Better City, Better Life begins with a good street

Urbanisation is a hot issue. Certainly in China, where the building industry is still seen as the powerhouse of the economy and cities are still sprouting out of the ground like mushrooms. How do you make good cities? Entitled Better City, Better Life, the World Expo that opened in Shanghai on May 1 focuses on the city. The Netherlands displays itself to its very best with a wonderful design.

While the economic, political and social paralysis of the Netherlands is enough to sadden you, the Dutch pavilion in Shanghai is called Happy Street. With Happy Street, the Netherlands shows itself as foreigners like to think of it: progressive, open, friendly, and with a clear vision. In contrast to earlier expos, this event features a remarkable amount of art and culture, with contributions from Viktor & Rolf, Piet Hein Eek, Gummbah, Dick Bruna and Joep van Lieshout. And, as expected at a world expo, there are also some technological discoveries to marvel at.

Wearing Chinese work clothes and riding a bike, the designer of the Dutch pavilion, John Körmeling picks me up from the metro station. We pass the security control without difficulty. Stretching before us are over five square kilometres of expo grounds full of big boxes and huge infrastructure, like elevated pedestrian paths. The pavilions are grouped per continent and per theme. We head for Europe. A heavily droning sound thumps harder and harder on my eardrums as we approach the Dutch pavilion, as though we’re about to enter a busy shipyard. It turns out to be an artwork by Peter Zegveld. Two speakers placed right below the pavilion blast out an ultra sonar wave entitled Good Vibrations.

The site around Happy Street is as big as a football pitch. We walk between the arrows that support the street. To the west is some sort of suction dredger with a drill head at the front. Körmeling: ‘That’s the second largest in the world, by Boskalis, 18 tons and 3.5 metres in diameter’. Croquettes are on sale next door. Around the corner stands a folly with the letters HAPPY MONEY, originally intended as a currency counter for the money to be used on Happy Street. But then the banks collapsed and the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs (the client) thought Happy Money wasn’t such a funny idea after all. Now it’s home to a Nonolet developed by the Stichting De Twaalf Ambachten. Nonolet is an odourless and water-less toilet that is not connected to the sewage system and that is based on the natural organic life cycle.

Erected in steel, the Dutch pavilion was built well within budget. Rather than flying in expensive experts, the architects found Chinese building partners to work with. Also over 150 enthusiastic interns were flown in to take care of all sorts of odd jobs alongside about as many Chinese students. Körmeling: ‘All details are the same; even the uprights of the balustrades were welded on the spot one by one. Most builders don’t even look at drawing and just do everything out of their head. Air bubbles under the paint surface indicate the hasty finishing. Shanghai’s climate is bad for building work, so it’s pretty impressive that they can build here, and do it fast too. Builders keep a watchful eye on the weather forecast. When the weather is fine they can suddenly cover a lot of ground. During the finishing stages I had to check everything all the time. That cloud of ash from Iceland turned out pretty handy in the end.’

Happy Water – photo Harry den Hartog

‘There weren’t any technical difficulties with or radical changes made to the design. Because of the circulation system, the street has become a route and can no longer be accessed from all sides.’ We walk along the street, which features a selection of replicas of Dutch architecture. ‘That terraced house by Maaskant over there will soon contain the “floating stone” by Wim T Schippers. This is a replica of the Thonik studio house by MVRDV (white this time). Look, Maaskant aligned the frames precisely above one another, while MVRDV staggers them. The original version of that beach house there is in Zandvoort. We put a seagull on the roof because there was one on the roof when we went to take photos in Zandvoort. That workshop structure there diagonally opposite is by me. Next to it are the chauffeur’s house by Van Tijen and the house on Erasmuslaan in Utrecht by Rietveld.’

Körmeling: ‘My ideal is a linear city; borders can disappear straight away. It’s an alternative to conventional coagulated cities that just keep growing and get so big that there comes a moment that they burst apart, so that new towns or gated communities have to be made and thus the city becomes uninhabitable.’ Happy Street is the translation of Körmeling’s vision for a better society: happiness begins on your own street, a street of houses with a front door at ground level, and a mixture of functions. Each house has a character and function of its own. Together, the houses form a close-knit village. Bells chime and there are squares, a football pitch and even a real barrel organ.

While most national pavilions have an interior where you can shelter from the sun and dust, Happy Street is open and the houses are just show boxes. That explains the tens of ventilators inserted between the balustrades that blow air between the visitors. At almost the highest point there is a purification plant by Norit, where potable water is purified. Visitors can serve themselves. Back down stairs, in the shadow beneath the street, there is a landscape designed by ZUS and consisting of strips of green and blue carpet (grass and water) with synthetic sheep on them like moveable furniture.

At the end of the route there is a souvenir shop with the words KOE MENS HUIS ZON WOLK ZAND (= COW MAN HOUSE SUN CLOUD SAND) on the roof in alternating Dutch and Chinese. The original idea was to sell the Happyjama here too. In Shanghai lots of people walk around their homes and the surrounding streets in splendidly decorated pyjamas as they buy groceries or chat with the neighbours. Recently, however, Shanghai’s city authorities have forbidden the wearing of pyjamas on the street, ‘because it is not appropriate in a modern society’. Accordingly, the Happyjama vanished from the souvenir shop, but it is available from the Dutch Culture Center on the other side of the city.