View of the Road

The car windscreen offers a window on the world in ‘World Avenue’, the central exhibition of the Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. The main gallery of the NAi has been converted into a drive-in cinema for the occasion, with nine screens on rotating stages showing video footage of motorways in nine world cities.

1 Beijing

2 Terrace beneath motorway in the Pearl River Delta

The big exception in World Avenue is Tokyo, where a stretch of railway rather than roadway was the subject of study. Public transport is the most important means of movement in this city, with 27 million passengers using it every day.

Beijing has expanded rapidly in a short space of time. Huge motorways are being built to stimulate car travel, because China wants the car industry to be the driving force of the economy. The Beijing film shows alternating images of wide, urban motorways flanked by tall, gleaming buildings and rural dirt roads flanked by simple dwellings: a huge contrast.

After the fall of the Wall, the people of Budapest slowly but surely made the switch from public transport to private cars. Car travel is now leading to the growth of suburbs around the city and major traffic problems in the old centre. According to the exhibition compilers, the favoured pastime of locals in Beirut on sunny days is to cruise in a Mercedes along Corniche, the esplanade that skirts the beach. In Jakarta, the commute from home to work now takes an average of three hours. Growth of the road network has not kept pace with development in this city of millions. And in Mexico City, where twenty million people move around in four million cars, traffic is a major problem, not least because of the resulting air pollution.

So traffic is the cause of numerous problems in the world’s major cities. Designers look for solutions by improving road access and the relationship of roads to their surroundings, and by integrating functions. New proposals for the various cities are displayed around the edge of the exhibition. The diversity and presentation style of plans make it difficult to assess which of them might offer plausible solutions for the most common problems. But anyone looking to learn more about the ideas proposed and the discussions taking place within the profession can follow the programme of lectures and debates.

Its spectacular design makes the World Avenue exhibition a fantastic experience. The films show plenty of asphalt and barriers, gleaming motorway buildings and some greenery. And still, each of the roads have its own character and appearance. Anyone hoping for a clear view of (and from) the road in these metropolises would be well advised to take enough time to get comfortable in the cars standing by. Watching a film from behind the wheel of a car – what more could you want? Queen Beatrix has done it already; during the opening of the Architecture Biennale she climbed into a Volkswagen Beetle beside Francine Houben for a ride through Mexico City.

Parked in front of each screen in the exhibition is a model of the most commonly driven car in the city that features on that particular screen. Visitors sit into the cars and film footage transports them along roadways through the nine cities.

From a Toyota, for example, visitors travel through the Pearl River Delta, made famous in the world of architecture by the study conducted there by Rem Koolhaas and his students. This delta developed into the world’s largest production landscape in just twenty years. Lack of government involvement in the area’s development has resulted in an enormous conglomerate. Its infrastructure was built with private funds, and high toll prices now ensure that not everyone can enjoy the benefits of progress.

Los Angeles, viewed from a four-wheel drive in the exhibition, is very much dominated by motorways, with two-thirds of the city area devoted to traffic and transport. The motorway is the largest public space in Los Angeles.

During the post-war years of rebuilding, a 2000-km road network was constructed in the Ruhr Area to create an efficient industrial region. All that is visible from the motorway are trees and more trees that hide the surrounding landscape.