ALF 03

Auguste Van Oppen and Marc Van Asseldonk / Open-Source Urbanism


Thanks a lot for turning up in such a great numbers. I’m truly humbled to have such a massive audience. I’m also a little bit daunted by so many people in the room coming to listen to my story on open-source urbanism. First of all, I’d like to thank the Architecture Fund for inviting us to the beautiful city of Vilnius. I’ve heard many stories about the city ‒ one of our interns is from Vilnius, which is part of the reason why I ended up coming here. And I hope I’ll have a little bit more opportunity to visit the city in the coming days.

My name is Auguste van Oppen, I’m one of two partners of O+A, an architecture studio placed in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The subtitle for our studio is ‘strategies in architecture’ and in this lecture I will explain why these two terms overlap a great deal and we will do that using the theme of open-source urbanism. What I could do is present all our projects in the camouflage of a bigger message, but I’m not going to do that. First of all, we are very young firm so we don’t have the portfolio of Rem Koolhaas. So I just want to show you our projects and I’m going to move on to the real deal. What I want to talk about with you today is the fundamental shift we have seen in architecture and planning which entails open-source urbanism, which in our view implies the viewing of cities as biotopes and not as top-down planned initiatives.

The projects of O+A

I will start off by giving you a very small lecture ‒ a very small lesson in Dutch history. This history class is very subjective, so it’s not going to be true in many aspects and it’s also very abbreviated. I will start by describing the city dweller as a patient, afterwards, the city dweller as a consumer and the city dweller as a speculator and finally, the city dweller as a producer. And I’d like to explore the following hypothesis with you that better cities are made by considering them to be open biotopes for production. In the end, I hope we will all understand what this means.

The Netherlands is a country, let me put in this way ‒ in Dutch language we have word which can only be translated into German because there is no English word for it. It means something similar to ‘makeability’ ‒ the ability to determinate everything. The Dutch have a great tradition in fighting with the sea and conquering the sea. We declared victory over the sea a number of years ago, but we’re seeing now that what we were actually doing was damming the sea and the rivers to such an extent that we could not deal with the fluctuations in water levels anymore. And now what we’re doing is we are trying to live with the water instead of fighting against the water. So we’re giving the water room and that allows us to coexist with the water to a great extent. Why is this interesting? Once again at the end of the lecture I hope you’ll realize why.

At the end of the nineteenth century living in cities as a working class citizen was very hard. The dwellings had been condemned and were deemed unliveable. So people who were at the bottom of society were being exploited by opportunists. And a group of notable people in Amsterdam society decided to do something about it. They founded fairly paternalistic organizations called housing corporations to alleviate the working class from the situation they were in. This alleviation was not only in terms in providing housing but was also about bringing more manners and decorum into the working class; so it was very paternalistic. Some really beautiful examples of architecture were from this era, e.g. a project by Michel de Klerk, probably one of the most famous architects of the Amsterdam school, I don’t know if you have ever heard about it, but it’s a very vernacular architecture style.

The building called “Het Ship” is particularly interesting because of the size of the windows. There are two really cool stories about these windows in that they were made so small in order to prevent women from hanging out of the window and screaming across the city, as they had done in their previous dwellings. And these windows were also small to prevent women from hanging their laundry out. So this is what I meant by these organizations being very paternalistic they were really trying not only to alleviate the poor but also bring about a change in their manners.

Right before the Second World War the advent of industrialization led to a jump in scale. And this alleviation of the poor ‒ this goal to alleviate the poor kind of changed to a formal, pragmatic ideal to simply allocate light, space and air to the city dweller, but again the city dweller was still seen as a patient; the planning and the people at the top of planning all these initiatives, determined how the patient was going to live. And then as with many architectural flows in history they also approached a dead end in modernism. This project ‒ the Bijlmer  ‒ in the south-eastern part of Amsterdam is an example of a totally twisted implementation of a far too dogmatic implementation of a twisted modernist idea. You don’t have to be an architect to see that this was a failure from a very start. One of the other factors as to why it failed was that it also coincided with the widespread use of the car. So the regular bus driver around the corner was also able to purchase a dwelling where he could park his car in front of and have a garden in the back in a different satellite town of Amsterdam. This led to the housing in that area becoming very cheap. And then something else happened in our Dutch history which was a very large influx of immigrants into the country. And they obviously sought very cheap housing and all this ended up becoming very fertile breeding ground for high crime rates and social problems.

Architects were blamed for this mistake, which I don’t think is a very big surprise. And they started to ask themselves what they should do now ‒ and they were really looking for new answers. Therefore, what these architects did in the seventies was to go to Africa with anthropologists to look at African authentic settlements, to see how these settlements were organized and then they used their knowledge and observation to implement these ideas into Dutch cities. This might seem like a very strange idea, but this really happened for quite a long time. It led to really cool examples like the cube dwellings in Rotterdam by the architect Piet Blom. The only thing he ever did was take a cube and put on one of its edges, but there are many of these vernacular superstructures built and located all through the Netherlands.

Vernacular superstructures in the Netherlands

As an open economy the Netherlands was very early to adopt privatization. Ambitious clients such as the government and also private developers and housing corporations looked to architects to explore this freedom of the market economy. The city dweller was now seen as a consumer and the task for the architect was to explore these freedoms and make a consumerist product. Great architects of the so-called super Dutch generation were launched during this era. They first started building in the Netherlands and later all over the world.

Anyway, this super Dutch generation also performed a great deal of really nice urban plans ‒ actually, only a few really nice urban plans. What we see is that the dweller as a consumer basically wanted a nostalgic house with a car in front and a garden at the back. And what some architects in Amsterdam basically did was cram these qualities into very high density and extrapolated over some disused harbour area.

I found this a very cool example because it shows that these qualities can be resolved within the urban condition. Another really good example, although it looks totally different, is this project by Sjoerd Soeters, a postmodern architect who likes to build castles. The reason why this castle is very interesting is because the municipality wanted to expand the city of Den Bosch towards the river banks. If they had allowed a regular project developer to do this they would have got a standard product laid out which would have destroyed the landscape. What Souters did was to condense all these dwellings into a castle. First of all allowing the city dwellers to have their nostalgic house and second preserving the beautiful landscape and the view on the old medieval city of Den Bosch but I just showed you a sneak peek into the future.

In fact, I think about 99% of all massive expansion plans in the 1990s were shades of gray, I don’t think that’s very good architecture. The funny thing about these buildings is that they are nostalgic but at the same time they are very modern. For example, if you look at these windows, they are divided into separate segments, to get that classical look. Usually, these dwellings still abide by energy transmission rules, so you have double-glazed windows and what they do is glue these divisions on top which really gives very comical things when someone kicks a soccer ball against the window you can see a crack going right through. Anyway, I think this is a bit strange.

If we look in the US, we see that this massive expansion of suburbia can also lead to a ghetto which was very often unthinkable. The whole notion that we can build on cheap land in green fields and empty the city of all its life until the city core is completely empty has led to disaster in certain places. And if we don’t watch out we are going to have the same thing in Holland as well. The whole subprime tradition the Americans have embarked on is unfortunately something we, the Dutch people, have done as well.

We have doubled the national mortgage debt in a period of 7 years, which are really astonishing figures. On top of that, 30% of our world-renowned pension money is invested in empty office buildings. Of all the office buildings in Holland 14.4% are empty and that figure is only going to increase. Especially with the advent of new techniques and the internet and so forth right now we have 7 million square metres which are not being used. These are really disturbing figures and it shows that we, the Dutch dweller, have evolved from a consumer into a speculator. They stopped seeing their houses as a shed or as a house, but as an investment. And one place where this whole thinking, one place where this whole notion of looking at the building environment as a speculatory object has been applied in a very extreme example is New Ordos. New Ordos is next to Ordos like we had old Ordos in Mongolia and now the Chinese are building New Ordos. And like the Chinese always do they copy us, but they do it better and more extreme. Here’s an extract from a news segment:

Welcome to the city of Ordos, city of the future. Brand new and built just in 5 years and meant for 1 million residents. But no one’s moved in. The city stands empty. ‘The cost of housing is high here. The people here are construction workers and some old people’. Ordos was the government idea, an infrastructure project taken to its limits. The motivation was likely GDP – gross domestic product. An estimate of a country’s economic activity so one major way a government could raise its GDP is to spend more. The more China builds the more its economic activity increases and the higher is the GDP. ‘Who wants to be the mayor who reports that he didn’t get an 8% GDP growth this year? Nobody wants to come forward with that; so the incentives in the system are to build and if that’s the easiest way to achieve that growth then you build’. Local officials here build empty homes: new and neat, block after block. ‘They tell us that almost every single one of these apartment units has been sold, but no one is living in any of them and that’s because most of the buyers are holding them as investments’. Nobody has ever really lost money in real estate in China.

Well this is where we are heading apparently. In order to attract life into New Ordos the municipality did something what many municipalities had done before – they called an architect. Instead New Ordos didn’t called one architect – “Hey, Frank Gehry, could you give me a Guggenheim?” This municipality decided to call, I would say, about sixteen architects. To be very clear this is not a form study by Rem Koolhaas or a form study by Herzog and Meuron, this is an actual urban plan with buildings by different architects. These architects came from all over the world. The star architects and big names were attracted to do this and we obviously think this is rather absurd. It kind of leads us to the following conclusion: I often compare the times that we live in to the period before the First World War, where we as architects really didn’t have a clue what we were doing. I mean, Zaha Hadid made a few nice buildings, but I don’t know what she is exploring at the moment. I don’t know what are her answers for what questions? I do not understand. 

Like I said it really reminds me a period before the First World War where architects were also looking for applying styles. As an architect you mastered one or two styles and depending on the client and the culture you’d give them one or two styles, or mix everything up and make something totally new. I think Rem Koolhaas also realized this with his competition entry for a large building in Dubai. Obviously Rem Koolhaas always makes a statement and his statement in this project was to make an anti-icon, not an icon but anti-icon. But this anti-icon revolves in the middle of a pond so I can’t really think of a more iconic building than this.

But anyway, it’s very interesting observation that Rem Koolhaas made, he also calls it an anti-icon himself, but I really feel that we are walking into a dead end in architectural urbanism and we are all just following the avant-garde in architecture into a dead end. And we really need to start asking ourselves different questions so we can find new answers. The new answer is not going to be in a bigger building. The new answer to the new question is not going to be 1km high or higher than an imperial mile.

We have problems in this world, we have an ecological crisis, we have a fundamental economic crisis, we have segregation of large amounts of population, we have food prices skyrocketing, and water is going to be a problem in the near future. If we want to find relevance for us as a profession we really need to start looking for new answers. And we think one of the problems with the current thinking has to do with planning everything as a machine.

Ever since the industrial revolution we have revised urban plans and urban expansions as machines. Every little bit and piece was completely fine tuned to the other. This is a project of the artist Van Lieshout and it’s called ‘technocrat’ ‒ a very appropriate name and basically it’s a closed system of alcohol to keep the people alive and happy, human excrement and biogas. It’s a system where people are put into certain social hierarchies with the sole aim to maximize the production of biogas for electricity. It might seem like a very absurd idea to make an art piece like this, it might even seem a very absurd idea to relate it to urbanism, but I’m afraid that we are actually making our cities like this. We are tuning and fine-tuning everything to each other and whenever one of these cogs flies out we don’t know what to do anymore.

Joep Van Lieshout, "The Technocrat", 2003

If you look at an urban expansion planning in Amsterdam called IJburg it’s one of the more successful expansion plans in the Netherlands. We did the same thing, we started building the houses, then started building the social amenities afterwards and these social amenities were calculated. So what we do is we say ok, how large is the target group, let’s say 100,000 residents, that means we can divide by 10 and then we have so many schools, we can divide by 20 and we have so many supermarkets etc. etc. Everything is calculated to the absolute last comma and to seven figures after the comma.

There was a private initiative on the IJberg island, which is, by the way, also reclaimed from the sea. And it’s called Blijburg which means means happy ‒ Happy IJberg. It’s a private initiative to show freedom to the new city dwellers in IJberg to show them what this freedom was about. After all these dwellings were built Blijburg needed to go because all dwellings have been sold and now this strip of line needed to be built with something else. Instead of making decisions according to quality or according to long-term economic return, decisions are made in excel sheets based on a very short perspective.

There was a big private initiative in Blijburg so not everything was completely top-down planned, but this freedom was only represented in the facades of these different houses. So, only in the private domain, but there is one very interesting project in the island of IJberg. It may not look like a very spectacular piece of architecture I would agree with that, but it’s, as usual, with architecture about what’s actually going on inside. What happened here was that a group of private people came together and decided that they wanted to build their own apartment building. They didn’t want to have the project developer to tell them that they had to live in a concrete box. No, they wanted to decide themselves. And what usually happens with these initiatives is that people don’t only build for themselves but they also build for the community. So these people said, ‘we want a theatre, we want a diner and we also want some healthcare facilities in it’ and they also paid for it themselves. People ended up building their own apartment building, not because they were given a chance; actually, these people had to fight very hard to get their own spot on this island of IJberg. But we find it very interesting to see how the private initiative can give back to society to a great extent.

I’m going to show one of two projects of our own. This is the competition we won in 2008, the “Europan” competition. It’s an urban plan of 70,000 sq. m living and working areas and we designed around the whole idea of public space. And the public space was the real common denominator in the design. Since 2008 we were obviously faced with the economic crisis, so there’s not a project developer in Amsterdam who wants to build this at the moment. What we see now is that the project has been killed, not because it’s a bad project, it’s still a good project, but the discussion about of this specific site in Amsterdam has also stopped, which is a real shame because we could also talk about times of change. I mean do I have to change or radically rethink ideas about this design concept. But it hasn’t happened.

Europan 9 competition entry (first prize), O+A, 2008

More or less the same thing happened with another competition we entered in. It was unsuccessful by the way. It was for a temporary cinema complex also in Amsterdam – we do a lot of things in Amsterdam. The brief was very strict – it had to be very very cheap, so what we decided to do was to make a spinal cord, very cheap wood timber spinal cord, and have these very very cheap halls and just have the theatre, movie theatre in these very cheap halls. We lost to somebody who made a really fantastic beautiful design, an underground one, which was very very expensive, so the entire project was killed. In the end they didn’t build anything which was a real shame I think, because this specific area in Amsterdam could use a new identity. It’s another example of how the exclusion of ideas does not lead to a better city.

Sloterplas Boardwalk, O+A, 2010

There are some projects that manage to go all the way despite the government and top-down planning. This is a crane alley, part of the former shipyard in the north of Amsterdam and it was going to be demolished because they were going to build big office buildings in the neighbourhood, or whatever ‒ and a really old lady, not really old, but an old lady, an architect who was taking a trip through the Amsterdam saw these things and said: “Wow, that is really cool, I want to do something with that”. And she lobbied for a very long time to keep this structure. And the municipality and project developers wouldn’t hear of it – they wanted to demolish it and build boring office buildings. And that was a real shame because somebody comes around with really good initiative. This building by the way, won countless of awards all over the world, in terms sustainability, in terms of great reuse of existing structures and it has been on every project developers’ folder book in the past two years, at least the Dutch ones. So what you see is that quality is not part of the discussion but the poker game of politics and economics is. We found it very disturbing because it also doesn’t lead to the right results, unless you do it this way.

This is a project by two architects who also teach in Zurich. It’s a project in two cities ‒ one in Medillin in Colombia and another in Caracas in Venezuela. These two architects are fascinated by slums and the congestion and the diversity of the slums. But they also see the problems and instead of designing a top-down initiative where you demolish all the slums and make nice apartment blocks for everyone (that’s a really top-down idea). These guys decided and managed to implement a gondola system which physically connects a couple of dots in a slum area. The result is that crime has dropped dramatically, something like 30–40 percent. Amazing, any mayor would definitely be re-elected for that. Crime has dropped and enormous amounts of private equity have been invested in to this area, so you also see that in and around these stations, they are really working like oil drops or oil spills (this is how we would describe it in Dutch). But also the government is investing. So you see this really large circular thing, that’s also apparently a large public project the government decided to inject. And where before the municipal government had previously thought they could get elected by saying: ‘yeah will buy a couple of buses etc.’, and after they got elected, they just didn’t care about the infrastructure, the municipality and these creative thinkers have finally managed to turn around a significant area, in Caracas at least.

Another example is the highline project in New York City. If we’re talking about biotopes, New York City is obviously one of the most extreme. I mean there’s so much energy everywhere, but then again we still see the classic movement of project developers and municipalities. Project developers sold these tracks and said: ‘you know, we want to build buildings here’. And the people who live there, said: ‘we kind of liked the tracks. We want to save the tracks’ and that ended up as a real fight. In the end, luckily, the city dwellers managed to keep their elevated highway and the result is that project developers are earning massive amounts of money because this highline park is now an artery of quality in the west of Manhattan. All the project developers who have their buildings adjacent to this highline park are earning a lot of money. So the missed investments or the missed returns they didn’t get originally were completely overturned by the massive profits they obtained in the end.

Another really interesting example of a biotope is Berlin. By the way, my partner is the bearded guy in the middle of the picture with the white shirt. Berlin is really good example of a biotope. Over the past 30 years the population has decreased, I mean there are less people in Berlin but it has completely transformed, so there are a massive amount of young people in the city. And if you look at the investments, the top-down investments in Berlin, we all know these big buildings and the massive public projects, but Berlin has turned around not because of these projects; Berlin has turned around because the population of the city has managed to reinvent themselves. And this new population is exploring the freedoms of cheap land and new ideas and other young people and this is attracting investors to the city. Right before I left for Vilnius I saw a newspaper article about real estate. The article was about the fact that investments in Holland are going down and for some reason everyone is starting to invest in Berlin. And I think it is because it has to do with the life, it has to do with the biotope which has been created over past two decades.

Streets of Berlin. Photos: O+A, 2011

Biotopes can also be buildings; this is the Wyly theatre in Dallas, Texas, designed by Rex. Actually Rex calls it a theatre machine but we think it’s actually a biotope. This building is able to transform in the blink of an eye into many different theatre configurations. We think it is a biotope because it attracts people into an exchange of ideas about how theatres can be understood, and what possibilities the public space inside could have as well.

Many people would look at the 21st century as the information revolution. We need, as architects, to transform the qualities of the information revolution to the urban space as well. If you look at the App store and Facebook and all these cool internet applications, basically all they do is they make a framework, they don’t produce content, they make a framework which works and attracts people and allows them, in our case the city dwellers, to excel and produce their own content. That’s what I think we need to go towards ‒ on the left we have the traditional model, where we have a funnel and we try to keep people out of the planning process as much as possible because they only irritate and they can mess up your plans with stupid ideas. We think we need to go to the roundabout model. The roundabout is actually a very nice analogy to explain this ‒ you don’t have to wait in the middle of the night for a red stop light when there is no-one on the road. The roundabout is a perfectly laminated flow, so it basically it allows everyone to perform their own natural behaviour without annoying the other one. And basically these two diagrams are what we made for a project in Amsterdam and what we tried to do with this project was to integrate the factors for open-source urbanism with one important factor without compromising the governmental integrity. If you’re talking about things which might seem a bit like anarchy, people from the municipality tend to get very nervous.

The Roundabout model

You may remember the Bijlmer  building, the project I showed you. In the meanwhile many of these large flats have been demolished and been replaced by standard grade bound single family housing or they have been completely renovated. The unfortunate owner of these mega structures recently decided to sell one of them for one euro and invited people with ideas to come along and purchase their structure for one euro, which seemed like a very interesting idea. Obviously many people started drawing and making renders ‒ ‘we want to have this mega structure for one euro and this is what we are going to do with it’. We decided to do it differently. We wanted to make it a biotope, so basically what we did is we emptied all the apartments in the floors above and we started making a money making machine in a plinth. This money is then invested in an autonomous quality in the building which could be a sustainable thing like a wind farm, for example, or could be holes in the building or whatever. And then the last thing that we would employ would be to divide up the whole building and give it to project developers and have our own tendering process.

The Biljmer building as a biotope, O+A

We think that the city comprises of many different layers. Each layer reacts to another one and our view is that this is a never ending process of the city as a biotope is something that is extremely interesting. And we really think that this is the real city and honestly this is not the real city.

The projects of O+A