Urban by nature

Abandoning the prejudice that urbanism and nature are a dichotomy, Rotterdam Architecture Biennale’s curator Dirk Sijmons says that the answers to global problems do indeed lie in the cities.

IABR 2014
Dirk Sijmons, curator of this year’s IABR (opened 29 May at the Kunsthal Rotterdam), says we are all “urban by nature”. The Dutch landscape architect’s project rests on the notion that the future of cities lies not in density but in the rediscovery of natural space.
Opening of IABR 2014. Photo Maarten Laupman
Opening of IABR 2014. Photo Maarten Laupman
A provocative claim perhaps, especially if you look at Asian urbanisation, but it certainly is on everyone’s mind at the moment (even the most famous home starchitect , Rem Koolhaas, recently concentrated on the potential of the countryside). Nature is not just countryside in this exhibition however. It is something from which we have never separated. Abandoning the prejudice that urbanism and nature are a dichotomy, Sijmons says that the answers to global problems do indeed lie in the cities. The link between natural and artificial is not limited to sustainability; it is legitimated by a “sheer resilience” that keeps the environment structurally solid despite all the human manipulation.
Opening of IABR 2014. Photo Maarten Laupman
Opening of IABR 2014. Photo Maarten Laupman
This brings us to the second feature of this edition. It is immediately clear that this year’s Architecture Biennale Rotterdam is less international than the last one. Or rather, more precisely, it is far more Dutch – and it is so, firstly, in the sense that its core themes are central to the local landscape, notoriously wrenched from the sea and built from scratch, with the aid of nature itself (the last chapter in this expansion, Maasvlakte 2, focuses on the port of Rotterdam), but also in other terms. This year, IABR has started working with an increasing number of State bodies: the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment and the City of Rotterdam are main partners, along with the Creative Industry Fund NL, and the festival programme includes two conferences organised by the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. These alliances forged across the boundaries of the cultural debate officially sanction the Biennale’s aspirations and its vocation as an applied workshop, seeking solutions as well as presentations.
Opening of IABR 2014. Photo Maarten Laupman
Opening of IABR 2014. Photo Maarten Laupman
It stands to reason that some of the case studies flagged up at the main exhibition’s press preview (entitled “Project Atelier”) stand close to home. One is even almost adjacent: Park Pompenburg, for instance, has already since the last edition (when it was a Test Site) revitalised the area close to Rotterdam station where ZUS is leading a creative and cultural rebirth that includes a network of sites reprogrammed to be flexible – most notably a crowdfunded wooden bridge that crosses a traffic-congested thoroughfare and connects several junctions with a human-scale infrastructure.
Opening of IABR 2014. Photo Maarten Laupman
Opening of IABR 2014. Photo Maarten Laupman
Then there is Texel, an island in Friesland popular with tourists and a critical terrain for the application of self-sufficiency strategies. la4sale Landscape Architects and FARO Architecten have teamed up with the local municipal authorities to work on a number of concrete proposals that resolve single problems not conflictingly but as part of a unifying vision that encourages more responsible tourism on the island (a “make-under” rather than a “make-over”).
Another Dutch example is the direct partnership between BrabantStad and the Biennale, via Architecture Workroom Brussels, Floris Alkemade Architect and LOLA Landscape Architects. Although it is one of Europe’s most productive regions, the recession prompted BrabantStad to reinvent this scattered city (it links Eindhoven with Den Bosch, Breda, Tilburg and Helmond but does not have the financial clout of the Randstad). Wanting to give this urban landscape a shared metabolism, the architects homed in on the water that passes through it: what if BrabantStad were to become a sort of water purifier? Similar problems are addressed by an Italian project, Unconscious Metropolis, a study by PIOVENEFABI and 51N4E on the potential of central Veneto.
IABR 2014
Commissioned by the IABR and the Municipality of Texel, LA4SALE Landscape Architects e FARO Architecten explored how the Texel Island’s environmental sustainability agenda and its economic agenda

The terms metabolism, flow and infrastructure are key to “Urban by Nature” but the Biennale is thematically more complex. It has, for example, a special area given over to the “Rebuild by Design” competition, featuring designs that address the post-Hurricane Sandy reconstruction by OMA, BIG and West 8, among others, and one by Waggonner & Ball in New Orleans.

Sprawl regeneration is another recurrent issue that combines MIT CAU research into American suburbia and the revitalisation of an Abu Dhabi suburb. The urbanisation of river deltas, on the other hand, builds a bridge between research by the Berlage Institute in the metropolitan area of the Nile and TU Delft studies on the Netherlands.

IABR 2014
Landtong, ARK Natuurontwikkeling. Photo Leo Linnartz
The main exhibition at the Kunsthal is filled, almost packed, with displayed projects, although a timber exhibition design with a Zen feel creates warmth, in clear contrast to the decisiveness of the last edition. The one opposite, at the Natural History Museum, has a lighter mood. Here the city-nature symbiosis and resilience of nature are illustrated with embalmed reproductions showing animals’ fairly relaxed interaction with the urban environment. A swan rests on a pile of floating rubbish; birds build their nest with scraps of plastic and a woodpecker amplifies its courtship call by knocking its beak on a lamp-post instead of a tree (apparently it even works better).
IABR 2014
Christophe Girot / ETH Zürich: Designing the Ciliwung River. Photo PUPA
“Urban by Nature” seems more focused and proactive than the previous “Making City” exhibition. There is certainly a sense of continuity and evolution in the conceptual impact but the most fascinating aspect is the Biennale’s growing involvement with local and international commissions, and the results are more striking with each edition. Park Pompenburg and Rotterdam Central District are but 15 minutes’ walk away but we shall have to wait for IABR 2016 “The Next Economy” to witness the progress made by the São Paulo Test Site, present in 2012 but absent this time.
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Aktina – IABR 2014
Aktina, by Cityindex Lab and Energize, is a mini power station that can be set up on streets and squares, to charge electric bicycles, computers, or mobile phones

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