03. May 2012 / Jessica Bridger
5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam: Making City
“Making city is the principal imperative of our times,” became like a rally cry during the opening week of the fifth installment of Rotterdam’s International Architecture Biennale (IABR). This operative claim about the production of urban environments is addressed in a broad range of ways at the various sites, exhibits and events at the Biennale.
The IABR was composed by eight curators under the direction of George Brugmans. It runs the gamut in presence, relevance and quality, across three main nodes in Rotterdam and additional sites worldwide. The central Rotterdam exhibit “Making City” is located at the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI), part of the museum district in Rotterdam. This makes it easy for the general public to engage with the IABR. The “Making City” NAI component is the most easily comprehensible, at least in parts, for those outside of the design and planning community. This fits the event’s main message that the only way to “make city” is to engage with all people and across disciplines. It is clear that efforts were made to bring the larger public into the IABR. That is important at a time when many people could very well ask: “what is a biennale anyhow?” with no prospect for discovery.
The second site in the cascade of main spaces is the “Rotterdam Test Case” located in and around Schieblock, a formerly vacant building located near the central Hofplein area. A massive intersection at Hofplein is an unfortunate example of car-centric planning, and the surrounding areas are disconnected and disjointed. In spite of this, the Schieblock building has become a home for creative enterprises. Cheap rents and like-minded neighbors who didn’t mind noise, smells or construction activity made the building appealing. The ground floor of Schieblock contains various IABR related exhibits. The proposals offered at IABR are sometimes exercises in irrational exuberance, with suggested forms of universally applicable engagement that are by turns romantic or positivistic, but they are not without value. The Schieblock itself is undoubtedly some of the IABR’s larger points realized, about who and what it takes to “make city.” It is provocative, however romantic and limited it is as a broadly applicable response to urban issues.
The last in the series of main IABR nodes is at the so-called “Mini Mall.” Located in an area behind the unfortunate rotary at Hofplein, it is anchored by a restaurant/bar/club “The Bird.” An early pioneer in this (almost) rediscovered area, The Bird is not an official part of the IABR. However, restaurants like The Bird deserve attention for their pragmatic city making function, and for helping to make the third node of the NAI viable. Inside of the Mini Mall, alongside informal and formal commercial offerings is an exhibition by Wouter Vanstiphout, chair of Design as Politics at TU Delft. He and his students present a no-nonsense exhibition of political turning points and crisis situations that unfolded in space and time. The clear message is that not every spatial action is sanctioned and not every political movement is choreographed. Incorporated into this display are some project proposals, one of which is for “big box” stores like IKEA to become occupants of vacant urban buildings, with public measures for added benefit. Cheap rents for creatives are not always worth more than the value of vacancy as a tax write-off for developers. At Mini Mall we see the unromantic but real social and economic pressures that exist in the city.
The real economic factors involved in “Making City” were the most unspoken but undeniably present aspect. Ole Bouman, director of the NAI, opened the press conference by reminding everyone that the current economic conditions in the Netherlands (and worldwide) threatened vital cultural institutions and activities. This was certainly difficult for some people to stomach, but it is what the entire Biennale dances around – or avoids – quite cleverly. There’s space for romantic and fanciful ideas, but reality must be acknowledged however unpleasant, especially if architecture will engage with political forces and financial systems at a level high enough to truly impact the making of cities.
The 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam: Making City, accompanied by various special events, runs through Summer 2012 at numerous sites in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. More information is available through http://www.iabr.nl. The Making City exhibition at the Netherlands Architecture Institute runs through August 12, 2012 http://en.nai.nl
Photo of Making City at NAI, copyright Ossip van Duivenbode