In the temporary city

This is a story that takes place between fall 2007 and the moment it was written. What began as a critical article, which was translated into a exhibited manifesto at the Venetian Biennale, has turned into a very concrete legal process that is trying to span a bridge between utopia and the urban reality. Even more than a story about a architectural project, it says something about the changing role of the architect, a changing role the architect must accept if he wishes to still play a fundamental part in the development of the city.

Link to the Schieblock website here.

/work/urban_politics/images/162_Schieblock_perspective_02.jpg/work/urban_politics/images/162_Schieblock_collage_01.jpg

I Fiction: Neo-localism

The year is 2019. The past three decades have been turbulent for Europe. It started with the disappearance of communist regimes across the continent, which ushered in an era of neo-liberalism. Cities sought to feed into international capital flows and vied against one another to lure tourists, knowledge-economy workers, creative enterprises and international headquarters. Europe was awash with privatization, resulting in a situation where seventy percent of public facilities, including public spaces, fell into the hands of global corporations. Government has taken a backseat and the cities lack any long-term vision. The crisis has shattered the neo-liberal dream.

The European public domain has fallen victim to target-group thinking, safety and comfort. The citizen is no longer seen as a person with responsibilities, but as a consumer that needs to be protected from every form of risk. While privatization seems to be answer, what it is doing is insidiously eroding the heart of democracy.

And now that the public domain is on the verge of destruction, international and local pressure groups have united. They are fighting for the preservation of the democratic values of the public space. A UNESCO treaty sets out the critical quantity of public space each citizen should be entitled to. The quota offers protection against continued privatization and control. Europe has also established the Institute for Sufficient Publicness that, rather like the competition authority, is to keep an eye on the formation of monopolies on the public space. At the local level as well, bodies have sprung up in numerous cities to safeguard the public space and local colour.

This new wave of social alertness is referred to as neo-localism. Neo-localism is the answer to the aggressive neo-liberalism and the dogmas of a perspective that is purely economic. In post-political times, in which we find only movements, pressure groups, NGOs and splinter parties, these new institutes are assuming the public role of the government.

Rotterdam Glocal District
In Rotterdam, the neo-localist movement was born during the restructuring of the city centre, between 2000 and 2010, when the city had again fallen under the spell of the tabula rasa. Driven exclusively by economic motives, large market players had bought up every available construction site. This took place in a period of harsh criticism of China, where the original urban fabric of hutongs was being torn apart to make way for exclusive gated communities with towers. And yet at the time cultural liquidation was no less in the cities of Europe, where equally ruthless plans were being drawn up that fully ignored cultural-historical values, the local economy and the existing urban landscape.

In Rotterdam, too, a sparkling new business centre was envisaged that would attract the headquarters of international corporations. And here, too, local and public interests were initially ignored. But the resistance of Rotterdam’s population and an intense public debate laid the foundations for a new covenant in which the local and the global are united: the Glocal District.

In the Glocal District, the city can develop in a different manner. Not by shock and awe expansion, but by taking the existing Rotterdam as the starting point. Openings have been made in and through the buildings of the 1960s in which new connections are created. The renovated structures offer space for local companies and organizations. On the raised plinth and on ground level is the Bazar Curieux, with small-scale enterprises representing different cultures. As a result, local art, crafts and skills – so often ignored before – have gained a central place in the city. They form, literally and figuratively, the foundation for international companies and bodies, as they have been given the opportunity to construct large-scale office complexes above the existing structures. The result is a public network of courtyards, malls, squares, roof gardens and bridges. In keeping with neo-local ideas, they link the various levels, making the Glocal District the icon of neo-! localism – a turning point in the sale of the city’s public domain.

II Reality : urban obesity

In the mean time, cities seem to have lost no confidence in the market and continue unabated with the planning of new office locations, shopping centres and exclusive suburbs. The neo-liberal wind dropped in a few places, but the entire planning apparatus is sings to the tune: more is more. Urban growth suffers from urban obesity.

In Rotterdam, too, it seems to be business as usual and developments are proceeding at an undiminished pace. In this city where for decades the government has loosened its grip on urban development by selling rights of leasehold, the ball is primarily in the market’s court. The city authorities now act as facilitator and communication expert in the urban participation process. Any form of long-term planning is avoided and any form of risk excluded, resulting in odd situations.

Despite the huge volume of empty office space in the city (600,000 m2 in Rotterdam and 6.000.000 m2 in the Netherlands as a whole), speculation-driven construction continues at full speed, adding tens of thousands of square meters each month. The most poignant example of this is the construction of De Rotterdam, a multi-functional building by architect Rem Koolhaas, that is supposed to add allure to Kop van Zuid. For the construction, the ground lease was first bought back by the municipality for the duration of the project. Moreover, the entire municipal urban development agency is to be relocated to this building. With this type of sham construction, the illusion of dynamic urban development is held high.

Another phenomenon that has reared its head in the absence of direction and vision is the large-scale relocation of cultural events from the city centre to as-yet to be developed venues. In order to lend that same Kop van Zuid some cultural sparkle, the Photo Museum was located there and a cinema with strong ties with the city centre was torn out of its home and resituated there. And some of the most recent examples of the ‘relocation market’ is the new address of the Rotterdam Academy for Architecture. This college, which is mainly attended by evening students, has now been located far from the harbour with the idea of boosting the development of an innovative new area. The problem, however, is the innovative and cultural vacuum now left in the city centre. A lack of vision and a failure to protect this value on the part of the government apparently possible to see culture as something abstract and generic.

A third symptom of the diffuse marriage between municipality and market is the neglect of a number of key locations in the city centre and large-scale demolition. In particular, the city’s post-war reconstruction architecture has been affected because it is from a time when functionalism and soberness predominated. And yet this architecture, in a city where history began again following the WWII bombings, is one of the few elements that remind us of this time. In other words: it is specific to Rotterdam and defines the experience of the city. And yet, according to market principles there is nothing wrong with demolishing as much as possible in order to erect gleaming edifices in its place. Preferably, as high as possible. The motto of the past twenty years has been: high rise, high rise, high rise. Build for an imposing skyline while the city at street level is allowed to become ever more anonymous.

Rift
The recent plans, also known as VIP projects, are characterized by huge ambitions. With the optimism of pre-crisis prosperity, plans are being carried forward without interruption. In the area surrounding Rotterdam’s train station, known as the Central District, there are plans for a considerable office building programme, a mix of other functions and large subterranean parking facilities (240,000 m2). A wonderful future vision without any idea of how this is supposed to develop over the next twenty years. Projects like these almost never actually become what they are on paper. They become outdated or expectations are simply too high. And certainly in the unstable period in which we find ourselves, changes will be needed to meet new requirements. In other words, there is clearly a rift, a gaping breach between ambition and reality. In order to avoid the same mistake as with all those empty office buildings, we need a new architectural strategy, a strategy that incorpor! ates the factor of ‘time’.

Temporary city
Many major architectural plans are approached as a tabula rasa. A location is primarily seen as an interesting development location and little consideration is paid to its current potential. The procedure is to close off the area, demolish the existing structures, build new and market it aggressively. There are often concepts that are based on a totally new environment. It is a form of instant urban development.

The problem of this approach is that it takes at least a generation before real life enters such neighbourhoods. What is particularly misunderstood is that a city is an organic whole, of which the physical structures are one aspect. A city also consists of social, cultural and economic structures. These do not appear instantly, but develop gradually over time and closely reflect the location.

It is in fact a reminder of what was said by Jane Jacobs, who already in the 1960s agitated against the functionalistic view of cities, a view that precludes any form of cross-fertilization. This cross-fertilization lies at the core of cities as it forms the source of the economy, and hence the social interaction between different population groups. She therefore argued for architectural layers, a clear division between public and private spaces, a focus on the human scale and room for the local economy.

An approach with a static future vision, in other words, leads to disillusion and failure because it is often not able to adapt to its changing context. A new paradigm therefore needs to be developed that is capable of transformation, certainly in a time when the instant concepts have shown themselves to become quickly outdated. Temporariness is an important factor here. After all, why wait 20 years to build a city? Why not start achieving your ambitions in a single day? Should we not be experimenting more in the process? This does not mean any greater risk but a smaller risk of disillusion. Why should you delay creating value until such time as the area is again a bustling hub of activity?

The answer to these questions is ‘The Temporary City’. Not a city that exists purely in the interim, the period between demolition and new construction, but a permanent condition in which all interventions are by definition temporary until such time as they are proven successful and acquire a more permanent form. The Temporary City spans a bridge between theory and practice by testing assumptions, models and concepts at a fairly early stage. It is a process of trial and error, where knowledge and experience is accumulated on site. The existing construction is gradually adapted to new uses and risky elements are introduced in the form of pilots. This process of trial and error offers new insights and allows for modifications. In this way, ‘temporary architecture’ can be tested so that it can later solidify into something more permanent.

Not a plan, but a script
A new approach to urban development requires a new set of planning tools. Where traditional instant urban development works from a plan or a blueprint, the temporary city is conducted using a script. Just like in a real film script, the title, genre, main characters and plot are all known in advance. But the way in which these elements play against each other and relative to the situation, the set or the location is always open to interpretation. This room for play is literally intended to give the actors the freedom to lend their own interpretation to the scenes. If it starts to rain, for example, the lighting can be changed. Scenes can be done over if not right the first time. Within such a framework, rules do not suffocate but they create spaces within which a great degree of freedom remains.

In a plan, everything is set out meticulously, right down to the corner profiles. And even more importantly, there is no room for gradual development, just a thought-through plan that is implemented phase by phase. A script allows you to make best use of the time available by experimenting, learning and modifying. It does require an entirely different attitude on the part of the architect. Work will not end when the plan has been detailed. It is more like a form of architectural management, where new insights are continuously being introduced and, consequently, new options are constantly being made available.

Such an approach will probably be needed if major architectural developments are to be carried out going forward that avoid serious gambles being taken with the future and that drastically reduce risk-avoiding mediocrity.

III Meanwhile: Schieblock Test Case

The temporary city means starting now. It makes no sense waiting for investors to re-emerge or hoping that the area will develop itself. We have turned unsolicited advice into a unbidden project. This means that we have started to interfere with the development of the area and, particularly, with the possibilities offered by the building in which we are located, a building known as the Schieblock. After eight years of so-called temporary occupancy of the building, we decided that something had to be done. And that was certainly the case when it was announced that the building was to be demolished in order ‘to give the market a sign’. What this meant in reality was that in ten years’ time a parking place would be created in the middle of the city.

Hence it was time for action. The Schieblock and the Temporary City would become our biggest unbidden project yet. It all began with an article on Archined, which criticized the disconnect between the renewed ambitions and the subsequent traditional urban development plan. It was then that we began our own study of the qualities of the area and alternative models that could be applied. Gradually, and partly helped along by the crisis, the ideas have taken hold.

Step 1: the Dependance – centre for city culture
As previously mentioned, one of the symptoms of the Rotterdam planning apparatus was the relocation of cultural venues to areas as yet to be developed. To reverse this cultural fragmentation, the Dependence, or Annex, - a centre for urban culture – was established. The aim of the Dependance is to become a meeting place where all invisible cultural potential can become visible. The Dependance wishes to demonstrate the power of the collective. The Dependance invites everyone to give the city centre the cultural boost it deserves. The Dépendance offers space to all organizations that have disappeared from the city. The Dépendance aims to be a place where cultural forces are joined. A place for debate, expositions, performances, confrontation, exchange and production: in other words, a centre for urban culture.

After the Dependance has designed on paper and leaked to various media outlets, the first candidates expressed an interest in using the space to organize exhibitions. Given that the plinth of the building was boarded up and the spaces had long been abandoned, we saw the opportunities the Dependance offered. For three weeks, we exchanged our PCs for crowbars and paintbrushes and in no time the original transparency had returned to the place. The once sad abandoned location was now hot and happening.

Thus far we have hosted graduation presentations, film showings, provided space for a guerrilla restaurant, a film set and exhibitions. We needed to set up a separate organization to deal with the requests to use the Dependance. The strategy is beginning to work. Step 1 – the creation of a good plinth – has begun.

The Dependance; architectural activism
A dreary plinth in today’s city centre is turned into a cultural hot spot to make it clear that, in spite of years of speculation, the district cannot yet by written off. Simple by making the original structure of the building visible again and by opeing it for those cultural activities that have relocated to the periphery as a result of the effect of market forces, the potential of the site is rendered visible. The result is the Dependance centre for urban culture.

Step 2: pilot, good quality public space
One of the ambitions in the urban development plan is to have created good quality public space in 20 years’ time. This is much more difficult to realize than it might seem. Certainly in Rotterdam where there is already precious little lively and intense use of the public domain. And yet the idea is definitely worth an attempt. Assisted by the International Summer School of the Rotterdam Academy of Architecture, we have created a temporary public space to find out how much of it we will need in order to lure people to the roof. Urban developers employed by the municipality were enthralled by the view and the beauty of the area. An important part of the script is apparently raising your consciousness by examining the material from new and different perspectives.
By trial & error we will test the long-term ambitions on a very short-term. A bicycle connection from Central Station towards the east, crossroads to adjacent districts, a high economical diversity, a thrilling public domain, public space high up in the air, the re-use of existing structures and the creation of local ownership. Interventions in the existing fabric will proof whether the ambitions are valuable, but also startup the process of urban development.

Step 3: the Schieblock
In actual fact, the Schieblock is a building like many others. Constructed as an office building with a clear pattern of columns, a rational facade, and otherwise laid out along very functional lines. Once intended to house an insurance company, the building has accommodated a school, company offices, residences and recreational venues. Then it stood for almost 15 years, which is to say that our bureau and other parties managed the building. And why? Because it is an speculation and investment opportunity that would never house tenants as they would be too difficult to evict should the building be set for demolition. A fairly cynical approach to city development.
That is why we played realtor for two years and approached many parties in the city involved in urban development to ask them if they would locate in the Schieblock. Together with a young developer, we drew up a business case to ensure that we would be taken seriously After six months of pushing and shoving it looked like it was all about to happen. We had a group of parties: starts-ups, institutes, education institutions, workshops, studios, research-in-residence and an office hotel. We had a feasible business case and support from the municipality. Then we received the news that the building would be demolished anyway for rather vague reasons that did not include any construction.
We had delayed involving the media in the entire process for as long as possible. The media often puts out crooked and over-simplified stories that have an inhibiting effect on negotiations. In this case, however, it resulted in the owner becoming interested in the potential economic value that the plan. The media attention also resulted in broad support for the plan. The building had suddenly become public property.

At the time this article was going to press, we were still in the middle of negotiations for a temporary contract to transform the Schieblock into a city laboratory. The devil is in the details, but if all goes well we will be a step closer to making the Temporary City a reality and the Schieblock will itself be a study in the city of the future.. Time for action!

Name: Schieblock
Location: Rotterdam
Date: 2009
Area: 12.000 m2
Client: Unsolicited
Status: In development