MVRDV’s 3D Urban Design

What is the capacity of planet earth? How can we deal with climate change whilst retaining our quality of life? And what answers can we offer for increasingly pressing spatial problems? Containing an impressive amount of data, the recently published thick volume KM3 by MVRDV presents a number of projects that pave the way for a solution in the form of an imaginary three-dimensional city called KM3.

KM3 Excursions on Capacity is intended as a follow-up to FARMAX, the book released in 1998 and now sold out. A second-hand copy of the first edition now fetches hundreds of euro on the internet. FARMAX explored the possibilities of living in extremely high densities. After all, density in some places creates emptiness in others. The proposed maximum density was also intended to achieve a maximum of functions. FARMAX was also provocatively intended as a statement against suburban mediocrity. KM3 wants to go a step further by optimising this maximum, an exploration beyond all borders.

The decision not to make a collection of seven separate booklets about the development of the 3D City but, instead, to combine everything in one volume, complemented by scores of projects, has resulted in one hefty volume so thick it seems to want to eclipse all other architecture books ever published in terms of sheer bulk. The introduction to the book presents it as a ’telephone book’ and ‘manual’ for a 3D City called KM3. This hypothetical 3D City is compiled from an expanding world full of information and data.

With KM3, MVRDV wants to acquire a place among the utopian worlds of Le Corbusier (Ville Contemporaine), Buckminster Fuller (Cloud 9), Yona Friedman (Ville Spatiale), Kenzo Tange, Superstudio and other heroes. Unlike these familiar names, however, MVRDV doesn’t serve up seductive imagery that sticks in the mind. The 3D City is an amorphous ideology; a shapeless collection of unsorted data.

The KM3 city denies scarcity and argues that the over-population of the planet is not an issue. An apparently endless system of stacking can increase the capacity of the city infinitely. The chapter entitled ‘Capacity’ posits the view that the whole world can be experienced as one universal city because of sprawl. Mankind’s increasing demand for space is then taken as the point of departure for a search for new capacity. This space is found by enveloping the earth in a new programmatic ‘skin’ that can swell in places to some cubic kilometres! A three-dimensional city is created by making use of unused spaces in deserts, in oceans, under the ground, and in the air. The densities within this three-dimensional city are dependent on local, social, political and economic circumstances and, as a result, differ little from reality.

The concepts for the 3D City and the more well-known Pig City, also by MVRDV, differ little from each another. However, the social dimension present in FARMAX is lacking in KM3, which seeks to find a spatial solution only. The question whether people want to live so close to one another seems unimportant. The book, by contrast, poses the interesting question whether we need to change our consumerist lifestyle. It opens with a list of apocalyptic disasters that we will have to contend with, among them vanishing glaciers, forest fires that threaten towns, and floods. The solutions then proposed seem surprisingly simple. The compact city can be made even more compact, the bicycle and train must become important modes of transport again, and we should switch to non-fossil sources of energy.

The chapter ‘World of Regions’ rightly outlines the importance of the region in a global world. Within the universal 3D City there is space for regional specialisation, too. What’s more, there is plenty of space for bottom-up initiatives. The chapter ‘Everyone is a Citymaker’ argues that GIS technology and data accessible to everyone will make specialists redundant: everyone is an urban designer! The time is right for planning software that allows everyone to exercise influence on a future world. The software that comes with the book, the ‘Climatiser’ and ‘Optimixer’, offers a foretaste. After feeding in the required parameters such as ‘choose your ideology’, a virtual scenario for the future can be simulated.

Besides offering a future vision, KM3 is a compilation of what MVRDV has produced over the past five years. In addition to completed projects, the book contains scores of studies and experiments, some of them made by students at the Berlage Institute. Not all these projects deal with density or mixing functions, and that obscures the purpose of the book. The bizarre mixture of fiction and reality takes the edge off the statement that could have been made.

As a result, and because of the absurd bulkiness of this ’telephone book’, you soon lose grasp of the overall picture. The contents of the different studies and designs vary considerably and the images, though splendid, are so numerous that they quickly make you forget the core issue in the book. The accompanying DVD solves this problem for the most part. After watching twenty magnificent short films, you are pulled into a surrealist world made up of huge amounts of data that coalesces into forms. Buildings shoot out of the ground like living organisms and bend gracefully to become iconic virtual sculptures while the customary futuristic synthesiser music plays in the background.

The optimistic search for the limits of human ability ends in outer space with the ‘Space Neufert’. This offshore excursion puts KM3 definitively in the science fiction category.

A fascinating book, but KM3 raises more questions than it answers. Will computer planning (‘form follows data’) take over the role of the architect? And how human is this world, which is still largely a virtual one determined by computers and data banks? Belief in what can be made using the computer seems improbably faithful. Is this book perhaps intended ironically?