Curating the Open City

As part of our occasional series of conversations, urban designer Kees Christiaanse talked with editor Nancy Levinson about curating the Rotterdam Biennale, on the theme of “Open City,” and about how cities can become more inclusive and tolerant.

[All images courtesy of the Rotterdam Biennale.]

Nancy Levinson: The theme of the International Architecture Biennale is “open city: designing coexistence.” How do you define the open city?

Kees Christiaanse: “Open city” is a somewhat utopian term: it refers to efforts by architects and urban designers to translate the ideals of an “open society” — a society with a tolerant and inclusive government, where diverse groups develop flexible mechanisms for resolving inevitable differences — into physical spaces. It refers to places where people of different backgrounds can coexist, where interaction leads to cultural enrichment and innovation, and where the market flourishes. In the postwar era, we can see the open city concept in the idealism of Team X and in the speculative urbanism of Cedric Price. I’m thinking of Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt, of the ‘60s, which proposed reusing an abandoned railway track as the spine of a new kind of university, with mobile classrooms and housing modules that could adapt, so that the school could remain programmatically open. The open city idea infuses the writings of Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett and Albert Pope, among others. But the open city is not a specific place, it’s not a fixed entity. Rather, it’s a condition, usually found only in fragments, in parts of cities, where a fragile balance between integrating and disintegrating forces is maintained.

NL: You mention the “open society” — were you influenced by organizations like George Soros’s Open Society Institute?

KC: No, we were not. I was influenced by the fact that I studied architecture and urban design in the 1970s, when the idea of an open society, in the Netherlands, was called “the makeable society” — the society that we citizens could collectively shape, and in which different racial, ethnic and social groups would mix into a multicultural society. At the time I was fascinated by the Dutch Situationists and Structuralists — including the Dutch members of Team X — like Constant, Herman Hertzberger, Frank Van Klingeren and Piet Blom, who produced open plans for buildings and open urban systems. There was Constant’s New Babylon, a social utopia where creative play would be encouraged; the Centraal Beheer, by Hertzberger, an insurance company in Apeldoorn designed as a kind of worker’s village; and Van Klingeren’s Meerpaal Community Center in Dronten, which accommodated diverse programs, including theater, a market, even a bowling alley.

The ideals of these architects remain very attractive, but the implementation now seems rather naïve. For instance Van Klingeren’s Karregat, in Eindhoven, housed a supermarket, primary school, library and community center under one roof; this seemed an inventive mix of programs – except there wasn’t any acoustic and visual separation. As a result, the users pretty quickly compartmentalized the spaces. But the idea that we could design urban structures that truly facilitate transparent interaction continues to fascinate me. The first important project of this kind that I worked on was the 1983 competition for the Parc de la Villette, in Paris, when I was an architect at OMA. This scheme for the great educational theme park established interactive connections on many levels. It proposed different typological and programmatic layers that could accommodate radically changing programs without losing its coherent character. Since then, the idea of the open city has continued to surface. Recently it informed the Structuurplan for the city of Amsterdam, a master plan for the metropolitan region.

NL: What are examples of “designing coexistence”?

KC: Our subtitle is a bit confusing. We do not believe, as many did in the 1960s, that urban designers or architects can actually design coexistence — we are not that utopian, or naive. But we definitely can design urban structures or physical conditions that stimulate the emergence of creative urban environments. Today many cities are adopting neighborhood revitalization policies that encourage or even mandate social and functional diversity. Look at the Paraisópolis favela, in São Paulo. There the authorities, instead of bulldozing these slums as in earlier eras, send in teams of sociologists, technicians, urban designers and architects to develop renewal plans with the local communities. These plans result in the construction of sewer systems, public transit and sports facilities, in the creation of social clubs and libraries. They stimulate micro-economic activity and help to produce new, sturdier housing, with shacks being torn down to create public spaces.

Or in Hamburg — to cite a project done by our office — there is the master plan for the HafenCity, a new urban district with a fine-grained street network, mixed-use programs and no indoor malls. The goal was to maximize activity on the street. The programs vary from large-scale social amenities, such as a new concert hall, a cruise terminal and a science museum; to mid-scale activities such as shopping, offices and hotels; to small-scale residential programs by private builders, schools and crèches. The communities in these neighborhoods will have to evolve on their own — we cannot design them. But a diverse and flexible urban design can stimulate encounter and thus interaction.

NL: U.S. architects and urban designers have little real power: most of the built environment is created with little input from professional designers. In the Netherlands architecture has traditionally been much more on the public agenda. These days how much power do architects have to address the big environmental and social issues?

KC: On the one hand, we cannot really control the development of our cities: just witness the sprawl of the last half century, the segregation of uses and communities. On the other hand, we can make significant interventions — we can insert new rail lines, we can improve public spaces, as is being done these days in, for instance, New York City. Look at the new High Line. At best these interventions are the result of democratic processes, with stakeholder interests, environmental concerns and social effects all taken into account.
The Netherlands had a great planning tradition that worked well until the 1960s. In Holland democracy and planning have been directly connected, because they had the same source: in the middle ages, people could win emancipation from feudal rule and become landowners by helping in efforts to prevent floods — the age-old dilemma here. The result was not only the rise of independent communities and cities but also a strong collective spirit. Eventually more and more of the sea was filled in and the landscape became 100% manmade, requiring constant maintenance and protection. This collective civil engineering is the source of Dutch planning, which is distinct from other countries, where military engineering was usually the basis of large-scale planning.

But more recently, since the ‘60s, the Netherlands has turned into a diffuse mess of heterogeneous developments, a rather literal physical representation of rules and decentralized decision-making. The Dutch no longer know what works, but they know better than others what does not work. For instance: the good old zoning plan has lately lost importance; it’s given way to the general master plan, understood as a political covenant, in combination with local plans.

NL: What designers today are bringing about the open city?

KC: Designers who are successful in this are able to combine the scientific approach of planning with the sensibility of the architect. I am thinking of the kind of designers who have a sure sense of form and scale, who can coordinate and synthesize contributions from other disciplines, and who can create designs with flexibility and open-endedness, on the one hand, and also a strong visual and typological character, on the other. They can also work with stakeholders of radically different backgrounds. Designers who can do this are rare, because many architects cannot deal with conditions that they find ugly or do not control. Years ago, in a talk at the ETH, I put it this way: “While the architect works within the closed system of his own sophisticated taste, the urban designer is the coordinator of everybody’s bad taste, and lets a thousand flowers bloom.”

NL: I can see that this kind of architect is rare! But can you identify some who come close?

KC: A number of us who worked in the original Rotterdam office of OMA, back in 1980, have strived to do this kind of work — Rem Koolhaas has, so has Winy Maas of MVRDV. Others in the Netherlands who share these ideals are Adriaan Geuze of West 8, Next Architects, ZUS, and Maxwan. There is also a Scandinavian tradition that would include Ralph Erskine and Jan Gehl. And let’s not forget Richard Rogers in his later projects. In fact, nowadays there’s a growing momentum all over the world: from Mada Spam in Shanghai, to Atelier Bow Wow in Tokyo, to Urban Think Tank in Caracas, Alexandro Aravena in Santiago, and Interboro in New York — one of our sub-curators for the biennale.

Notable projects would include MVRDV’s recent proposal for Paris, which would enhance the city’s accessibility; West 8’s waterfront neighborhoods, such as Borneo Sporenburg in Amsterdam, and Nord Bassinet and Söndre Frihavn in Copenhagen; Jan Gehl’s urban strategies, such as his public realm work for Aalborg; and Urban Think Tank’s cable car project connecting a poor Caracas neighborhood to the city’s metro. In our own firm, in partnership Allies and Morrisons Planners and EDAW, we’re working on an “Olympic Legacy Masterplan,” creating strategies that will transform London’s Olympic site into a mixed-used district.

NL: Did you choose the open city theme as a critical reaction to the global culture of star designers?

KC: No, not really. We choose the theme of open city, and the sub themes — community, refuge, squat, collective, reciprocity and the make-able society — because we observed that cities were becoming increasingly closed. Monofunctional residential neighborhoods with limited car-access entry, covered shopping-malls, gated communities, guarded campuses, landscapes compartmentalized by traffic infrastructure: these are the physical symptoms of increasing social fragmentation. In contrast, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is an excellent example of a single element in a spectrum of interventions that positively catalyzed the city.

NL: One of the Biennale’s exhibitions features a manifesto, “Make No Big Plans,” that’s a challenge to Danial Burnham’s famous dictum to “Make No Little Plans.” Given the huge scale of contemporary urban problems, are small-scale interventions enough?

KC: We have to make big plans and small plans. As part of our research we have compared the development strategies of six mid-sized European cities: Dublin, Amsterdam, Bilbao, Copenhagen, Zagreb and Zürich. We found a common trend in urban policy: in all these cities the traditional zoning plan is being reduced in scope and power; at the same time planners are developing master plans that work not as juridical instruments but instead as political covenants that change over time and function as steering documents. In this framework a clearly defined project — like the Bilbao waterfront or the Amsterdam Zuidas — is usually executed by a mandated development agency, mostly in public-private partnership, that has considerable agility to respond to different development situations. This kind of balance between overall vision and concrete implementation suggests the emergence of a new urban design culture with new instruments — one that may help us produce better urban environments.

NL: What are your goals for the biennale?

KC: We have chosen 6 “situations” — combinations of sites, people, typologies and social conditions, in several parts of the world, in some cases in radically different phases of development. The situations include urban renewal in São Paulo; controlled squatting in Addis Ababa; the urban life of servants in Jakarta; gentrification processes in Istanbul; the revitalization of Palestian refugee camps; a new link between two neighborhoods in Rotterdam; a mass-housing concept for socialist cities; and research in suburban communities in the United States. So as a result, we hope that a city like Jakarta, for instance, will learn from the redevelopment policies in São Paulo. The Biennale is not a definitive statement on the open city. It’s about creating networks of people who’ll continue to work on this and exchange experiences. It’s the start of a search for structures and policies that can make cities more open.

Kees Christiaanse in conversation with Nancy Levinson, “Curating the Open City,” Places Journal, September 2009. Accessed 21 Mar 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Craig Purcell

    12.19.2009 at 06:27

    How does the open city fare in the face of "global terrorism" which governments use as an excuse to exert authority, shut things down, build walls and compartmentalize cities ?