International Architecture Biennal Rotterdam 2016
The aim of the International Architecture Biennal Rotterdam (IABR) initiated in 2003 by the Dutch government with a cosmopolitan outlook (presided by Francine Houben and followed by George Brugmans) was to gather international knowledge and experiences of a range of design professions (architecture, urban design, planning, etc) and to present them to a broad audience. The Biennial events evolved into on-going research-bydesign supported by governments. Under different curators each of the seven IABR since 2003, has addressed a specific theme: mobility, the flood, power, open city, making city, urban by nature, and the next economy. IABR takes place over several weeks to enable partners, guest curators, project authors selected by competition to exhibit their work, discuss it at lectures and seminars, develop it further at workshops and ateliers, and implement at least some of their proposals in the real world, thanks to their political support.
The 2016 IABR has shifted from ‘it is the economy, stupid’ to ‘it's the culture stupid’, explained in four essays complemented by four others on the politics of the next economy. The guest curators presented innovative experiments: Urban Africa – What’s Next and Imaginaries of Eco Civilisation in China. The themes chosen by the IABR partners were: energy and space; spatio-economic development strategy to strengthen the Dutch business climate; urban infrastructure in the next economy; changing the geography of work (all in the Netherlands); and ‘connect the dots’ in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Concrete applications of some of these themes were developed at ateliers in the Groningen region (energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables); Rotterdam (making things again); Utrecht (from cure to care); Brussels (productive metropolis); and Albania (the metabolism of Albania). Their aim was to rethink the city as the Nordic City, the Productive City, the Healthy City, the Resilient City, and the City as a Factory.
Together these experiments exhibited at the Biennale and summed up in this book constitute very rich material to inspire urban designers in their practical work. Equally the eight essays provide ample food for thought. In its own view, IABR is providing ‘free cultural space’ for those on ‘sabbatical detours’ (working on IABR sponsored projects) to elaborate ‘innovations in governance’ needed to turn ‘research-by-design’ into a mainstream approach to urban development.
Although individual British designers were involved in various IABR projects (such Urban Design ― winter 2017 ― Issue 141 book reviews 41 as Mark Brearley of CASS as lead designer of the Brussels atelier, or 5th Studio Ltd with their Stour City project), why were there so few British examples involving entrepreneurial government? The answer may be that IABR remains an essentially Dutch venture with selected international cooperation.
What about the usefulness of the current theme, the Next Economy, for urban designers? This brainchild of the 2016 chief curator Marteen Hajer aims to stimulate what he calls ‘urban imaginaries’. He believes that planners and designers could play an essential role. He critiques what could be considered as past urban imaginaries: CIAM modernism, Buchanan’s Traffic in Towns, the post industrial emaciation of planning and, more generally, the withdrawal of the state leaving urban intervention to the development industry in a global neo-liberal climate. Putting something better in their place is laudable, but who can say whether the new urban imaginaries will not follow the fate of past ones? In her essay on ExtraStateCraft Keller Easterling puts forward intriguing ideas of where the true powers of urban interventions lie. She contends that ‘infrastructure space’, the ‘active forms’ of cities, hidden behind the ‘object forms’ of buildings, is effectively regulating relationships between buildings or dictating logistics. Where does that leave urban designers?