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Critically yours
While it’s not very common for architecture biennales to organise their own criticism, that’s what this year’s International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR) has done. In the early spring we were asked to be this year’s ‘critics-in-residence’ and reflect on the ideas, projects and outcomes of the biennale in a series of essays. After an introductory reflection on this role, we started with a written extrapolation of the future techno-dystopia presented in the VR-installation at the entrance to the biennale, arguing that the future city might indeed look like this ‘if we don’t change course’. Then, we distilled the most important threads from the biennale’s exhibition, which can be read as a broad outline for an alternative way forward with respect to this looming dystopia.

Our critique on the ubiquity of sometimes slightly naive pop- and bottom-up projects resulted in a passionate online discussion which was subsequently brought back to the biennale in the form of a live debate. In a discussion on developments in public space, presented as a crucial element of the ‘Next Economy’, we warned about the dangers of filter bubbles and ‘Privately Owned Public Spaces’. In a subsequent essay, we classified as #slumporn those projects at the biennale which relied too heavily on aesthetic imagery of informal areas without providing the opportunity to develop a more in-depth understanding of those places, in line with our earlier discussions of #ruinporn and #pomoporn. We then went on to locate the popular notion of ‘self-building’ in between developments in real estate and contemporary housing policies, and ended with a dissection of the biennale’s immediate spatial context, the Katendrecht peninsula, through a week long Instagram takeover.

IABR–2016 takeaways
As we noted in our introductory essay, every edition of IABR so far has been political, shedding light on the inner workings of the city and spatial production. It does not focus on “architecture as architecture as architecture”, but engages with the complex acts of urbanism, of orchestrating societal and environmental dynamics in space, and it sees design as a social and public tool. Operating in this context, IABR–2016 chief curator Maarten Hajer has developed a normative outline for the city in the Next Economy (this year’s theme), consisting of three major aspects: cities in the Next Economy are sustainable (i.e. a deep decarbonisation of all our activities), they are productive (providing meaningful employment and manufacturing) and they are socially inclusive (providing opportunities and a right to the city for all).

The projects on show have various strategies in common to realise this vision. A central mantra in all of this is that we should favour economies that add value locally (worthwhile jobs, diverse amenities, ecosystems, etc) over those that extract value (whether financially, socially, or in terms of non-renewable resources). Another key element, which we discussed at length and which was reiterated more often towards the end of the biennale, is the need for a good public domain: “we need strategies to create heterotopia; places that are appreciated by and welcoming to all”, says Hajer. These spaces would also foster a sense of trust as well as “learning environments”. Throughout the biennale, two more crucial challenges have been articulated for spatial practitioners. First of all, the strong need to get real estate interests aligned with society’s ‘big agenda’ and to look for ‘new spreadsheets’, and secondly, the explicit call for a more entrepreneurial government, in particular with regard to the energy transition, something which is too urgent to leave to incidental market initiatives.

The visionary capacity of design (no joke)
Standing out from other biennales and large architecture events is IABR’s institutional embeddedness and research methodology, and IABR–2016’s investment in so-called ‘urban imaginaries’. Referring to Brexit and the recent nightmares in Orlando and Paris, Hajer says “imaginaries can be used as an antidote to the politics of fear. Our frame of risk needs to make way for a frame of opportunity.” Imaginaries can help us get beyond paralysis and status quo, and the visionary capacity of design has a central role to play in this. We are often skeptical regarding design visions of the future, so you can take it from us that IABR–2016 proved that design has a powerful role to play in thinking about the world of tomorrow. We’re not talking about the glistening viagra architecture found in renderings for foreign real estate developers, but social and environmental ambitions. From there these ‘imaginaries’ can, more than just a hermetic presentation of the future, function as a conversation piece for the various stakeholders around the table.

Perhaps the two most vigorous examples are 2050 – An Energetic Odyssey, which shows scenarios for how the North Sea can deliver most of the production, distribution and storage of alternative (wind) energy for its surrounding countries to meet climate goals; and Atelier Groningen – The Nordic City, which plausibly shows how a shrinking area dependent on an old economy can use the energy transition and a bio-based economic focus to propel itself into the future. Both have fuelled the discussion between residents, governments (local, national, international), academics and business, enabling them to collaboratively work towards the best possible future. Both projects are so-called Ateliers, a research by design methodology IABR has developed over the course of its existence. These Ateliers bring together a wide variety of stakeholders outside their everyday arena and into the ‘cultural space’ of the biennale. While this setup in theory allows for radical, risk-free reflection, the financial dependence on (governmental) project partners might limit the possible horizons.

Lost in interpretation
For the initiated, the biennale provides numerous promising trajectories and insights into the possible city of tomorrow. However, for the innocent visitor, these agenda-setting attitudes and the occasionally radical statements remain fairly invisible. If you don’t read the catalogue, take one of the thematic tours, engage with the vast programme, and if you haven’t followed what IABR has done in previous editions, you might get lost. The huge collection of complex projects on show could result in information overkill, and the divergent and sometimes conflicting perspectives on the future city might leave you clueless. This indeterminateness is perhaps mostly due to the fact that IABR relies for about half of the more than 60 displayed projects on an open call and therefore not all submissions neatly fit the curatorial framework. It seems that a few more clear-cut attempts to grasp the future could have made the overall experience for the average visitor less ambiguous.

Within this incredibly broad range of perspectives, it would also have been interesting to see more attention to initiatives that question contemporary economic systems or propose alternatives. While urging a shift away from extractive economies, the biennale seems to suggest getting to a ‘local value adding economy’ is mostly dependent on the goodwill of the current dominant spatial powers. Several projects and debates discussed the incentivisation of power players to do good, while the details of how to actually ‘hack’ real estate logics were hardly scrutinised. Priceless pop-up projects that quickly pop-off if they don’t make the highest profit are a telling example. IABR–2016 would also have been a perfect place to explore the potential spatial effect of alternative currencies. Moreover, showing urban space as a ‘commons’ instead of commodifiable space could have been interesting in this respect, with the ownership and management of space regulated through the collaboration, negotiation and conflict of its users, instead of solely defined by profitability. This would also require us to rethink how democracy is practised at the city level, with a view to making it more direct.

A biennale’s impact
While other architecture biennales can definitely learn from IABR, especially given its relevance and urgency, we also noticed that many architects do not visit IABR. At the same time they do, for example, go to Venice. Interestingly, the two biennales address strikingly similar concerns this year. But what they each offer the audience is quite different. At the Venice Biennale, you are served objects and ‘solutions’, many of them highly Instagrammable. Rotterdam offers almost the opposite, with much of what’s exhibited consisting of information-heavy projects and process-focused presentations. Perhaps some more eyecatchers would make the IABR more appealing to a wider audience, and some more design elements would attract more architects. While we oppose superficial representations of the city, different levels of communication are required for addressing different kinds of people. The larger design media however, including Dezeen, Domus and Architects Newspaper also extensively reported on the ideas behind this biennale, even more so than the projects on show.

IABR’s engagement with local developments and the relevant stakeholders in its Ateliers is praiseworthy, as is the way it serves as a discourse hub for experts from around the world. Over the course of 10 weeks, a large number of visitors engaged with more than 150 events, for example during the Week of Globally Networked Urbanism in which international ‘change agents’ flocked to Rotterdam. What this biennale also did was shed light on the rapid changes taking place in Katendrecht, the peninsula on which the IABR–2016 venue is located. By highlighting the area’s individuals, amenities and networks, as well as the threats they face, it makes visitors aware of the wider sociopolitical arena they’re entering. At the same time however, its presence as a cultural event on Katendrecht naturally also contributes to the attractiveness and future developments of the area.

A resilient future
‘What’s next?’ is a question that has been asked multiple times during this biennale while looking at the urban economy, but what’s next for the IABR itself? The Ateliers, taking place in the vacuum between the biannual manifestations, are likely to start again soon and pave the way for the IABR-2018. While the ‘next economy’ will remain an important topic, IABR director George Brugmans already announced that the thematic focus of the next two biennales will shift towards the concept of ‘resilience’. Over the last ten years or so, ‘resilience’ has become a common conceptual frame in urban studies and has since found its way into policy agendas as well. Besides the obvious programmes of the World Bank and UN-HABITAT, the Rockefeller Foundation has launched the ‘100 Resilient Cities’ programme, which Rotterdam has joined. As Rotterdam’s first Resilience Strategy was launched at the IABR last month, we are likely to see some collaborations here.

The 100 Resilient Cities programme defines resilience as ‘the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience’. A biennale focusing on this capacity of urban stakeholders and systems is likely to continue to research the social, economic and environmental perspectives of cities already incorporated in the current biennale, although issues related to climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction might become more prominent. At the same time, the concept of resilience has been subject to quite some criticism. Open Democracy’s Tom Slater has dismissed ‘resilience’as ‘the latest urban policy buzzword’ and has argued that only harnessing communities against environmental or economic shocks is problematic if these man-made shocks are in no way countered or at least critically questioned.

The upcoming biennale might forestall this criticism by repositioning ‘resilience’ in the preparatory process and by ensuring it won’t become a parade of community projects but rather something that engages thoroughly with the social, economical and political systems that create the ‘urban challenges’ in the first place. As ‘urban resilience’ has also been criticised for being yet another attempt to open up new markets for business, it might particularly be interesting to see where this year’s called-for ‘entrepreneurial government’ comes in, and how its role can be extended from energy to other societal domains, such as housing, education and healthcare. A new series of perhaps even more internationally focused ateliers might be exactly the right spot to research these issues, enabling the development of new ‘imaginaries’ and making the upcoming biennale even more relevant than this one.

This article was produced as part of Mark Minkjan and René Boer’s position as ‘critics-in-residence’ during the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2016.