Text: Joni Taylor
Above image: Parco Dora – Latz & Partner; Photographer: Ornella Orlandini
The existence of much of the Netherlands, particularly the city of Rotterdam, is a result of extreme design – land reclamation, modified topographies and water management systems. It is perhaps because of this necessity that architecture and design receive such a high level of support here, not just culturally but as an intrinsic part of the urban planning process.
Since 2005, the Rotterdam International Architecture Biennale (IABR) has delivered critically engaging exhibitions centered on urbanism and the city. While Venice may be the established architecture exposition, Rotterdam is more tightly curated while still offering a diversity of international ideas and urban strategies. This year’s Urban by Nature is no exception. What is new is the appointment of a landscape architect as curator. Dirk Sijmonds has used his profession as a lens through which to view the city as a complete ecosystem. Sijmonds is a firm believer in the new age of the Anthropocene, having moved on from the Holocene, humans have now become another force of nature, our actions affecting the entire planet.
“There is no way back”, he asserts, there is no more elsewhere and the previous dichotomy between human and animal, or city and nature, are redundant. Surprisingly, Sijmonds sees this time as having a positive side-effect, acknowledging the fact that nature and human society are intertwined is an important step forward in addressing the planet’s problems. Acknowledging that our environmental problems have been caused by urbanisation, Sijmonds claims it is only in cities that the solutions can be found.
And this is what lies at the heart of Urban by Nature and makes the IABR so relevant. It is a research exhibition, which does not just present the latest buildings and technological renderings, but also a highly selective academic agenda with new solutions and strategies developed for the long term. Importantly, partners and collaborators reach all sectors of Dutch and international society including universities, water management and insurance firms and many local councils.
A two-year long program of ‘ateliers’ and labs works in creating positive real world changes in urban environments. One such atelier by James Corner Field Operations (New York ) and Fabric (Amsterdam) developed pilot projects which focused on spatial economic concepts of heat networks and transportation hubs for Rotterdam. This makes for good urban planning, but what does it mean for an exhibition?
The space of the Rem Koolhaas-designed Kunsthal Rotterdam has lead the exhibition designs, with its six halls each holding smaller exhibitions around the theme ‘urban by nature’. It is a text-heavy show, with infographics, maps and charts a popular form of explanation. The inclusion of any ‘living’ nature is remarkably small and Koolhaas’s ironic inclusion of fake trees as columns in one of the rooms is not lost. The suspended ‘Bat Cloud’ by Ants on the Prarie, an artificial habitat, which can be transported to declining bat populations, offers one of the few ‘realised’ projects to be exhibited.
In Europe, where biodiversity in often higher in urban areas than in the monoculture of the countryside, wildlife in the city is common. This connection is made with the neighboring Museum of Natural History, which has dedicated a room to urban nature for the exhibit Pure Reslience where amongst their own taxidermy collection the have recreated the infamous Amsterdam swan and it nest made of garbage.
A Planet Cultivated, located on the park level of the Kunsthal (tree columns included), explores society and nature through the parks, gardens and nature reserves we have created. The World Wildlife Fund is a key contributor with the idea of ‘Rewilding Europe’, which while attractive seems almost utopian in its intentions when held against the assumption that there can no longer be any more ‘untouched nature’.
This is reiterated in the inclusion of the many parks acting as remediation devices and the adaptive re-use of former heavy industrial sites and outdated engineering facilities. These include the wonderful work of Latz and Partner for Parco Dora near Turin and Davids|Terfruchte + Partners’ Berne Park. Other more technological interventions include the sand engine of the province of South Holland, an ever changing artificial dune that prevents erosion, and laying oyster beds on the mudflats that resist wind and waves by Ecoshape.
Delving deeper, Exploring the Underground examines subterranean nature and its ability to store history, produce resources and the hidden yet vital infrastructure it supports. Ultimately by examining cases of the impact of mining projects such as Swedish architecture Team Kiruna4ever’s engagement in the relocation of whole communities – more 3D spatial planning is called for.
The exhibition Urban Landscape and Climate Change emphasised the ability of the IABR research to extend into real world causes. Rising water levels is a concern for many nations, yet the Netherlands’ wealth of experience as a Delta city has much to offer. The ‘Rebuild by Design’ initiative and model has been introduced to communities affected by extreme weather, such as those by Hurricane Sandy and Katrina, and is presented as an inspiring examples of adaptation and resilience.
The largest exhibition, and the most dense, is The Urban Metabolism, where following an international callout, 96 projects have been selected and divided into the ‘flows’ of air, sand, clay water, food, energy, biota, waster, people and cargo – all essential to the functioning and well-being of the city. This information was then brought together and critically analysed by the Dutch Environmental assessment agency, and presented as large infographics boards offering a deeper understanding of the challenges faced. Simple solutions often proved best, such as rainmaker by SMAQ, which ensures ongoing clean water for Casablanca or ecoLogicStudio’s method of cultivating algae by supplying CO2 by breathing into a tube. While nature may be highlighted, it was very much about solution based design and infrastructure on display here.
An interesting question is how does this kind of research affects political decisions? It appears that in the Netherlands, a lot. The IABR has transitioned from a cultural concern to one now managed by the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. Ministers and municipalities are involved in all the Ateliers, ensuring long term strategic changes are implemented. These Ateliers have deployed the potential of design to work on urgent local and regional challenges and add value to spatial policy making. Environmental advocacy is paired with economic imperatives, offering positive outcomes for stakeholders and partners.
In conclusion, Urban by Nature offers a realistic presentation of urban strategies that can be adapted on a global level. It aspires to retain the relevancy of design and architecture for the future challenges that lie ahead, seeing them more as opportunities for creating a more resilient urban environment.
Check out the related film program.