the city (or live on the countryside for whatever reason) you can do like artist Burden and create it yourself. Check his marvelous Metropolis II installation out here.

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Winter has come

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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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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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Overheard recently:

“Nee, nee, probeer het nog eens: ‘s-Gravenhage en Scheveningen.” (Asian man to Asian woman in a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam. Those with a sense of Dutch history will notice the beauty of this.)

Senior woman 1: “En dan die ambtenaren die daar zo met de Noord-Zuidlijn bezig zijn. Echt schandalig dat er zo veel geld wordt weggegooid. Maar ja, wat wil je ook met die ambtenaren.” Senior woman 2: “Mijn vader was trouwens ook ambtenaar, z’n hele leven hard gewerkt.” Senior woman 1: “Oh ja, dat is echt heel zwaar, zo’n baan.” (Two senior women explore the differences between externalized events and direct experiences in urban planning, while waiting at a counter.)

“Zo… en dan kunnen ze dat gewoon zo zien. Echt vet!” (two female teens in typical teen clothing chewing bubblegum discuss how researchers at the Vincent van Gogh museum dissect a painting using x-rays to see when and how a painting was made.)

Female student 1: “Ik heb de hele tijd het gevoel dat dit al een keer gebeurd is, dat we hier al een keer geweest zijn.” Female student 2: “Nou, dan stappen we toch gewoon een halte eerder uit.” (Female student 2 offers an extremely practical solution to her clearly confused friend in the bus in Utrecht.)

“En dan belt ze plotseling om 2 uur ‘s nachts op en zegt ze: ik wil dood! En dan denk ik van ‘doe dan toch ook eens wat mens’.” (Female at Leiden station vents her frustration to someone she phones with, accidentally saying something she probably didn’t mean.)


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How to convert an abandoned shipyard into something useful? That is a question many port cities struggle with. If the shipyard is located in the city centre and therefore sitting on expensive ground, things are not that difficult. If this is not the case, things are suddenly much more complicated. Recently, I went on a site visit to see how this was handled in Rotterdam. The site: Heijplaat. The shipyard: RDM Heijplaat. The task: preserving the monumental buildings through creative reuse in an area relatively far from the city centre, in the middle of a fully functional port.

RDM stands for Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij or Rotterdam Drydock Enterprise.  RDM used to be one of the main builders of ships in The Netherlands. It built a great number of ships, including iconic ocean liners such as the SS Rotterdam. Because the shipyard was quite far removed from the city, the founder of RDM built a separate workers’ village next to the shipyard. This was called Heijplaat, after the location. The village is a hallmark of socialist-capitalist entrepreneurship because it was believed that happy workers are of great importance to the company and should therefore be treated in a good way. In its heydays, the village featured a booming community. The shipyard itself went from good times to bad times in the 1970s and several mergers and bankruptcies marked the end of the company, as happened to most of such companies in Europe. RDM also built war ships, including submarines for the Royal Dutch Navy and ROC Taiwan. Here is a picture of the Zwaardvis class submarine while being repaired:

Zwaardvis class diesel submarine at RDM. Picture taken from http://www.dutchsubmarines.com

The shipyard and its intellectual property was taken over by businessman Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen, which marked the end of the naval activities. In turn, he went down amidst charges of gross corruptions and briberies. His downfall also meant the downfall of Willem Scholten, the director of the Rotterdam Port Authorities. In a complicated move, the port authorities suddenly found themselves in possession of a defunct and bankrupt shipyard. Both gentlemen are currently on trial. The Heijplaat village, meanwhile, had defended itself against plans to demolish it during the 1980s. It is now accepted by the Rotterdam municipality that demolition is not an option. There are plans for renovation and some small-scale new property developments have taken place.

If anything, the old shipyard is an industrial beauty. A few years ago I wandered around its empty premises. There was something monumental about the abandoned buildings and the sense of history that appeared in every detail.  Here are a few pictures from that trip, shot on old-fashioned film.

Inside the main machine hall. Picture by me.

Cranes suspending from the roof inside the RDM machine hall. Picture by me.

Monumental entrance to the main RDM hall. Picture by me.

The bottom line: an enormous industrial complex that would collapse in a couple of years if no one were to step in. Luckily, there were chances of recovery. The municipality decided it wanted to redevelop it into a creative cluster, focused on technology and innovation. I’m very cautious when civil servants start blabbering about ‘creative clusters’ and similar vocabulary that comes from Richard Florida and the likes. Still, I can’t deny that much, very much, has changed since my previous visit. It houses a polytechnic school (Hogeschool Rotterdam) and multiple companies. It houses the Rotterdam Academy for Architecture and Urban Planning and multiple facilities for conferences and workshops. The Museum Boijmans van Beuningen uses the so-called Duiktbootloods (submarine pen) for special exhibitions of contemporary art. There is a fast ferry connecting the site to the city centre in ten minutes. Here are some pictures of the current situation. Compare with the pictures above…

Renovated entrance to the main building. Picture by me.

Inside the so-called Innovation Dock. Picture by me.

View on one of the workshops. Picture by me.

Looking inside another workshop. Picture by me.

Another view inside the Innovation Dock. Picture by me.

Detail of a display at the Academy for Architecture and Urban Planning. Picture by me.

So… all is well that ends well? The transformation is astonishing. The whole area is vibrant again and I love the atmosphere of students and companies working on new ideas and trying out new things. It is definitely a much more interesting place than the dull, mind-numbing office park that houses my university. This area makes me want to invent something new and I think that this is exactly this kind of atmosphere that makes it such an attractive place.

But this blog tries to look at such developments from multiple angles and one thing that I consider a weakness is the fact that it is all there because of public money. It is public money that keeps the schools open, it is public money that pays for the fast ferry and it is public money that helps the museum organizing exhibitions. The thesis is that public money is necessary as seeding money and that private investments will appear in the long run. Perhaps. It is still too early to tell so the jury is still out. But there is a danger that private money will not pop-up. As discussed before, it is already difficult to develop houses or office spaces in the most popular parts of town and I can’t see that changing soon so I doubt that there are chances for this to happen at RDM. But let’s not be pessimistic. Let’s return here again in a few years to see what has happened. I will post the results here.


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