Beijing Design Week 2013

During the Beijing Design Week 2013, architecture studio Venhoeven CS organized a workshop called ‘The Sino-Dutch Approach‘, commissioned by the Creative Industry Fund. This year, Amsterdam is guest city of the BJDW. In a group of 12 Dutch designers I travelled to Beijing to work on transformation strategies for the Fengtai industrial district, in the Southwest periphery of Beijing. The aim of the workshop is to generate crossover concepts with our Chinese counterparts, for sustainable development in the capital city. Many of China’s major challenges are found in Fengtai: air quality, water management, congestion, economic shift from production to services, migration and gentrification. The district has the potential to become a creative subcentre and gateway to Beijing.

Case 1: Dahongmen
The Dahongmen area consists of fashion wholesale complexes. There are plans for fashion retail zones, focusing on the exclusive brands. The challenge here is to develop the entire value chain, from production and creation to the consumer, in order to attract and maintain a variety of professionals and social groups in the area, necessary for an innovative environment where Chinese brands and trends can emerge.

Case 2: Yongding river
Beijing has a dramatic relationship with water. On the one hand there is so much water shortage that water is brought in from the Yangtse river in the South. The Gobi desert is approaching and the Yongding river itself is dry most time of the year due to dams and water usage upstream. On the other hand heavy rainfall has caused severe damage to the urban structures in Beijing, for lack of permeable surfaces. A new type of green living environment may revive the Yongding river floodplains and redirect rainwater to feed the river.

Case 3: Fengtai railway station
The new high-speed railway station and subway links will strengthen the position of Fengtai as gateway of Beijing. Passengers traveling from Hong Kong and Shenzhen to Beijing will pass through the area. The station surroundings therefore have the potential to become a hotspot of activities and meetings, that may function in a complementary way to alleviate the congested central area of Beijing. Rather than redeveloping the whole area, a stepwise strategy could provide a lively area of reused industrial buildings, bike and pedestrian routes, densified ‘hutongs‘ and function mix of housing with amenities and work spaces.

Fengtai station strategy
Development proposal for Fengtai station area

Smart City
The main exhibition of the Design Week is about Smart Cities, held in the China Millennium Monument Museum of Digital Arts. Curated by Lei Yang, it features many tools to use big data and new media to plan and enhance the city, such as Urban OS and OS City. The SprintCity planning support tool may also provide opportunities for cities like Beijing.
The irony is however, that at the moment the Chinese authorities do not give access to urban data and have to a large extent control over what happens at the Chinese social media. This prevents civilians from using and improving many of the smart tools.

Download the presentation of the Sino-Dutch Approach, by Ton Venhoeven.
Also read the daily reports by the Creative Industry Fund, and my travel journal (Dutch), including the names of all participants.

Cars from the South: Turtle-1 and Gurgel

In the world as we know it, cars are designed and often manufactured in the Northern hemisphere. European automobiles are typically used for about a decade or two, and then commence a second life time of usually several decades in Africa. The opposite, however, also seems to be possible. Tijs van Boomen will present Turtle-1 on September 26 in Paradiso, Amsterdam. He describes how artists Melle Smets and Joost van Onna worked in an open air car workshop in Ghana, drew up plans for a new car and assembled it, from existing second-hand parts, in 6 weeks time.


That the developing world is able to make cars that are actually way cooler and more sustainable than our ‘normal’ manufacturers, was already proven in the 1970s, in Brazil. The ultra-light Gurgel series featured fibreglass body work, a VW Beetle chassis and an edgy design. Production stopped before the end of the millennium, but some examples can still be seen in the streets, like the G15 above.

Multi-use buildings #3 – The Rotterdam building

Half a century after Maaskant designed his multi-use building in Rotterdam, OMA drew up the plans for the next generation of grand scale ´vertical city´. ´De Rotterdam´ is located at the Wilhelminapier, in the heart of an old harbor and redevelopment site know as Kop van Zuid. The vertical city connects to a square, together with several old warehouses, and on the other side it has a waterfront plinth with restaurants and bars. The function mix consists of offices, dwellings, gastronomy, hotel, leisure, retail and parking space.

The main reason behind the delay (the building was designed in 1998 and is scheduled for completion end of 2013), was that in a medium size city like Rotterdam it´s extremely difficult to guarantee users for a building with 43 floors and 160.000 square meters of floor space. In a polemic but successful attempt to save the project, the Municipality decided to move its own administration to the building and hereby guarantee a lease of 25.000 m2. Interestingly, the same move was made in the 1970´s, in order to make the Europoint complex happen, designed by SOM. Like many parts of The Netherlands at present, Europoint and the surrounding Marconiplein area is now struggling with vacancy.

Shrinking cities as retirement cities? – publication

With an international group of researchers (The Netherlands, Turkey and Germany), I have explored some of the advantages that shrinking cities may actually have over other urban areas, especially concerning green areas and living costs. Our article was recently published in Environment and Planning A (2013, volume 45). In June this year, the work was presented in La Coruña (IAPS 2013), and earlier in Eindhoven (Environment 2.0).

Shrinking cities as retirement cities? Opportunities for shrinking cities as green living environments for older individuals
Merten Nefs (Deltametropolis Association, Rotterdam), Susana Alves (Okan Üniversitesi, İstanbul), Ingo Zasada (Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research, Müncheberg), Dagmar Haase (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig)

´Increasingly, policy makers and planners must develop strategies to cope with urban shrinkage. This paper proposes that active retirement migration and health tourism can be parts of such strategies. Shrinking cities, normally observed as less competitive, could develop advantages over other cities with respect to attracting retirees if their spatial conditions were used effectively. By converting vacant space or improving access to  high quality green space, shrinking cities can attract retirees in search of quality of life, who in turn might represent a crucial catalyst in urban renewal for shrinking cities. The authors conclude that the potential of shrinking cities as green retirement cities can be considered
by integrating existing research concepts: eg, green space typologies and the functionality of public space for older individuals. Furthermore, recent practical studies suggest that the potential for shrinking cities as retirement cities exists. However, the potential has led to specific policy to only a limited extent. Despite substantial opportunities, many challenges arise when this idea is put into practice. Therefore, recommendations are made at the end of this paper for addressing this topic in future research and urban planning.´

Keywords: retirement migration, ageing, living environment, environmental affordances,
green open space, urban green space, shrinking city, quality of life

Read the full article here

Multi-use buildings – a city within the city #2

Groothandelsgebouw Rotterdam – construction works of new central train station

The 1950´s were clearly a rich period for multi-use buildings, as we have seen in São Paulo – ´Multi-use buildings – a city within the city #1´. The Groothandelsgebouw (Wholesale building) in Rotterdam was built from 1948 to 1953, at the edge of historic city center that had been destroyed in the war. The building, designed by Maaskant and Van Tijen, is now considered one of the key post-war icons in the Netherlands. Already during construction, in 1951, the first companies were operating from the Groothandelsgebouw. In the 1960´s, the new central railway station was built next to it, and along the same axis in the 1970´s until the 1990´s the Weena business district was developed.

Groothandelsgebouw around 1960 – construction of central railway station and mail terminal (left), Doelen concert hall and Lijnbaan housing+retail complex (top)

The building contains a plinth of shops and other public functions on street level, a grand café (´Engels´) at the most visible corner, a cinema (later auditorium ´Kriterion´) and terraces on the rooftop, many companies adding up to thousands of employees, and an ingenious system of ramps and elevators for delivery, parking and logistics.

In the last 2 years I have had the pleasure to work on the top floor of this building, with the spectacular view all the way to The Hague. During this period, the central train station was completely rebuilt and expanded. The Groothandelsgebouw, however, remains more or less as it was in the beginning. The most recent renovation, about 5 years ago, restored the facades to its original concrete color. It continues a multipurpose building, nowadays including creative businesses and foreign consulates, a kinder-garden and bike rental business.

Like many office buildings in The Netherlands, the building currently suffers from high vacancy rates, due to the economic crisis. But as the building is privately owned and already paid for, well located and maintained, the rent prices have not dropped yet. The result of this, is that most of the creative business have moved out over the last couple of years, in search for affordable rents. The only inhabitants of the building (one of the many units is an apartment), mr. and ms. Stolk, are still there.

Read more:
Archined (Dutch online architecture portal), when they left the building, earlier this year.