Urban issues dominate Rotterdam Biennale
James Jeffries, co-director of London and Amsterdam practice 31/44, recommends highlights from the festival which opened this week
The International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2014 is entitled ‘Urban by Nature’. Curated by Dutch landscape architect Dirk Sijmons it is founded on the premise that urban landscapes have now become the predominant ‘natural’ environment in which we live - supported by the adopted belief that the world’s urban population now outnumbers the rural.
His biennale takes the stance that one or the other are not mutually exclusive but complimentary and posits the notion that the urban situation is now our ‘natural’ condition - that human beings are generally ‘Urban by Nature’.
This seems entirely appropriate for the Netherlands, where the countryside is considered to be a largely industrial landscape for farming and food production, neatly divided into parcels of land - something required in order to secure its existence. They are a pragmatic nation.
The Kunsthal and the neighbouring Natural History Museum host the six main exhibitions. Five are located within the recently refurbished Kunsthal and focus on the collaboration between human intervention and the natural environment.
The exhibition in the Natural History Museum looks at nature’s resilience and adaption to urbanisation. By utilising the unique setting of the Kunsthal and its varied spaces, there is a coordinated relationship between the content of the various exhibitions and their location:
- In the lower hall, looking out over Rotterdam’s Museum Park, is the exhibition ‘A Planet Cultivated’ which investigates green spaces within urban environments. The centrepiece of this exhibition is by one of three IABR ‘Project Ateliers’ (collaborative research groups set up between municipalities, educational institutes and practice) which looks at how a wide-ranging spatial plan can be developed for Texel (an island on the north coast of the Netherlands) by considering and exploring new concepts and pragmatic thinking.
- In the upper hall, which looks out on to a predominantly built-up street scene, is ‘The Urban Metabolism’ which assesses the various flows that pass through the city and how our understanding of these can be used as a tool for better urban design. This exhibition is particularly data-driven but with interesting info-graphics detailing the many routes of enquiry. Within the heading of ‘cargo’ the impressive extension to the Port of Rotterdam, Maasvlakte 2 is explored. Artist Jan Konings’ installation of a new concrete stair rising up one of the new dykes investigates how scale can be established within a newly created landscape.
The remaining three smaller exhibitions fill the surrounding spaces in the Kunsthal:
- ‘Urban Landscape and Climate Change’. This exhibition has a strong focus on the results of the competition Rebuild by Design, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It also contains an exhibit ‘Building America’s Great Water City’ which discusses the strategies involved in the continuing rebuilding of New Orleans.
- ‘Exploring the Underground’ discusses the capacities and possibilities for further expansion of our urban habitat underground.
- ‘Strategies for the Urban Landscape’ questions and suggests ways that vast numbers of spatial, morphological and functional forms that make up the ‘Metropolis Tapestry’ can be incorporated and simultaneously considered, in order to help design sustainable urban environments. Here, another IABR ‘Project Atelier’ has been deployed to look at Brabant (a province of the Netherlands) and how it can form an innovative approach to urban design. A large woven tapestry map has been produced to communicate the findings of their research. Another exhibit looks at the familiar idea of a carbon tax. Here, the idea of replacing VAT with CAT (Carbon Added Tax) is explored and numerous case studies demonstrate the repercussions across the population and society.
- The exhibition ‘Pure Resilience’ in the Natural History Museum is somewhat smaller and more limited in its discussion of nature’s adaption to man-made environments.
Further afield from the museum quarter is the continuing development of the Luchtsingel - a pedestrian route which connects Rotterdam North to the Central district of the city. Originally started using crowd-funding techniques, the route has recently received an injection of cash following its election as the best City Initiative in Rotterdam. The main part of the bridge that links various public spaces; a roof garden; a park and public gathering space is still under construction but is due to open later in the year. More information is available at www.luchtsingel.org.
Previous Biennales have been criticised for perhaps being too Dutch. Urban by Nature does seem to hold lessons and discuss issues that could resonate globally. Compared to Britain the Netherlands already seems relatively distinct in its acceptance of the rural and urban. In Britain the current government seeks to reinstate the Garden City movement, more sub-urban by nature. Further afield we see countries such as South Korea (with a similar amount of farmland) carefully studying the Netherlands as being a model of productive landscapes capable of supporting thriving
The IABR 2014 seems to have gathered pace and outlook over the last two years. Both the content and installation of the exhibitions, along with their graphic design strategy have been executed to a good standard. If you’re in the Netherlands over the next few months it’s certainly worth a visit.
The Rotterdam Biennale runs until August 24.
James Jeffries is co-director of Anglo-Dutch practice 31/44.