The submarine rises again
by Paul Andreas
May 10, 2016

Home at last, one might say. After many years of guest appearances in various Rotterdam cultural institutions, the seventh edition of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR) has arrived at its natural thematic location: The former Fenix coffee warehouse is an interim location characterized by coarse industrial-grade concrete, with a future that remains at least partially uncertain. Furthermore, with its large, open halls and its location in the heart of the new hipster district of Katendrecht, the warehouse is a hotspot of gentrification. Nearly three years ago this former port and red-light district with its already far above-average migrant population was joined up to the showpiece of Rotterdam’s urban development, the Wilhelminapier.

Now, for its part, years after this physical link was put in place, the IABR is attempting to build a psychological bridge between the two areas as well as between the old and new residents. Many of the different discussion formats and workshops are designed explicitly to include not only an expert audience but also those in the neighborhood, while city tours provide an opportunity to explore the niche areas and micro-economies of Katendrecht together.

Unlike the Architecture Biennale in Venice, for example which, in spite of its noticeable thematic fine-tuning over the last few years, remains a matter of changing presentations, the IABR sees itself as a permanent “glocal think-tank”: The invited international specialists are ultimately supposed to bring their expertise to help tackle local and regional spatial problems, going beyond established planning routines. Or, to use the metaphor of long-term Biennale Director George Brugman: The IABR acts like a submarine, it generally remains hidden, but every two years it surfaces in order to present interim results in the form of inspiration, planning strategies and spatial tactics.

The next economy must be an urban one

Which brings us to the many project tables made of MDF, scattered across the broad floor of the Fenix like an archipelago. These tables bear wooden panels of remarkable thickness, as if those responsible for their design, Brussels-based architects 51N4E, wanted to emphasize the solidity of the proposals laid out upon them. The organizers learnt from the confusion of the last edition held in the Kunsthal, and this time the number of projects exhibited has been reduced to barely 60. The team centered around this year’s Head Curator Maarten Hajer selected them from 283 proposals from 35 countries, and it was Hajer who formulated the central question of this year’s Biennale: “What will be the Next Economy?”

The question raised by the political theorist, who for a long time worked as an urban policy consultant for the Dutch government and now works primarily as a university lecturer in Urban Futures in Utrecht, is initially oriented more towards economic policy than architecture: What new model could follow the fossil-based “old” and the neo-liberal “new” economy? Given rapid global urbanization, this “Next Economy” must inevitably be primarily urban, as well as economically lively, post-fossil smart and, most importantly, socially integrative. Hajer, who has included an exhibition section which offers an ironically exaggerated look through smart glasses, is never at a loss for a swipe at the lovers and manufacturers of smart technologies: Google, Facebook, Apple & Co. can work diligently on their images of the future, but so far these remain merely images of a premium society, in which lurk the trap of systematically not being able to see outside the box.

A Crystal Palace for Rotterdam

By contrast, the Biennale exhibition looks primarily at the reindustrialization of the city, particularly with regard to the European agglomerations that have degenerated into service monocultures. How can small-scale, innovation-driven manufacturing – for example with FabLabs and 3D printing – foster the transition to an ultimately post-fossil urban economy incorporating local value creation? That is what the IABR workshops in Rotterdam and Brussels aim to show. For Rotterdam Daan Zandbelt from planning bureau De Zwarte Hond proposes a more intense networking of the circular economy of industry with innovation research and education. What’s important here is greater visual presence: In order to promote and, at the same time, propagate the cooperation of start-ups with institutions and corporations, what’s needed is a contemporary remake of the Crystal Palace, he claims, although the question of the architecture here remains unanswered.

When it comes to truly cyclical economies and more intense spatial networking of production, innovation and consumption, excessively regulated Europe could learn a thing or two from Asia and Africa. Anyone asking themselves where the worn-out cars from Europe end up should take a look at Ghana’s second-biggest city, Kumasi. In a large area that formerly served as a weapons store for the British army, old vehicles are repaired or new ones cannibalized from old parts for the African market in a buzzing agglomeration of open-air workshops, factories and shops – the perfect example of an informally organized circular economy – nothing gets lost. On the neighboring table, “Island”, there is also a focus on urbanization in Africa, and how this gives rise to both small tactical projects as well as large-scale endeavors with global capital. Pioneer network projects like the cooperative-based photovoltaic network Ishack in South Africa stand alongside a 44-gigawatt dam project in the Congo or the recently launched Noor solar farm in Morocco. Yet the exhibition does not draw conclusions on what, ultimately, is actually smarter or more socially inclusive.

More city from the bottom up

“Upscaling”, on the other hand, is a ubiquitous theme at the Biennale: enough of the small details, it’s time to network and use the help of bigger partners to increase the feasibility of ideas and projects. This is represented perfectly by a project located on the northwest bank of the Ij in Amsterdam’s Buiksloterham. Just a few years ago a handful of spatial pioneers settled here, not far from the NDSM wharf, which had been taken over by artists. Now a considerable piece of the city is actually being realized as a bottom-up initiative. There’s a mixture of different types of buildings just as there is a mix of property developers and subsidized social housing, a veritable social and functional mish-mash. Here, all the stakeholders have agreed on a shared declaration of values bound by the circular economy and also take care of such things as energy supplies, waste processing and all other infrastructure themselves. This dynamic rejigging of the precedent on a large scale could actually be “dangerous” as George Brugman likes to call the projects in his Biennale. And not entirely without reason, since if the sum total of the projects shown were actually to form an entirely new, cooperative urban model, then that might perhaps really amount to a new (urban) economy hatched and fostered within the urban environment.

International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam
The Next Economy
Main exhibition Fenixloods II, Paul Nijghkade 19
Runs until July 10, 2016
Catalog costs EUR 19.50

Focus on the virtual: In the main exhibition on “The Next Economy” so-called smart technologies are explored with an ironic touch. Photo © Hans Tak, IABR
An upturn in the fortunes of Katendrecht, a migrant district: The Biennale is mainly sited in a former coffee warehouse south of the Maas River. Photo © Kim Bouvy, IABR
Major issues are tackled jointly: At the Biennale international experts set out to help solve local problems. Campaign image © IABR
An archipelago of tables: Just short of 60 projects are on show, chosen from 283 entries from 35 different countries. Photo © Hans Tak, IABR
You could easily lie on the table: The MDF tops are strong enough to enable visitors to lie on them and study a projection on the ceiling. Photo © Hans Tak, IABR
Upgrading and informal settlement in Stellenbosch nr. Cape Town using solar cells: Countless projects from Africa and Asia are on show. Photo © Megan King
One of the most important projects: Urban development in Buiksloterham in Amsterdam, where the old wharves have been given a new lease of life. Photo © Stadslab Buiksloterham
Table it all: an archipelago of large working tops – the main Biennale exhibition was designed by Brussels-based architects 51N4E. Photo © Lotte Stekelenburg, IABR