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Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and New York, USA – Compelling Visions of New York and Amsterdam in 2040

Exchanging ideas on sustainable architecture within and beyond the global cities of New York and Amsterdam

In March this year, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan that provides a sustainable framework for the city’s 835km of shoreline. Also this spring, the Dutch government launched the Amsterdam Plan: 2040, a strategy tackling climate change and shifting demographics that aims to reduce the ecological footprint of the city. Both plans, though devisedindependently of one another, indicate a desire to position Amsterdam and New York as competitive global cities.

Now, in an attempt to link the collective visions of both cities to produce sustainable conurbations, the AIA Center for Architecture in New York and ARCAM in Amsterdam have produced Glimpses of New York and Amsterdam in 2040, an exchange programme and exhibition curated by Marlies Buurman, Rosamond Fletcher, Maarten Kloos and Luc Vrolijks. The exhibition brings together 10 design practices from New York and Amsterdam to imagine the look and feel of both cities 29 years from now.

Though far from being a new item on the planning agenda (sustainable architecture was being debated even before the 1987 UN Conference on the Environment and Development), Glimpses resists stagnant ideologies and instead offers a platform for a new generation of designers to advance - or re-appropriate - green design.

According to Luc Vrolijks, the exhibition represents a fresh-faced collection of interdisciplinary practices and game-changers: dlandstudio, Interboro Partners, Solid Objectives - Idenburg Liu (SO - IL), W Architecture and WORKac in New York; and Barcode Architects, Delva & Dingeman Deijs, Fabrications, space&matter and Van Bergen Kolpa in Amsterdam.

The exhibition’s modest time frame (MoMA’s critically acclaimed show Rising Currents looked to 2080) caveats an urgency for practical solutions to the real problems of a growing population, food distribution and a rising water table, as well as whimsical scenarios that pin our dreams to innovation and creativity. Rather than proposing a detailed study of future conditions, Vrolijks has asked: ‘What creates value in 2040?’ The practices - one from each country - have then explored one of five key human activities: ‘Breathing’, ‘Dwelling’, ‘Eating’, ‘Making’ and ‘Moving’.

The strength of Glimpses lies less in the final products than in the ideas behind them. The exhibition itself is reliant on imagery, which belies the complex questions about the relevance of human agency in solutions. Most successful, though, is the treatment of the concept of sustainability. ‘More than just ecology, it is also about integration and interconnections,’ says Vrolijks.

In The Refinery, for instance, under the theme of ‘Making’, New York-based, SO - IL has imagined a floating market place where robotic arms sort through debris and compartmentalise waste materials for reuse. Though dominated by dystopian imagery depicting a world where expansion, depleted resources and rising sea levels leaves us ‘scrambling for ad-hoc tools to patch up the rupturing surfaces’, SO - IL turns a dreaded post-industrial scene into a productive landscape where entrepreneurs can, from diffuse scraps, make do and mend. Indeed, it offers respite from tired images of dereliction and an alternative to sustainability which Florian Idenburg calls ‘abstain-ability’.

In contrast, Barcode Architects’ interpretation of the same activity defines the Netherlands’ vital export as the knowledge economy. The Dutch firm has divided a singular tract of land into a patchwork of science parks, which all together act as a ‘global showroom for research’, in the international hub of Schiphol Airport.

A metaphorical proposition, the Valley of the Valleys (Low Lands), is an amalgamation of all the science parks in the Netherlands. ‘We should see Dutch cities as one nation, rather than competing against one another,’ said Caro van der Venne of Barcode Architects at the accompanying symposium.

At the other end of the spectrum, Brooklyn-based Interboro Partners asked the question: ‘Could there be a way to bridge Mies and MacDonalds?’ with the energetic and pragmatic Newark Visionary Museum. In response to the title ‘Dwelling’, the young practice’s mural-type rendering explores the plurality of progress.

While one layer shows past failed visions such as that of US landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, the other reveals future possibilities in lightning-bolt glimpses. Akin to space&matter’s Dutch vision of ‘Dwelling’ (We is the New I), which tackles the need to foster community diversity, Interboro Partners’ project takes social sustainability as a means to improve the metropolitan condition of disconnectivity.

Yet Glimpses celebrates disjointedness and disparity, as well as collective spirit. The designers engage in creating a new vernacular for our cities: a ‘glocal’ architecture with place and experience at its core. Eschewing post-apocalyptic scenes where human agency is all but redundant, they frame robust visions of life amid fragile ecologies.

Such propositions not only offer glimpses of what a sustainable city could look like, but also how architects may play a role in driving change.Glimpses of New York and Amsterdam in 2040 runs at ARCAM, Amsterdam, until 13 August, and the AIA Center for Architecture, New York, until 10 September

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