BY JESSICA BRIDGER
The landscape architect Dirk Sijmons wants to make a double point with the name of “his” biennale—the 6th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR)—which opened in late May. Sijmons called the event Urban by Nature to suggest both that it is in our nature to be urban (implying a certain inevitability to our urbanization, now at an unprecedented and alarmingly fast rate) and that our urban areas are, in fact, natural. To Sijmons, humans are undeniably as natural as the world’s flora and fauna, and so are carbon emissions and border crossing checkpoints—it is time to acknowledge as much and to become more explicitly responsible actors in this unified scheme. This is integral to the work of Sijmons and the ethos of the biennale, and it is reminiscent of the epigram on Stewart Brand’s final Whole Earth Catalog: “We can’t put it together. It is together.”
The IABR is a research biennale, where projects are meant to fulfill the curator’s, in this case, Sijmons’s, position or point of view. The research focus also lets the IABR have a scope and effect beyond the biennale’s boundaries—as opposed to what commonly goes on at the Venice Architecture Biennale or a conference. The research comes from an open call for projects and from the IABR’s own test labs or “Project Ateliers.” These test labs investigate and propose ways to tackle issues at specific sites, this year in Texel, BrabantStad, and Rotterdam. Work from the Project Ateliers appears in the biennale along with work chosen from more than 500 international submissions. It’s this continuity between the test sites and the outside work that gives the IABR its lasting quality and that benefits the broad abstract topics the biennale tends to tackle, such as 2009’s Open City or Making City in 2012.
This is the first year that the IABR has been mainly held in Rotterdam’s Kunsthal, a change that a casual visitor might not notice but that goes deep into the root of culture in the Netherlands. Years of conservative governance have deeply cut the country’s once-mythical cultural funding. This has hit architecture hard, as stalwarts like the Netherlands Architecture Institute, the host of the six previous IABRs, have been combined into what one Dutch urbanist at the IABR opening termed a “forced trendy marriage” with the formerly separate institutes for media and fashion. Publishers of a once prolific architecture scene have struggled or folded.
While the executive director of the IABR, George Brugmans, has done a remarkable job of keeping the IABR healthy during this period, the larger context makes one worry that the Netherland’s unique position as a nation of leading architectural thinkers could erode into the sea of sustained austerity. That this IABR is easy to grasp and led by a single voice—the 2012 biennale had six independent curators and an ultimately messy result—could be a reaction to this struggle.
The IABR is meant to pull beyond disciplines typically associated with city and landscape making and draw in the broader public, and Sijmons’s biennale is unusually successful at communicating a vast amount of information. The exhibition is split into six categories that seem somewhat arbitrary, such as “A Planet Cultivated,” “The Urban Metabolism,” “Urban Landscape and Climate Change,” and the like. The themes are easy to understand, and the presentation unassuming, with simple materials.
In the main exhibition, the suite of 10 finalist projects associated with the Rebuild by Design competition, led by the Dutch planner Henk Ovink, focused on responses to Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. It took a natural disaster to vault the region into the forefront of design research on the slowly unfolding crisis of climate change. It takes the IABR to bring this kind of work together with projects such as Rotterdam’s Maasvlakte 2 (“The Edge of the World,” LAM, November 2013), a heavy-industry expansion of the Port of Rotterdam that folds in ecologically minded recreation.
The calmly serious claims of the show about urbanism and nature are accompanied by a distinct sense of anxiety. In Sijmons’s words, “We have succeeded in sweeping the direct and indirect effects of industrial urban society and the modernization of external areas under the carpet for a long time.” It sounds like the precursor to a day of reckoning; the IABR certainly invites the unease. The show demonstrates city fixing with an ecological overtone, even in projects that are not overtly landscape-based. Architects and landscape architects see themselves as uniquely capable of tackling complex problems and solving them. This often seems like hubris or naiveté in the broad spectrum of the design disciplines, but the IABR does include measured and credible approaches to what are huge changes coming from resource scarcity, shifting energy regimes, and climate change.
Ultimately, the IABR follows the ecologically appropriate idea of flows, charting life cycles, recycling, energy, political will, and power, combined with the human-nature theme. An expansive companion show at the Het Nieuwe Instituut, simply titled Wood and curated by the architect Dan Handel, examines the full flow of one material from nature through to industry, from the primeval forest to wooden shoes (this is Holland!) and to the optimization of tree cutting in mechanized forestry.
Urban by Nature is ultimately about acknowledging our central role in shaping the planet and, in so doing, soothing the anxieties that we face today. The IABR and the companion catalog send the message that perhaps everything will be okay, that human ingenuity is capable of addressing crisis at the scale of the landscape and the globe. The coda of this IABR can be seen in a life-size diorama created from an infamous photograph: A majestic swan sits atop a nest made from trash and seems to ask the question, “What are you going to do about it?”
The International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam runs to August 24. For information, visit http://iabr.nl/en.
Jessica Bridger is an American landscape architect, urbanist, and journalist based in Berlin.
Credits: Opening Day: © Maarten Laupman; Dirk Sijmons: Courtesy of IABR; Aranzadi Park: © Gerencia de Urbanismo, Ayuntamiento de Pamplona; Swan: © Natural History Museum Rotterdam.