Category Archives: Debate

Els Leclercq on Radical Contextualism

Radical ContextualismLondon_Skyline

The TU Delft chair of Urban Design recently organized a symposium around the theme of ‘Radical Contextualism’, as a farewell to their professor Henco Bekkering. Design as Politics’ PhD candidate Els Leclercq attended the symposium, while wondering what contextualism really means for the fast growing cities of the 21st century

Radical contextualism was the aptly selected theme of a recent conference held as part of a series of events to bid farewell to the visionary Professor in Urban Design, Henco Bekkering.

The concept and theory of radical contextualism was discussed and explored – from both a local and a global perspective. Is design based local and regional  contextualism a parochial response that ignores our increasingly globalised world, or is global contextualism one that ignore the traditions, history and culture of indigenous place and space?

A number of speakers made an eloquent call for a strengthening of a regionally and city based context driven design approach in order to sustain places that display a strong resonance with their historical culture and established urban morphology arguing that the alternative is merely leading towards homogenized, and increasingly characterless neighbourhoods; places that could be anywhere around the world. The globalised context was generally considered a threat and not a solution.

The prospect of creating the ‘generic city’, as spoken about by some of today’s urban thinkers – eg Rem Koolhaas – was shunned by the majority of the speakers. It was argued that such an approach does not create the longue duree, the key ingredient that has and continues to elicit such enduring love with certain cities; cities that have so demonstrably evolved within a given identifiable context following long established parameters.

While following this argument and considering the practical application of designing and developing parts of cities into practice, I couldn’t help wondering if this vision on city design, is feasible in the fast growing cities of the 21st century. Increasingly in large expanding cities around the world, private developers are building for their primary market – the investment industry; they are producing a ‘product’ and that product is becoming increasingly standardized and recognizable regardless of whether it’s on London’s or Shanghai’s riverside. The focus seems to be rapidly shifting from the secondary market – the local habitants, to this transient investor led primary market.  Who benefits?

Showing a potential Chinese developer around development opportunity sites in London recently, the interest was not in the contextual. It was in the location in terms of reputation and transport links combined with the ability to build quickly and tall, in phases, to prescribed parameters that produce a product known to ‘shift’ quickly to an international investor hungry audience. The developer felt sure globally recognizable design standards were what his potential buyers are after.

So how do we address the need for radical contextualism as promoted by the speakers at this conference with the reality of private investors, money and globalizing and hence homogenizing spaces in a world where clients are less and less made up of public bodies and local people but more and more by internationally operating corporate bodies?

Els Leclercq is an urban designer and researcher and is currently undertaking a PhD at Desgin as Politics, examining how users perceive the inclusiveness of our contemporary urban public space in times of a retreating government and a growing role for market forces in all facets of our social, economic and cultural life, including the development of our cities. She also is a partner in studio Aitken, a practice for urban design and research. 



Braudels Donkey – Historians and the Mediterranean as a Political Project

Design as Politics’ professor Wouter Vanstiphout has recently contributed to Harvard’s New Geographies magazine about The Mediterranean. The article is now turned into one of our own publications. Available here, especially for you!

The Mediterranean region, at the intersection of three continents, is one of the most important areas on earth–culturally, politically, and ecologically. In the article, Wouter looks through the eyes of the French historian Fernand Braudel towards recent political and financial developments, and wonders: what unites the Mediterranean? What can Braudel teach u about the region? And what about our ‘own’ European cities?

Hoog Catharijne’s Concrete Rigidity

Catharijne RigidityWestern-entrance-830x629

Last month Design as Politics, together with Failed Architecture and the University of Amsterdam, organized a workshop and debate on the redevelopment of Utrecht’s central station area, and the adjacent Hoog Catharijne business and shopping centre. The workshop and debate focused on the financing models behind large-scale real estate projects and the historical roles and responsibilities of architects and planners in designing these. Our aim was to discuss Hoog Catharijne’s original and current redevelopment plans with experts, students and local stakeholders as part of the Design as Politics graduation studio ‘Follow the Money’.

Jan Loerakker and Tim Verlaan of Failed Architecture wrote a nice piece about the events. Read more…

Debatavond: Track Changes

Track Changesimage001

Track Changes in Sao Paulo

The upcoming public event in The New Institute will bring the debate program ‘Track Changes’ – which took place during the Sao Paulo architectural biennale – back home to the Netherlands.

Last November, an international group of architects, urbanists, economists, developers, politicians and architectural historians talked in Brazil about the fierce changes which society undergoes in periods of economic, political or social crisis, and about the role which architects and urbanists can play in this. The themes ‘What’s Your Crisis?’, ‘Bottom-up Is Not Enough’ and ‘We the People’ were the guidelines for these debates.

‘Bottom up is not enough’ led to the most severe debate in São Paulo. While the biggest part of the attendees agreed with this statement, the opinions were sharply divergent on how this should be put into practice.

Michelle Provoost (Crimson Architectural Historians) will introduce this theme at the New Institute on the seventh of March, followed by a debate moderated by René Boer and Mark Minkjan of Failed Architecture. Hedwig Heinsman (DUS architects), Rients Dijkstra (Maxwan architects + urbanists / Governmental advisor on infrastructure and the city), Indira van ’t Klooster (editor in chief of A10 new European architecture) and Design as Politics’ Wouter Vanstiphout will discuss the outcomes of Track Changes and it’s significance for Dutch Architecture and Urbanism.

Track Changes is part of the international program of The New Institute, which is focused on dialogue, the mobility of international knowledge and agendas in the field of design. The debate takes place on Friday 7 March from 19:30 – 21:30 in the auditorium of The New Institute. Entrance fee is € 7,50, but students and ‘friends of the new institute get in for  only € 3,75. You can buy your tickets here.

ATTENTION: the event is Dutch spoken.

Debate – The Concrete Obduracy of Hoog Catharijne


With Failed Architecture, we’re organizing a workshop on Hoog Catharijne, the iconic late 1960s business and shopping center in Utrecht, focusing on the financial models behind large real estate projects. You’re cordially invited to join the wrap-up, with student presentations and a debate about the role/responsibility of the architect. Panelists: Nanne de Ru, Wouter Vanstiphout and Tim Verlaan.

The construction history of the privately initiated redevelopment scheme Hoog Catharijne, located in Utrecht’s inner city, is a classic example of how public and private actors attempted to work together in the field of urban planning during the post-war era. Ever since construction started in the late-1960s, the business and shopping centre was contested for its allegedly grim appearance and destructive influence on the local shopping climate. However, in terms of retail revenues (for shop keepers inside as well as outside Hoog Catharijne), the redevelopment scheme has proven to be extremely successful, additionally freeing Utrecht from its image as a provincial backwater.

Now, forty years after Hoog Catharijne’s grand opening, public and private actors are working on a thorough refurbishment of the shopping and business centre. Commissioned by a whole range of real estate parties, architects and planners are making Hoog Catharijne even bigger and better, despite the insecure future for real estate and retail markets. Hoog Catharijne seems to be turning into a city on its own.

During a two-day workshop, organized in collaboration with Failed Architecture, students of the Design as Politics graduation studio ‘Follow the Money’ will explore financing models of real estate projects such as Hoog Catharijne, and the historical roles and responsibilities of architects and planners in designing these.

On Tuesday 28 January, the students will present the outcome of the workshop followed by a debate/panel discussion on the role and responsibility of the architect in this type of large real-estate projects

17:00 – 17:45 Presentation By Design as Politics Students
17:45 – 19:00 Podium Debate with:

Location: Tu Delft, Faculty of Architecture, Room K
Time: 17:00 – 19:00

Wouter Vanstiphout to comment on (De) Rotterdam

how Rotterdam lost its architectural soulDe Rotterdam_Ossip van DuivenbodeDe Rotterdam by OMA. Photo: Ossip van Duivenbode

Architectural Historian and Design as politics professor Wouter Vanstiphout was invited by Blueprint Magazine to comment on (De) Rotterdam — the city and the building — currently gracing the cover of their current issue (number 331). Wouter’s eloquent lament for a city that once vibrated with an untamed, gritty energy, is published here in full.

In 1991 I moved to Rotterdam. At that time it still felt like an ideological choice to voluntarily attach yourself to this scar of a city, rather than self-deporting to the reservation for tourists and students that was Amsterdam.

The city I arrived in was infamous for its emptiness: its bombed-out urban voids and robotic harbour installations on artificial land stretching deep into the North Sea. Sea dykes, train lines and overdimensioned motorways ran straight through the innercity, discouraging the rare tourist to even cross the street to the museum or park, let alone negotiating this way to the Meuse river to contemplate the container-ships chugging upstream. Rotterdam was also loud and dark, producing new-wave dirges from its bands downtown; meanwhile the council flats reverberated with a particularly angry form of local hip hop and a brutish, prolish techno, known as ‘Gabber’ House (Gabber, ironically, being ‘dam slang for buddy or pal).

Rotterdam was also the city where a new architecture came from – not a new style or generation of architects, but really: a New Architecture. My first and very visceral confrontation with this was when we sneaked onto the site of the nearly-finished Kunsthal by OMA. Seeing the building from the inside out, resembling an impossibly raw concrete mess in mid-collapse, was mesmerizing. It condensed the strange infrastructural anti-logic of Rotterdam in a single building, which itself became part of the infrastructural network. At that stage it looked like a building project going surreally, Buster Keaton-esquely, wrong.

Rotterdam Kunsthal 2-OMA_1992_Courtesy OMA link to website Rotterdam Kunsthal by OMA,1992: Photo courtesy OMA

The contractor who caught us (but then showed us around) was exhausted with having to explain that this was not a mistake, nor temporary but the real thing, that this was indeed how the architect had drawn it: the public ramp running through the building and connecting the park to the seadyke, and the dark street that ran underneath, revealing the offices. Then there was the counterintuitive asphalt cladding on top of marble, on top of glass; the slanting columns in the auditorium, the picturesque tree-clad columns in the main exhibition hall and the harsh steel grids that functioned as walkways. Continue reading

Excursion Madrid


As part of our Follow the Money graduation studio, we asked our students to organise an excursion to Madrid and its surrounding area. To the (brief) disappointment of some, we told them we would not go there to see the capital’s great architecture and its vibrant city life (of course we couldn’t leave without experiencing some of it), but that we would mainly spend our time at the outskirts looking at the effects of the Spanish property bubble and explore the (sometimes) harsh consequences of political games and real estate speculation on the built environment.

We selected Madrid as the destination of this study trip because it is one of the places throughout Spain where the results of the country’s property bubble are most visible. It all started in the mid eighties -when Spain joined the European Union in 1986- resulting in historically low interest rates leading to cheap loans. During the subsequent period from 1985 until 1991 the housing prices nearly tripled and also in the late 1990s and 2000s again an enormous amount of building projects were commissioned. Banks invested strongly in the real estate sector leading to a construction industry which accounted for 12% of Spain’s GDP. Local governments made millions by reclassifying land from rural to urban, and corruption made millionaires out of politicians and developers. The bubble kept growing until the late 2000’s global economic crisis, when construction virtually came to a halt; developers went bankrupt, families couldn’t pay their mortgages anymore, neither sell their homes, and some of the banks who provided the loans, had to be rescued by the central bank. As a result, all around the country, but particularly around Madrid, you can now find unfinished or never used building projects. From complete towns as Ciudad Valdeluz , to kilometres long never-used highways and white elephant building projects, such as the Ciudad Real airport, which opened in 2008 but closed in April 2012 and is now left abandoned.

Some of the people we met during our intense three-day programme were Marcos Vaquer Caballeria who gave an very clear lecture about the causes of the real estate bubble, Jesus Leal and Almudena Martinez who took us to the megalomaniac housing project Sesena, the EuroVegas NO organization about their resistance against Sheldon Adelson’s plans to build a sprawling gambling resort known as Eurovegas and Sebastian Severino about the culture behind land development. We also brought a visit to the office of Ecosistema Urbano, explored the Vallecas neighbourhood, saw the bottom-up initiatives at El Campo de Cebada, walked around Madrid Rio and had an an intriguing  talk with Luis Fernández-Galiano (Editor in chief of arquitectura viva) about his view on architects and their responsibility towards society.

Click here for more info