Sunday20 August 2017

Making City: 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam

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Making City: IABR
Netherlands Architecture Institute, Rotterdam
April 20 – August 12

2/5 stars

This citymakers’ biennale is a confused muddle of municipal boosterism and lacklustre pop-up projects

Squeezed into white spandex leggings, tight green pants and red waistcoats, swishing their silky yellow capes from side to side, a motley army of dancers appeared on the rooftops of a disused office building in central Rotterdam last weekend. They were joined by another character, brandishing a giant golden key, then Batman leapt from the crowd, darted through the group of Robins, and apparently saved the day.

This was the surreal opening pageant of the Schieblock Test Site, one of the hubs of the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), and the first thing to greet me, fresh off the train. As impenetrable as it was disorienting, this strange sequence set the tone for the rest of the Biennale, a hashed collection of disjointed events and exhibitions themed around the nebulous title of “Making City.”

The idea of the city has preoccupied the IABR since 2007, when the first of what became a trilogy of urban extravaganzas took place, themed around “Power”. This was followed by “Open City”, curated by Kees Christiaanse in 2009, a confused but lively ramble through current trends, to culminate in this year’s “Making City”, intended to be the propositional denouement of them all.

“This edition, far more than previous editions, claims a role outside the safe world of the culture sector,” trumpets the catalogue. “The IABR wants to get its hands dirty and try out alternative ways of making city — to actually make the city.”

The reality is a good deal less visceral than this ambition might suggest. The Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) has been transformed into a boosterish trade show of examples of citymaking from across Netherlands and around the world. The official, municipal tone of the thing should come as no surprise when you look at the credits — on the curatorial team was the director of National Spatial Planning for the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, Henk Ovink. Each separated on its own colour-coded island, the projects themselves are a mixture of worthy and less so, but all bear the leaden hand of the local authority - the work is credited not to architects, but endless lists of government ministries and municipal departments. It reads like a mini-Mipim.

Outside the NAI, the exhibition suffers from the opposite problem and feels rather amateurish. The Test Site is the work of ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles), an interdisciplinary research-led practice, who had the brave idea to build a crowd-funded version of the New York High Line through the centre of the city. Their golden walkway would have burst through vacant blocks and joined up disused railway lines to create a linear park above the tangle of infrastructure below. The reality is a yellow-painted zebra crossing and a few metres of timber walkway that don’t lead anywhere, terminating unceremoniously in a staircase.

The rest of the Schieblock, an empty 1970s office building, has been converted into studio space over the last two years, transforming this monolith into an incubator for young creative practices and highlighting the nationwide problem of vacancy - the Netherlands has 7 million sq m of office and commercial space standing empty. And yet Rotterdam continues to build more and more.

The Test Site is linked to the NAI by Zig-Zag City, a meandering route that weaves its way through the town centre, with little project installations along the way. Conceived as an “alternative travel guide”, the route takes you through well-known squares and streets, as well as hidden courtyards and alleyways, revealing histories of the area and possible alternative uses along the way. It is well intentioned, and some of the projects - such as the temporary café on the 18th floor of the former Shell building - provide refreshing new views of how the city’s spaces could be used. But, with a proliferation of pop-up picnic tables, temporary allotments and morning yoga sessions, with titles like “urban wasteland remix”, it provides little more than the usual flotsam of the by-now formulaic urban festival with its attendant orgy of pop-ups.

One stop slightly off the route, nestling in a former railway arch between the Schieblock and the anonymous slab of 149 Heer Bokelweg, home of OMA, lies an interesting sideshow that gently prods at some of the problems outlined above. Although clearly not gently enough — the exhibition was planned to be part of the NAI show, but was withdrawn following practical differences.

“Design as Politics” is the result of a research studio of the same name at the Delft University of Technology, run by provocateur-professor Wouter Vanstiphout of Crimson Architectural Historians. “The Design as Politics approach believes that we have to go beyond the faux optimism of city marketing and find the solutions right in the heart of what makes contemporary cities seem so impossible to ‘make’,” declares the catalogue. What follows is a rather jumbled but provocative series of studies that pit the IABR Test Site cities against each other.

Detroit faces off with Rotterdam over the issue of vacancy and devaluation; Sao Paulo is set against Amsterdam using the theme of urban infrastructure, while Istanbul is faced with the Randstad region over urban sprawl. The result is a series of “what ifs?” - dealing with Dutch problems in a Brazilian way, with Turkish problems in a Dutch way, with Rotterdam real estate in a Detroit way. Presented with low production values on a series of boards, it has the air of a local political campaign group fair (a sense confirmed by bowls of slogan pin badges), but it is worth persevering.

Because, while the NAI show has a pseudo urgency, with the subtitle “No cities, no future” and LSE-esque apocalyptic statistics emblazoned on drapes, the really pressing issues are unearthed in the depths of this railway arch. These are projects that uncover the deep-seated political tensions and the social and economic fault lines that create the unstable basis on top of which official citymakers stage their vision of “making city.”


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