Proposals for 'De-smoothening' the City
Cities around the world are turning into smooth, homogeneous places, wiped clean of anomalous structures and frayed edges: ‘smooth cities’. Public space is increasingly becoming predictable and controlled. Amsterdam is no exception to this process of smoothening. How accessible is a smoothened city still, and can we make design and policy proposals that provide space for the unpredictable, the anomalous, and thus for a democratic city?
This is a summary of the Smooth City event at the Cities for Change conference on Thursday, May 27, you can watch the recording of the live stream of that event here:
As part of the Cities for Change conference, we posed this question to a number of interesting thinkers, city makers, architects and designers. The result, which they presented during the online session on May 27, you can read and see below.
BONUS: You can now download the entire set of visuals, infographics, imaginations and presentations from Jeffrey, Lada, Wouter, Fenna and Rene, by clicking HERE.
René Boer, queer organizer, researcher and critic, was the first speaker and he explained what he means by the ‘smooth city’ and what its challenges are for cities worldwide, and in particular for Amsterdam.
René Boer – The Smooth City
René starts with a definition: “The ‘smooth city’ is an urban condition in which the city and the public space are increasingly polished, perfected and made beautiful. At the same time, everything that is undefined, unfinished or inappropriate is organized away or filled in until it fits within the same ‘smooth city’.”
You can find ‘smooth cities’ in cities worldwide, says René, who alternates between working from Amsterdam and Cairo. In the latter city he sees other qualities: layeredness, undefined space, rich in contrast, and these are exactly the qualities that you no longer see in ‘smooth cities’ like Amsterdam. There are plenty of examples, such as in the Red Light District, where the municipality is working on a plan to turn the urban jungle into a monumental garden, illustrative of the smooth city.
Smoothing and polishing cities is often confused with making a city ‘livable’: everyone wants and clean, safe and livable environment, but haven’t we gone overboard with that? “Yes”, says René, “the problem is that the ‘smooth city’ compresses complex urbanity into one story, one norm of standard.”
In the case of Amsterdam, that is a rich, white norm, inaccessible to many people – financially, but also socio-culturally – and where the only action in the city and public space is consumption. In such a urban context is little room for alternative lifestyles and actions and for the appropriation of the city by different people and ideas.
René: “An example is the residential group where I used to live which had a lot of artwork and stickers on the building. A zero tolerance policy towards graffiti made for a tightly-packed and ‘clean’ street according to the dominant, market-driven norm.” Anything with a value other than financial disappears in this way. What does a city look like that’s not dominantly financially driven, unpoliced and that allows for different ideas, cultures and lifestyles to shape the city and public space? Four thinkers, designers, architects took us through their ‘imaginations’ of design and policy proposals for an unpolished city.
The Garage – Lada Hrsak
Lada Hrsak is an artist-architect and founder of Bureau LADA (Landscape, Architecture, Design, Action). Her proposal De Garage focuses on processes of gentrification or development in Amsterdam Noord and how more and more diverse layers of urbanity are being ‘erased’ from the streetscape and public space there.
In the first phase of the ‘development’ of Amsterdam Noord, it was referred to as ‘the Brooklyn of Amsterdam’, as a place worth visiting. Now, in a further phase of the area’s ‘development’, it has been and is increasingly ‘wiped clean’ of the very things, structures and spaces that once made it attractive. Among these, explains Lada, are the socio-spatial character of the area, the unplanned spaces and the social capital and ‘soul’ of those places.
The question Lada poses to us is: what will be left of North in this way? Can we preserve the ‘pockets’ of the original atmosphere? Her proposal The Garage is meant both literally and as a metaphor. Literally because Noord has many garages that have been cleaned up or are about to be. A metaphor because the concept of a garage stands for a multifunctional ‘place’ where there is room for services, for general ‘space making’ as well as for flexible social space.
Lada’s plea is “to do a half cleanup rather than a whole, assigning different kinds of value to the existing urban fabric, atmosphere and users that ‘Garages’ bring about.” In doing so, we can preserve characterful urban space that allows for unprogrammed interaction as well as maintain social and cultural value. Cross-financing is a concrete tool with which we can achieve this, she concludes.
Unrefined City – Wouter Pocornie
Wouter is an architect and city maker in Amsterdam. He is currently working a lot on bottom-up organization and building a local movement of multidisciplinary creatives in Amsterdam Zuid-Oost (Bijlmer Believers 3.0/Prospect Eleven). His proposal is about the unrefined city, where not everything is planned and thought out in advance, but makes room for the unplanned, the unpredictable and spontaneous.
“Because you often see that things go very differently than planned. Look at South-East for example, where at the time of construction it was decided top-down that no Surinamese were allowed to live there. Anyone who knows South-East a little knows that many variables and stories have made it very different and many Surinamese have moved in. The enduring story: lived space is worth its weight in gold.”
Current examples include large-scale public spaces in the K-neighborhood (Kraaiennest, K-Midden) where the construction of large buildings is planned, whilst being used by different groups from different neighborhoods. “That’s very interesting, because in that temporality, not always planned, but also unplanned, a city comes together and we can learn from that. I think it’s in places like that that we see the most authentic reflection of such neighborhoods.”
Wouter argues for the unplanned because there a neighborhood, a community can express itself and its identity outdoors, in public space, appropriating the urban environment. For example through street art and/or graffiti. What a local community shows in the free, accessible temporality, often in an unrefined way, carries a lot of key information.
Wouter: “Let’s keep exploring this. As designers, let’s translate this into beauty, like the art form Kintsugi does.” Finally he has a concrete take-away for designers and architects in general: “Include a To Be Determined category in all plans, which can structurally make room for spontaneous actions and use.”
Vrijhaven Amsterdam – Jeffrey Bolhuis
Jeffrey Bolhuis is an architect and co-founder of AP+E, a firm that focuses on the socio-cultural value of architecture. Jeffrey’s proposal is called Vrijhaven Amsterdam and is about the space that the water of the IJ river offers the city. It starts from the observation that subcultures are increasingly being pushed to the outside of the city. Therefore Jeffrey asks: “How can we make sure that the city center again becomes a place where subcultures and alternative lifestyles and ideas can settle?
The history of the river IJ’s waterfronts is interesting because, since the controversial opening of Central Station in 1889, it has always offered space for dissenters and alternative doers. Over time subcultures have been able to develop in several fronts, such as the NDSM site, the head of Java Island, the Stenen Hoofd (english: Rocky Head) and the ADM site. The IJ is interesting also because the water can function as an infrastructure for temporary culture, as The Ship of Fools illustrated by hosting theater performances at their boat with the waterfront as a stadium.
“Our proposal is to combine these two things,” Jeffrey explains, “the power of the IJ, the relative emptiness that remains around the IJ and the space that this creates for alternative structures and subcultures, with the floating infrastructure.” The proposal that goes along with this is: why not create a series of mobile docking places where those different subcultures can take up residence? The idea is that those places literally create space for alternative culture. Important: “You shouldn’t just be able to consume there, but above all discover and contribute.”
Fenna Haakma Wagenaar – The Compacted City
Fenna Haakma Wagenaar is Design Lead Ruimte & Duurzaamheid at the Municipality of Amsterdam. She is concerned with the housing challenge in Amsterdam and the densification of certain neighborhoods in Nieuw-West, just outside the ‘ring’, the ring road going around the city. She notes that in many places in Amsterdam the design of the buildings looks the same: tall, clean, high-volume and with a high appartment density: “What is going on there, what factors are driving this developement, is there still room for the architect?”
There are many pressing factors coming from the housing shortage in Amsterdam, from the market value of (yet to be built) houses, but also from the effect of technologization on the way we look at and do urban planning. In practice this means, says Fenna, that in urban planning and design there is often no room for wide galleries, for space and air between different housing structures, or for receding facades. And thus no room for sociability, interaction or unpredictability. “If we would not base the design of residential complexes entirely on the financial measuring instruments such as the GREX (GRondEXploitation, english: land exploitation model, which calculates land costs and revenues) or of the housing volume that should fit in a certain place, then we could again make room for the architect and a bit of innovativeness. In any case, that is my proposal”.