Merchant mentality in The Promised Land

Where do you start when you’re commissioned to design a new city in Asia or Russia? How do you deal with cultural differences, regulations and language? These questions formed the starting point for an evening programme organised by the International New Town Institute to examine urban development in Asia.

The first public gathering of the International New Town Institute took place on Tuesday evening May 27 at the Kunstlinie art centre in Almere, organised in conjunction with Casla architecture centre. The aim of the International New Town Institute is to study global urbanisation from the perspective of social involvement. The institute is interested in the role of various parties involved in urban planning. Dirk Frieling, one of the founders, introduced the evening, entitled New Towns Abroad, after which five Dutch offices told of their approach and experience with urban design schemes in Asia.

Rob van der Velden of Atelier Dutch explained how the plan for the Dutch town of Gaoqiao in China came about. However, his lecture on the typical characteristics of the Chinese and Dutch didn’t go beyond a metaphorical comparison between East and West: Mao meets

McDonalds. Things became more concrete when Van der Velden compared the old centre of Beijing with the ideal plan by Simon Stevin. Public space and the water system form important aspects of both plans. In the competition entry by Atelier Dutch for Gaoqiao New Town the human scale is again taken as the measure of urban design. This is an interesting starting point given the large-scale developments of most new Chinese cities. But Kuiper Compagnons won the competition on one condition: the local government was so enthusiastic about the design by Atelier Dutch that both entries had to be combined. Perhaps this consensus plan is the ultimate Dutch contribution to Chinese culture. The new Chinese city is injected with old Dutch images of canal townhouses, a copy of the Amsterdam Maritime Museum and a giant clog. But one wonders if this is the best way of bringing back a human scale to this new Chinese city.

Rients Dijkstra of design firm Maxwan offered an anecdotal description of the way in which an office can be catapulted into an unknown culture. Through a network of projects, designers and policy-makers he was eventually asked by one of the directors of the Sobinbank to take part in a competition. The assignment was to design a city south of Moscow for 160,000 people. Without any specific programme, Maxwan produced an intuitive design that paid no heed to local conditions. Dijkstra defined the situation aptly: ‘We were sent out into the woods with blindfolds; afterwards you heard if you hunted the right animal’. Maxwan won the competition and then heard that the plan was useless. A programme controlled by spreadsheets eventually had to offer clarity about the area’s development. The presentation of the new design by Maxwan was supported by impressions that make painfully obvious that the characteristic context of Moscow was ignored. But what did become obvious was how a particular Russian process unravels and how little grasp one has on it as designer. Rients Dijkstra presents himself as a clever businessman who possesses the right knowledge and who knows how important it is to have the right network. The latter is especially invaluable in upcoming markets, where it’s unclear how the game is supposed to be played. When that becomes clear, The Promised Land offers unlimited possibilities.

City of Cities in Korea by VenhoevenCS

Based on the losing competition submission for a new town in South Korea, Ton Venhoeven (VenhoevenCS) gave an interesting lecture about a new town and the way in which it has to be designed. He described the current culture using the model of the network city. According to Venhoeven the city is non-hierarchic and there is no causal link between one experience and the next. This results in uncertainty, because it is difficult to characterise the city as a whole. The necessity to create structure therefore arises. Venhoeven argued that one could use two metaphors for this: the machine and the encyclopaedia. The machine dominates our social environment in which many people no longer have any contact with social reality. The encyclopaedia makes use of an organising method according to type. Recognition and trust form the basis for this. To strengthen his vision of the new city, Venhoeven describes Villa Müller by Adolf Loos. Many cultures are united in this one house, ‘beyond good and evil’, and even the smallest part contributes to the balance of the whole. The idea of the network city is analogous to the working of the ideal house: ‘a house is a body in space and in the house the cosmos is represented’, according to Venhoeven.

Below: TEDA waterfront near Tianjin by DHV and Cie.

The advice and engineering office DHV presented the design for Caofeidian Eco-City, a city for one million inhabitants in northeast China. According to Dick Kevelam this coastal area forms part of the newest five-year plan by the Chinese government. In the coming years it will be impossible to convert agricultural land into urban development. The coast therefore offers an alternative. Since the quality of air is better on the coast than inland, many Chinese people will relocate from west to east in the future. The new city is rising up in an oil-rich area where a harbour is also under construction. Kevelam emphasised that in this industrial salt-water area there is little fresh water available for future inhabitants. The design therefore provides for the creation of freshwater through the construction of a structure of islands and lagoons comparable with the Wadden Islands. This plan illustrates the thorough search for a balance between urban growth and a sustainable living environment. With this project DHV proves that Dutch engineering can deal with local conditions in a careful way. It was unfortunate, however, that Kevelam didn’t grasp the opportunity to explain how a western office operates in the socialist market economy of China.

Finally, Adam Frampton of OMA gave a very speedy account of urban developments in the desert, on the southwest side of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This oil-rich country has been undergoing rapid development since the 1980s. The desert settlements form artificial islands as it were. Frampton calls this ‘resort urbanism’, in which marketing is complementary to urban development. The marketing drives the architecture. The speed of the presentation made it difficult to assess the quality of the plan. But data and graphs did prove that the fastest growing cities are located in the poorest countries. According to Frampton the mechanism behind new cities like these is incomparable to the development of western cities as we know them. It demands a new way of looking. It wasn’t clear, however what the mechanism precisely involved and what this new way of thinking could be. What was clear was that the new urban developments have an effect on thinking about the western city, or in the ominous words of Adam Frampton: ‘Urban innovations taking place in the Middle-East and China are surpassing those elsewhere’.

The blossoming trade between the Netherlands and rising markets such as China and the VAE is not new. The Dutch have been charting the Asian market ever since the 16th century. The planners and designers who spoke this evening were building on that tradition. Their guiding principle is not social responsibility but entrepreneurship. As a result, the marketing of new towns plays a key role in the design process. In accordance, speed, scale and working method are adapted in a flexible manner. The emphasis of the lecture series was put on the opportunities and potential for the designers of new towns. But the role played by these western designers in Asian culture remained unexamined. What is it like for western designers, who are familiar with complete freedom of expression, to have to deal with censorship and undemocratic decision-making or regulations that change without any reason given? Local conditions of this sort were only whispered about.