words Justin McGuirk
Mobility is the theme of the first International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam, which opens this month. Icon spoke to its director, Francine Houben.
What do you think the biennale says about Rotterdam - do you think the city plays a special role in contemporary architecture?
The biennale in Rotterdam is also a biennale for the Netherlands. I feel the Netherlands is a laboratory and this biennale is a kind of laboratory, so we belong together.
Is the idea to make it fundamentally different from the Venice Biennale?
I think so, but really it's just that we came up with the idea of giving every biennale a theme, so the first theme is mobility. I came up with this laboratory because I think it's really great to combine education with practice, to bring research and practice together, worldwide. That's my ambition.
So is there going to be a lot of fantasy involved or is it going to be mainly real projects?
Both - and of course I've not seen them all because a lot of people are preparing their things for the opening. It will also stimulate a debate, because mobility is so much a part of our culture these days. It used to be just working, living and recreation, and mobility was just something in between. Now mobility is so much a part of our daily life and our culture that I'm very interested in what the future will be and whether there will be architects involved in this mobility, because most of the time it's just the domain of politicians and planners.
You want to change the anonymity and the layout of places such as motorways, which you have called the world's largest public spaces. How do you see this happening?
First of all, you get a different attitude to it if you are aware of it, and I think there was no awareness of it, so most importantly I want to increase awareness and bring a new analysis to it - and I think that will happen - and collect worldwide proposals on the subject.
Can you change these things in a fundamental way or will it just mean lots of little, more superficial changes?
Apparently the Dutch have a horror of motorways. Tell me about that.
The biennale is not dealing just with motorways. I've asked everybody to deal with their most-used daily transport routes, and in Holland that's the motorways. It's because of our history, because we have these small cities - we're not like London - we are connected by motorways and most people are on the motorways every day.
You mean because people live in one city and work in another?
Yes, because your husband goes to work in one city and your kids go to school here and your parents live there; that's the way we live in Holland. So I asked everyone: "How do you live?" It's different in Mexico or in Jakarta or in Tokyo, where it's really train based, or in Los Angeles. So in the biennale there will be big exhibitions, and I think they will be really interesting, and there will be a lot of lectures, and there will be a beautiful book.
There's an exhibition called World Avenue, in which designers are looking at transport routes in some of the world's major cities. What specific ideas or problems were designers finding and are there any interesting solutions cropping up?
What will be in the book of World Avenue is an analysis of these cities and of their history and culture, and the facts and figures. There will also be essays on the culture in North America, Germany, France and Holland and historical essays on people like Haussmann. There's a long tradition in this field, it's just that we're not really aware of it. And the proposals will be almost new to me on May 7 because everyone's working very hard to send in their models by then.
What do they deal with?
For example, in Tokyo, which is train based, you can see that there is no tradition in schools of architecture and universities to deal with problems. If you look at the Yamanote line in Tokyo, you can consider that almost as the heart of the city, and not the empty park where the emperor lives.
Do you see that as a problem?
Yes, and of course the students are not aware of how to deal with it yet, so I think we need this debate. In Tokyo, people live so far away from the city and they're commuting for so long everyday by train - I believe the Yamanote line runs over 60km or something like that - that you could consider putting a lot more housing in combination with the railway as a new centre of the city.
Along the railway?
These are my dreams; I don't know if they are the dreams of others.
Maybe they are dead areas because no one wants to live by them?
Yeah, but have you been to Tokyo? If you go to Shibuya it's great what's happening there on top of these railways. It's amazing. There are homes and hotels and shopping malls and parking over them - it's a whole rail city. That's why Tokyo is such a stimulating city in terms of examples on the subject of mobility. Examples that already exist.
And then there's the Holland Avenue project, in which a number of prestigious architecture schools and architects - such as Hani Rashid, Zaha Hadid and Alejandro Zaera-Polo - are contributing ideas. Is it a competition?
No, although they always consider it a bit of a competition because they are 12 very good schools with 12 very well-known tutors leading the studentsÉ well, I say leading but it's student work and I really want the schools and the future to be boss. They will come up with certain ideas for Holland Avenue, the motorway between Delft and Rotterdam. But of course it passes through a small historical city, Delft, and a piece of landscape and through the city of Rotterdam.
Then there's the Open Biennale...
I wanted to do it otherwise most of the time at biennales you as curator ask your friends or whoever to participate. So I wanted to have an open biennale for which people from around the world could come up with ideas, including unknown people. One of the categories in that is called fiction/non-fiction.
Can you tell me about some of the more fantastic ideas in that section?
Well, I didn't ask just architects, I also asked engineers and artists, photographers and film-makers. So there are people proposing things like a traffic-jam bag - so that if you're in a traffic jam somebody on the road will give you a bag with things in it to enjoy yourself in your carÉ you could start shooting water pistols. So there's humour in it, and an element of fiction.
Francine Houben is co-founder of Mecanoo Architects and professor of architecture and the aesthetics of mobility at the University of Technology in Delft
At the NAI:
World Avenue - exhibition featuring the results of an international comparative study of the most frequented transport routes in metropolitan areas worldwide
Holland Avenue - designs by 12 architecture schools from around the world for the road network in the Randstad
Motopias - an exhibition of visionary concepts of urban mobility from the 20th century, including work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Frederick Law Olmsted and Alison and Peter Smithson
At Las Palmas /PakhuisMeesteren:
Open Biennale - an international selection of proposals and submissions on public transport, the environment, automotive innovation, experimental transport systems, art, architecture and urban planning
Re:Motion: New movements in Scottish architecture - exhibition
Getting there: Mobility and the future of ground zero - exhibition
Mobilitaly - exhibition Architecture Film Festival, Rotterdam, June 11-15
Design Award Rotterdam, from May 10 to July 27
The biennale runs from May 7 to June 7 and takes place in two locations: the Netherlands Architecture Institute and the Las Palmas/PakhuisMeesteren warehouse. There are also various symposiums. www.1ab.nl