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The City as a Loft
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Urban brownland sites provide space for different uses and activities, they are the seed-bed of urbanity.
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In The History of the City Leonardo Benevolo defines the transition from village to city as the point when people begin to practise different professions in other words, when complex networks develop. By analogy we could now, a thousand years later, define our idea of urbanity as the point when new or unexpected networks arise from the combination of old ones. Among the places where new forms of city life develop are former harbour and railway sites.
In many cities there are indications that such areas are ultimately salvaging the concept of urbanity as we like to see it and are giving it new content. Their ability to do so derives from various factors such as a location close to the city centre, a good potential for access, and a characteristic mixture of historic and contemporary elements and larger and smaller scales. They allow different uses to develop both informally and officially in a symbiosis of cultural, everyday and commercial activities.
Neither the city centre nor the periphery satisfies these conditions. The city centre is made into an adventure park given up to fun shopping and entertainment, and is too expensive. The periphery is too anonymous, too far away, too one-dimensional, and not dense enough. Examples of the kind of urbanity we mean can be found in the eastern part of the Amsterdam harbour district or on the edges of Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg in Berlin. These areas have cult status today, much as Montmartre did in the twenties, the Quartier Latin in the thirties, and Soho and Greenwich Village in the sixties and seventies.
The areas of waiting land require new strategies for their development although, with the constantly shifting front lines of gentrification, some of them have stopped waiting long ago. The debate between the protagonists of critical reconstruction and the modernists on the site of the former Wall and other abandoned land in Berlin was not so much about the compact 19th-century city versus the polycentric archipelago of urban islands. Nor was it about preserving the Wall zone as a monument to history. Rather, it was about acknowledging that abandoned land provides physical nourishment for the development of sustainable urban structures, cultures and networks, and that this is usually destroyed when such an area is completely built up according to traditional planning processes.
Unstable and often unofficially used at first, a brownland site is not protected in its status as such and is therefore vulnerable. Developing directives for these waiting lands is therefore very important. The point is not so much about keeping the land free or maintaining the status quo. After all, the pressure to develop and the need for yield, if available, are impossible to resist. Rather, it is about directing a gradual and open-ended development, where the existing qualities as far as both physical structure and activities are concerned are recognized for their mutually complementary and fertilizing processes as lasting capital.
The city as loft. The key concept here is loft. The concept of the loft implies a space for living and working used by culturally committed and globally thinking people. It is a space with character and large dimensions that can be occupied with few but effective means. No wonder when we design a new building for sites as described above that we say we have designed an occupied attic. Buildings in these sites are flexible; they have a lot of light, large surfaces and high ceilings. Yet they are not flexible in the usual sense that leads to conventional structures lacking in quality. Instead, they provide powerful, adaptable architectural spaces.
In these sites one can observe that the concept of the loft is also applicable to the larger urban planning context. Regardless of the exact shape taken by the buildings, open space creates a powerful, architectonic spatial unit that gives a site a clear orientation and fixes it in the city. It is partly formal, partly available for occupation. Both the open space and the buildings can be made of materials that show the contrast between new and old recycled materials from that piece of land, such as cobblestones, parts of railway tracks and other found objects. The re-used materials acquire a new interpretation and provide historical depth at the same time. The buildings can be freestanding sculptures or blocks of urban spatial units. This flip-flop effect conveys a completely new kind of feeling of urban space. The depth of the buildings creates specific typologies, often with semi-public inner realms that give the urban architectural context a twofold basis. These spatial conditions make it possible to apply the lofts properties out of doors and to cause its spacious, dynamic and functionally varied qualities to take effect in the city.
Urban catalysts. The KNSM Island in Amsterdam was originally to have been built up exclusively with new housing in the usual (bad) mono-cultural kind of urban expansion. This was impossible, however, as a number of the existing buildings were occupied by informal activities: a sailboat restoring cooperative, a theatre company, several carpet dealers, a club, squatters, and less attractive uses. The city and investors were forced to leave standing some of the old buildings actually not worth preserving, along with their residents, and to integrate them into the new architecture. One large hall was left for a small sum to a young investor who rented it out for low-budget high culture activities because the official investors did not believe it would be a marketing success. This initial mixture of different activities ultimately led KNSM Island to become not a parasite on the urbanity of the inner city but an urban centre itself. The sailing freaks turned into a respectable yachting business. In the meantime, the large hall became a major start-up centre and has attained cult status with well-known galleries, designer shops and an Albert Heijn supermarket, the symbol of the Dutch business establishment. For a subsequent large-scale Amsterdam harbour development project a consortium was founded consisting of the meanwhile not so young investor and the big investors with the aim of combining the former warehouses with new buildings. The result is a 40,000-square-metre area covered with existing and new buildings. The program is varied, ranging from low-cost lofts for start-ups to luxury penthouses.
Meanwhile, a project is underway in Amsterdam North where the development process no longer originates with shareholders (who are only involved in the project financially), but with stakeholders (who have vested interests in local business). The careful direction of activities on site, interests, financial analyses and other factors is initiating a sustainable development that permits a radical mixture of activities.
Cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam or the harbour of Scheveningen already possess plenty of dynamism to generate new developments. In less prosperous areas, however, development strategies as discussed above are our only hope for making something happen. For the environs of the port of Magdeburg, lacking in dynamics of their own, we have proposed not only to direct the process with stakeholders but also to categorize the buildings. Buildings worth preserving will be classified into immediately usable and not yet usable (where renovation or repair is necessary). As many of the usable ones as possible will be rented out or left free of charge to start-up entrepreneurs with the condition that they renovate the premises themselves. Buildings that are not usable but worthy of preservation will be wrapped up in canvas like the Reichstag by Christo and covered with advertising or literature. The remaining buildings will be demolished. The materials will stay on the land for later use. The empty lots thus created, which largely consist of future building sites, will be used extensively for uses that have a structuring and thematic influence on the area, such as pasturing animals, growing rape or breeding sheep. The area is now in the process of transformation.
Scale and mixed use. The modern airport, by being combined with railway stations, reloading and reshipment points, hotels, congress centres, gastronomic establishments and shopping centres, is developing into a complete city lacking nothing but housing. This shows that under certain conditions the trend to separate functions changes into a trend to mix functions. New forms of mixed uses can develop, such as the glass Volkswagen factory in the centre of Dresden as a counterpart to the Frauenkirche, the destroyed church just being rebuilt. What leads to urbanity is not the fashionable mixture of residential districts and industrial zones to create so-called double use but daring experimental mixtures on land formerly occupied by harbours and railways.
For the railway grounds in Oslo and Groningen we developed a dynamic structure of city blocks that can be implemented in phases. It arises on a deck that climbs gradually higher and grows in synchrony with the buildings, finally crossing the tracks at its uppermost level. On top of the deck, besides the obligatory functions, are expensive townhouses with gardens. Underneath it is room for a distribution centre or a department store. This radical mixture is a consequence of the realisation that old policies to reduce car traffic by promoting public transportation and to ban shopping centres and distribution centres from the city centre so as to protect small retailers are counterproductive. Large, easily accessible car parks near ICE railway stations encourage travel by train. For instance, thanks to the new TGV railway station and gigantic shopping centre the old city centre of Lille has experienced a genuine revival.
The construction of spacious houses with flexible ground floors near the city centre, such as those built on Kop van Zuid and the Müller Pier in Rotterdam, is not only the result of increasing demand from the well-to-do who want to move back to town. There is also a growing awareness that precisely these residents will function as catalysts for a sustainable urban culture. The phenomenon is demonstrated in London, which has one of the most successful urban cultures in the world.
The city without a programme. During the presentation of the Pakhuizen project on the eastern commercial dock in Amsterdam, the architect Felix Claus answered a question about the appearance of his residential building with the comment: I have designed an occupied attic. Around the same time I was giving a guided tour to a client through the new building of the University of Rotterdam and told him that we had actually designed a converted warehouse. Thereupon the man commissioned us to design a building as a spatial and architectural sculpture. The programme was to be determined later. The converted warehouse provides optimal premises for an advertising agency. A new design following a carefully prepared programme would never have attained a comparable degree of characteristic identity and quality. The same is true for the Hotel New York in the former head office of the Holland-America Line in Rotterdam and for the Café Amsterdam on the former GWL grounds.
The success of this form of cultural recycling is not only due to the historical component and the location but also to powerful architectural characteristics and a certain spaciousness of the dimensions. These buildings derive their appeal from the resistance that the new occupant must overcome. Evidently buildings become better when they are not designed for a specific use, and the building and the programme must adapt to each other. Recycling and attributing typology occurred often in the past. Growing up in southern Amsterdam I was convinced that I could see the central station from Lairesse Street and did not find out until later that it was the Rijksmuseum I was looking at. Up to the early 20th century it was normal for city blocks and public buildings to be designed in terms of typology, whereby the programme played a subordinate role. The winning design for a theatre in Porto by Rem Koolhaas is an enlarged version of an earlier design for a house. His fuck the context statement was obviously augmented by fuck the programme. Kasimir Malevich knew all this already. He wanted his fantastical Architectonics to be occupied programmatically by a civilisation that deserved them: Without a function the Architectonics simply exist, built of (non)transparent glass, concrete, tar paper, heated by electricity
accessible throughout for the people who inhabit them and who can sit on their outer surfaces when the weather is nice
Culture, nature, history. I cannot conclude an article on converted sites without praising the IBA Emscher Park. According to Tom Sieverts the total area of available and yet to be converted harbour, industrial and railway land is much larger than the construction land needed for the next fifty years. This statement regardless of whether it is true or not says a lot about the immense space available in Germany. Furthermore, the population is shrinking and according to a study by Tim Rienitz it is expected that the amount of land used for agriculture, presently about fifty percent of the country, will be reduced to about half in the coming decades. However, this does not automatically mean that Germany is luxuriating in space. Farming is too automated and the tendency toward cheap sprawl instead of careful re-use is too great for this to happen. Nevertheless, knowledge of the situation is essential for the development of strategies for a sustainable cultural landscape. In this respect, IBA Emscher Park in particular exhibits an extremely provocative and yet varied and sensitive approach to the cultural landscape. In my opinion it is unique. A nice example of direction incorporating culture, history and nature is the Duisburg Meiderich project. Our project for the Hansa coking plant near Dortmund conforms to this pattern. A light sculpture preserves the outlines of the coking plant while the structure itself, with controlled overgrowth and collapse, is decaying into a modern ruin.
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Kees Christiaanse is architect and professor for design an urban planning at the Technical University of Berlin