The two-story concrete Fenixloods II, a former coffee warehouse for Rotterdam’s port, boasts a sign asking “What’s Next?” at the upper level entrance to announce the 2016 International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR) that runs April 23 to July 10. Inside, a Tyvek curtain is printed with introductory text and visitors can be immersed in a virtual reality film, an example of new technologies that are creating “mixed”—as opposed to fully virtual—reality (MR). A flat screen projects movies—created by the designers of IABR with Rnul Interactive—that show 10-year-olds who pause in their activities to say, “welcome.” Just a few steps into it, this seems to be a different kind of show.
The exhibitions focus on what we can develop in the future: not just the “New Economy” but the “Next Economy,” both in terms of policies that direct design and design that directs policy in urban areas. Featuring a selection of over sixty projects on the themes of the healthy city, inclusive city, productive city, and sustainable city, the exhibition is curated by Maarten Hajer with exhibition design by Michiel van Iersel, the Belgium architecture firm 51N4E, and Dutch graphic designers 75B. It encompasses not only the call for projects (23 selected) but also country-focused guest-curated sections from China and South Africa. Those are joined by an additional group of ateliers from Holland, Belgium, and Albania that produced over the past year design solutions for sustainable and productive cities. Many projects combine DIY tactical urbanism strategies such as the Hackable Cityplot, in which designers and residents are revitalizing a former industrial area in Amsterdam with self-built housing and shared infrastructures. Others focus on issues of local value-added economies in contrast to the extractive and more abusive ones.
The opening weekend included lectures and discussions with a welcome from Rotterdam’s Labour Party mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb. He spoke of the need for a “peaceful city” and articulated new ways of community-based planning in Rotterdam where the citizens are making their own neighborhood plan—something not unlike New York’s 197a plans. Curator Hajer animatedly moderated sessions on the productive city with Rotterdam and South African-based teams showing projects such as IShack, which is a solar power-based community electricity system in Stellenbosch Cape Town, and new manufacturing initiatives for Rotterdam The Hague region.
The vast exhibition in the 2,600-square-meter-space is designed to mimic the public realm: there are no barriers between sections, enabling open views from one end of the warehouse to the other. This openness is punctuated by plywood constructions forming rooms for talks and hands-on work sessions. Large composite-board tables are the display surfaces for most projects’ models and materials. Some tables, such as the one for the Living Necropolis, invite you to lie down to watch a video of the informal houses developed between cemeteries in Manila. Other displays include couches for watching films or settings for interaction.
While many projects are regional (due to funding sources and other factors) numerous international projects are displayed. (This includes two from the U.S.) This variety of work demonstrates the potential for essential collaboration among designers, governments, and residents. While the pondering What’s Next? is intriguing, these projects now underway can serve as future models. These range from the mega-scale (regional sustainable energy infrastructures in the Netherlands, ways to house refugees in Europe) to the smallest-scaled item (Parallel Lab’s canvas stool that turns into a backpack for use by merchants in the in-between spaces of Hong Kong). Therein lies the value of a show like this: ideas abound, but as a painted wall graphic of William Gibson’s prophesy attests: “The Future is Already Here.”