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Wouter Vanstiphout of Crimson Architectural Historians on how Rotterdam’s Biennale is giving impetus to a new set of urban plans

Maakbaarheid, a uniquely Dutch concept of social improvement through architeture, has given impetus to a set of new urban proposals for the Rotterdam Biennale

As part of the fourth International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), Crimson Architectural Historians is exploring maakbaarheid, an enigmatic Dutch term that usually refers to a period in Dutch society between the 1960s and ’70s when government policies were explicitly aimed at spreading wealth, knowledge and power through massive bottom-up emancipation policies.

Maakbaarheid is difficult to translate. Literally, its meaning lies somewhere between makeable and feasible; conceptually, it is connected to terms such as ‘social engineering’, with a strong whiff of progressive public interventionism.

Thirty or forty years ago, these interventions consisted of equalising incomes and the education system in order to stimulate individuals from all classes to develop and educate themselves. It also meant large subsidies for non-elitist cultural, musical and art initiatives. Under the umbrella of the government, different parties - housing corporations, trade unions and entrepreneurs - worked on creating an ideal model of society through planning. Architecture, planning and housing were important aspects of this maakbare samenleving (makeable society): designing it, shaping it, contributing to it and presenting it. In short, maakbaarheid was the Dutch interpretation of the current biennale’s main theme, the Open City - the city as an ‘integration machine’ encouraging distinct communities and groups to settle, interact and establish dynamic relationships.

Maakbaarheid is not just about describing a quality or function of urban spaces; rather, it denotes the way that these spaces are produced. Crimson’s initiative focuses on Rotterdam, widely seen as the unofficial centre of architectural and urbanistic energy in the Netherlands. It examines ways of making the Open City here, harnessing a strong public ambition to shape architecture using the best figures of the design world. That this initiative to revitalise the architect’s role in shaping society comes from Rotterdam seems inevitable.

The city is not just a magnet for architectural firms; Rotterdam is also maakbaarheid’s locus classicus: the ultimate ‘makeable’ city, having been remade in radically different shapes several times in the last century alone.

By a curious coincidence, maqbar is also the Persian word for graveyard. Perhaps this is a better description of Rotterdam, which, despite its heroic aspects and can-do idealism, is also strewn with the cadavers of past attempts to shape society through architecture and urban planning. The number of times a new project has promised to reinvent the city is far outweighed by the number of times the idea of shaping urban society through architecture has been declared officially dead. The optimism of the IABR comes at a time when Rotterdam is facing the consequences of the global economic crisis more intensely than any other city in the Netherlands. Politically, it has abandoned most, if not all, of its public planning ambitions and its architects’ offices are scrambling to survive, forced to shed the experimental, speculative urban ambitions on which their international fame has been based.

Smaller offices are filing for bankruptcy at an alarming rate. Larger partnerships from Rotterdam (for instance KCAP, Ector Hoogstad Architecten, Claus en Kaan and EGM) are also suffering, but are predicted to come out as strong monopolists, dividing up jobs and commissions from increasingly risk-averse clients among themselves. The urban renewal process of the past decade, involving an immensely complex coalition of public and private institutions and corporations, is now more or less accepted as a failure, without any measurable effect on the liveability of the areas involved.

On a political and moral level, the idea of Rotterdam as a progressive, modern and open city has also become harder to defend since the introduction of Rotterdam Law, a controversial set of legal tools used to limit the number people on benefits who aren’t native to the city getting houses in certain neighbourhoods. The Rotterdam Law is just one example of a whole new set of policies and political agendas aimed at discouraging the concentration of poor people and ethnic minorities. So for nearly a decade, Rotterdam has been carefully crafting tools for demographic control over its citizenry, a control that often goes beyond the so-called makeability of society, associated with the leftist 1970s.

There is also a parallel between the many overblown urban plans recently proposed for Rotterdam, and its inclination to select, stop, spread and concentrate its inhabitants according to income, ethnicity or religious beliefs.

There is a famous interview with former mayor Ivo Opstelten - popular for his unwavering commitment to repressing small-time criminality - in which he discusses the constant eviction of heroin addicts and dealers from squats in poor neighbourhoods. He also tells a critical journalist that if you keep on spreading around the addicts and dealers for long enough, they will simply ‘evaporate’.

In the face of all this wishful thinking about the maakbaarheid of Rotterdam, we are forced to accept that sometimes the ambitious urban schemes, argued and designed in the spirit of the Open City, are mere window dressing. Does this corrupt the assumption that maakbaarheid could be reintroduced as a viable route towards consciously and rationally constructing the Open City? Possibly, but first it is important to reconstruct when, where, by whom and for what purposes the term has been used in the past few decades. Doing so gives a perspective on planning and social engineering in the Netherlands that is infinitely more ambiguous, contradictory and rich than the familiar mantra that Dutch society used to be maakbaar, but it isn’t anymore. It also acts as a rebuttal to the opaque way in which architecture and urban planning are being used to manipulate society.

To this end, Crimson has organised nine realistic projects in which design is not used to imagine a future as a way to revolutionise the present, but as a tool to change a specific situation and architecturally represent existing programmes and urgent spatial questions. The radical quality lies in not imagining a different societal set-up, but in accepting and understanding existing roles and possibilities and working with them to achieve precise goals.

These projects neither assume the return of public planning as we knew it, nor propose visionary solutions. They are small plans - though this doesn’t mean the actual scale is small or is unrelated to a larger context. On the contrary, each small project is embedded in a larger-scale analysis of the urban context and accepts the current playing field of highly decentralised and privatised urban development, planning and policymaking.

Each project is based upon a coalition of partners, with the architect present from the outset to synthesise the various ideas and interests. In these coalitions - as opposed to many of the partnerships since the 1990s - the roles, responsibilities and agendas of the different players are sharply defined. All parties share an interest in establishing Open City qualities, by connecting different user groups, areas, programmes and institutions. All parties are also convinced of the spatial and social need for less fragmentation, less segregation, more cohesion and more coexistence.

Within this consensus, each participant has a distinct role. Municipal urban planners offer their knowledge of the city in order to embed each project in municipal policies. Client-users - mostly housing corporations and project developers - provide a question and an idea of use. Architects translate the question into a spatial and symbolic answer. Uniting these disciplines, Crimson edits, defines and poses the question in such a way that all parties can work together for the higher goal of developing realistic urban projects based on real needs.

Though the projects will be realised in practice, they also contain a level of urban speculation for other parties to develop. So each project consists of a ‘real’ part, and the potential of further development. In financial terms, they are safe options that aim to re-establish trust in architecture, planning and development as investments that actually deliver. To achieve this it is crucial that the private interests of the stakeholders and the public interest of the project are clearly separated and articulated.

In terms of the public agenda, each project tries to achieve authentic maakbaarheid goals. In Waalhaven, an industrial zone between the harbour and the city, the aim is to provide new workspaces that spatially reconnect the two zones while also opening up economic possibilities for the inhabitants of the neighbouring area, potentially emancipating young, immigrant citizens.

In Rotterdam West the area of intervention is the former harbour-train dyke between Spangen and an isolated triangle filled with public amenities such as a petting zoo, swimming pool and sports fields. Spangen is a once shiny example of social-democratic maakbaarheid from the 1920s, but is now a largely immigrant area crippled drugs, crime and unemployment. The project aims to transform the dyke and adjacent area into new types of public space that can be shared and used.

In the 19th-century area of Rotterdam Noord, another project centres around Het Klooster, a former convent which, like the area surrounding it, has suffered the effects of recent urban renewal. By analysing the building’s inherent spatial and architectural qualities, a set of functionally fitting programmes is distilled in order to re-embed the historic structure within the neighbourhood. At the same time, the surrounding public space is redesigned and reorganised. Out of the resulting square and the adjacent amenities, the project aims to create a vibrant neighbourhood centre.

Hemmed in between railway lines, busy roads, a school building and Rotterdam’s largest mosque lies Hilleplein, bordering some of the city’s most disenfranchised neighbourhoods. Here, the project consists of developing a new landmark for education and culture, including a library, neighbourhood centre and houses. Rather than trying to reinstate spatial continuity in a completely fragmented area, it seeks to establish a new sense of urban dignity by focusing on a public programme and high-quality architecture.

The many standard 1940s blocks built by architect Jo van den Broek present a completely different challenge. In Carnisse, an area which has one of the lowest real-estate values in the city, flat ownership is largely in private hands. To prevent a downward cycle it is necessary to address the technical as well as spatial problems of the blocks. The aim is to give the owners of the small apartments an architectural toolbox to take the refurbishment of their blocks into their own hands, thereby improving their living conditions as well as the overall attractiveness of the area. The soon-to-be abandoned Hofbogen train line dates from the early 20th century and includes two stations and almost 2km of viaduct, running through a 19th-century area in the north of Rotterdam. This viaduct will be redeveloped through a series of new commercial and cultural programmes and the project will reanimate the surrounding city by transforming the train line from a barrier into a connective element.

Following the Second World War, the centre of Rotterdam was extensively rebuilt and the effects of this still endure in the ubiquitous zoning of functions. In the redevelopment around Central Station this zoning runs the risk of creating a monofunctional and isolated area, while erasing the small-scale creative economy already established there. The brief for this so-called Central District forcibly connects the isolated super-development around the train station with the potential circuits and routes of the inner city. Replacing the tabula rasa approach with a gradual growth model forms an integral part of the redevelopment.

The Kleinpolderplein is one of the most impressive highway sections in the city, but it bisects a neighbourhood, and has a destructive impact on the surrounding urban areas. This project aims to tunnel, bridge, resurface and penetrate the motorway in order to counter this impact and facilitate cross-traffic, especially pedestrians and cyclists. Finally, the Park-knot Hoboken project also aims to bridge different parts of the city that have been separated by infrastructure (in this case a dyke) to create a meaningful continuous public space between three parks and Rotterdam’s main city hospital.

Creating a series of projects that share an ethos of straightforwardness and realism is surely more effective in meeting the city’s needs than another out-of-the-box alternative, or a spectacular ‘transformational vision’. As generations shift, so do the ethics of urban intervention, analogous with do-it-yourself punk bands and entrepreneurial hip-hop artists superceding the bombastic symphonic rock played by millionaires in sports arenas.

By re-embedding architectural and urban projects in the highly specific context of a location, user and programme, we hope to save them from the damaging competition for attention and political support to which masterplans or grand visions often fall victim.

The straightforwardness of the site-specific project could be a much-needed antidote to the degradation of credibility that big plans have brought to architecture and urban planning - but having a small plan in no way means having small ambitions. Being precise about the feasibility and the effectiveness of a plan means being completely accountable - a risk that very few makers of big plans are willing to take. Equally crucially, such projects set an example by showing what can be done, how it makes a difference, and that you can actually do it.

The International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam runs from 24 September 2009 to 10 January 2010.

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