The International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam asks the right questions

What do you want next?

ROTTERDAM – There are always voices who would generally prefer a biennale to be in the format of a book rather than an exhibition. There are good reasons for this position: a book’s pages can be flipped forward and backward many times; it can be contemplated upon in silence and solitude; it fits in a pocket; and is eternally accessible. However, the general dispute over the medium is subordinate to the quality of the content.

Under the title of The Next Economy, the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam runs from 23 April until 10 July 2016 and is exploring the futures of cities. Instead of addressing purely architectural questions, the event succeeds to frame the bigger picture. Bringing to mind Wolfgang Tillmans’ anti-Brexit campaign slogan – ‘No man is an island, no country by itself’ – IABR-2016 reflects that architecture is accountable for much more than the design of a building. Constantly confronted with the prognosis that the population in cities will drastically increase in the future, the dominant motive in urban planning has been growth. This sprint in higher, faster, further tradition has made cities bigger – yes – but it has also left them highly dysfunctional. The global south is facing half its population living in informal settlements, Asia can barely see its sky through clouds of smog, while real-estate prices in Western superlative cities like New York or London are shooting beyond reason. And yet, the city is our future.

Atelier 2050 An Energetic Odyssey: Offshore wind farm (Denmark), Photo Christian Steiness.

Curated by Maarten Hajer, professor of Urban Futures at the University of Utrecht, the IABR-2016 focuses on smart cities instead of smart technology, presenting pilot projects that radically re-imagine public space. Hajer and his curatorial team have selected around 50 concrete projects from more than 300 submissions and, with the exception of one, all of them are taking place in the real world rather than on paper.  It is an important curatorial decision, clearly suggesting that hypothetical solutions are not good enough to face real problems.

Africa What's Next: iShack2, Cape Town (South Africa), Photo Megan King. 

Rightly admitting the boundaries of their capacity, the IABR team has worked with guest curators from Africa and China to choose the most progressive projects from outside Europe. Uncrippled by bureaucracy and driven forward by necessity, the proposals from Africa stand out. But other models are equally as impressive, and they are diverse too. In Brussel’s district Molenbeek the answer to neglected space is found and executed by inhabitants, while in Toronto a skyscraper by Frank Gehry is hoped to revive the area. There is no one solution, but innovation and progress abounds.

Atelier Productive Metropolis BXL (Belgium), Photo Bas Bogaerts. 

Additionally, the IABR engages in research by design with governments at home and abroad. The results are part of the exhibition: three Dutch ateliers are based in Groningen, Utrecht and Rotterdam and focus on energy transition, the relationship between health and urban development, and structures for productivity, respectively. These are joined by three international ateliers, one of which is 2050-An Energetic Odyssey, exploring  the realisation of large-scale, production, transport and storage of renewable energy in and around the North Sea.

Atelier Productive City RTM (), Photo Kim Bouvy. 

Over the entire duration of IABR, the exhibition is supported by an extensive programme of lectures, debates and conferences.  When I visited, there happened to be a lecture by the Guardian architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright. Speaking about the ‘selling out of cities’ – with London as an example – his humorous yet well-informed monologue is followed by a conversation with Prof. Ewald Engelen from the University of Amsterdam, who vocalises his frustration over globalised, financialised capitalism with an aggressive passion. 

And there, in Wainwright’s positive cynicism and Engelen’s loud voice, I find the reason to advocate the exhibition as a format. A book just does not have the same dynamic. 

IABR-2016-The Next Economy can be seen in Rotterdam until 10 July 2016.

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