An exhibition in Rotterdam looks at various aspects of mobility, impressing and disappointing in equal measure
The International Architecture Biennale at the Nederland Architecture Institute, Rotterdam, is on until 7 July (www. biennalerotterdam. nl) and must be the most extensive exhibition ever held on all aspects of mobility. It is, in fact, mostly a celebration of what is now termed 'car-culture'.
The event comprises a number of highly skilled presentations shown in three galleries of the NAI, together with two floors of the old Las Palmas warehouse, near the Erasmus Bridge.
Further exhibitions are being held in different galleries around Rotterdam, together with a lecture series. The end result is an almost overwhelming series of projects.
Models, films and computergenerated images are on show by students from six different cities and 11 universities (including the Bartlett), as well as 150 projects and realisations on mobility selected from more than 300 submissions from around the world. At least three excellent books and catalogues have been produced and should be essential reading on any library shelf.
One, entitled Holland Avenue, brilliantly pulls together the brief for the university projects by the Delft architectural practice Mecanoo, under the supervision of Francine Houben. A section of the existing motorway outside Delft was selected and, as well as showing suggestions for projects based on the Holland Avenue stretch of this road, the book collates essential information about the area and places it in the context of the Randstad. This is a ring motorway 150km long, used by 100,000 vehicles a day and encompassing an area about the size of London within the M25. Parallel with it runs the railway, and both link together the four major cities in Holland: Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, with an overall population of 6.5 million people.
In the Holland Avenue project the possibilities of building various structures over, under or alongside the road are explored vividly. Often beautifully drawn, the computer graphics are of such skill and present such convincing imagery that there cannot be a single student who, if he or she does not have a car now, will not scrape together enough money to buy one.
But two projects stand out, concentrating less on the fun aspect and more on the environment. The Academy of Architecture in Mondrisio, under Hantzema and Frampton, suggests, brilliantly, that half the junctions on the motorway should be closed. At present, the motorway has junctions every 2.8km or 1.7 minutes driving time apart. The existing highways within the Randstad could then be downgraded to become boulevards, connecting the agglomerations with green spaces, and made sacrosanct from future development.
The project from students at the Ecole Speciale in Paris under Odile Decq explores how the problem of noise can be dealt with around roads.
One third of Dutch citizens complain about noise levels around roads. Here many good short films show how motorways could be grassed over and made into public open space.
At gallery level, in 'Motopias', films are projected on to five hanging car window screens, each with headphones to allow viewers to listen to interviews (alas, only in Dutch) on such subjects as Milton Keynes, Wright's Broadacre City, Kevin Lynch, or the Smithsons' Haupstadt Berlin. Even in Dutch, watching the screens is most rewarding.
Finally, the most fun exhibition, 'City Reports', is at basement level.
Here visitors can sit in cars that rotate slowly on circular platforms and watch the driving experience in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, the Ruhr Valley and other cities unfold on a screen in front of them. Listening to realistic sounds played in at the same time, one lives the driving experience of those cities; great fun, especially for parties of visiting schoolchildren.
In the same room are models showing what is happening in cities like Budapest or Mexico City, where it is said pollution levels got so bad 'birds dropped dead from the sky'.
Many of the schemes raise freeways above main roads, with the promise that the ground level will be freed for pedestrians. Nearly all the schemes are of questionable merit, although a study by students under professor Ohno at the University of Tokyo is worthy of note. Using a series of fine sectional strip models, this study explores the environmental impacts of parts of the Yamanote and Sobu railway lines in Tokyo (85 per cent of the population uses public transport - about 27 million trips a day). It examines various ways in which the lines could be better integrated into the city - a worthy study.
The UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design students have produced an interesting series of four studies of a neighbourhood adjoining a freeway in Los Angeles. The different scenarios have names like 'Park City', where the freeway becomes a parking lot and public transport is introduced; or 'Local Warrior', where all roads become high-speed or are double-decked. Studies like this are rare, with most schemes simply concentrating on the motorways.
We are told that congestion levels will treble in the future but the 'Roads to the Future' project, in the Mon-Lab gallery, shows how this problem can be overcome without building new roads.
Instead, automated roads, smart roads (with noise reduction to make them more friendly) and ways of changing the traffic lanes to handle peak flows are proposed by 2030. Road pricing, suddenly considered feasible in this country, is paradoxically ignored as an option by the Dutch government.
One thing should be mentioned: nowhere in this exhibition is there any discussion of the cost of building around car traffic. In one exhibition book, Mobility, Luisa Maria Calabrese discusses the Buchanan report, Traffic in Towns, and illustrates the scheme for double-decking Oxford Street, which probably could happen, in say, Rotterdam.What she does not discuss is that the most important part of the book was the exploration of environmental conditions to make the scheme acceptable to pedestrians and people living alongside. Designing a decent environment around maximum car accessibility to all parts of a city is very expensive and for this reason Buchanan's ideas were not built.
They tried it in Los Angeles, where densities are low, but they have now given up and are spending money on a new bus fleet and light rail.
Walk, don't walk
Perhaps the Dutch, with their talented architects, will do it. Certainly the 'walking environment' of the new squares in the centre of Rotterdam, which is turning into an auto city, are disappointing, though happily there, unlike in Los Angeles, people still walk and cycle. Hopefully, this exhibition will raise a discussion as to what kind of world the Dutch want to live in.
Henk Oosterling, in the exhibition book In Transit, writing about mobility in Rotterdam, describes cars as 'a thorn in the side of autophobics because they deprive them of unrealistic foreshortened nostalgic perspective. The car-free village square'. Francine Houben, in Mobility, writes of a generation brought up in an era in which the topic of automobility and the motorist is politically incorrect, and designers must see to it that everyone makes use of public transport. But is this really such old hat that it can be ignored? In a country where almost half the population is without a car, is the car-free village square so bad?
Attracting people out of their cars is always a problem. Can the excellent Randstad railway system be upgraded to a high enough standard of design and level of comfort that more drivers will forsake their cars and use it instead, at least for some trips? Clearly, many already do this and cities like Munich have done it. Today, the trains are packed and the stations surrounded by hundred of bikes. They cannot all be people without cars.
In the long run, all this will be cheaper for the government than trying to expand road space to meet demand by pulling down swathes of towns and cities. In Appleyard, Lynch and Myer's book, View from the Road, which set the theme for this exhibition, doubts must have crept in and the authors concluded that their study had avoided a number of factors, such as 'the impact of the highway on the people who must look at it from the outside'. Alison Smithson, too, in her marvellously poetic book AS in DS: An Eye on the Road, about driving in her beloved DS Citröen, admitted that 'the pleasures of car movement were at their peak in the early '70s people enjoyed the new freedom. It was then downhill all the way as traffic become heavier'.
One comes away with from this exhausting event questioning whether Holland is doing the right thing in attempting to build its way into this so-called 'auto-freedom', which, admittedly, is so eloquently displayed throughout this exhibition.
Brian Richards is an architect and author of Future Transport in Cities Further reading International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (exhibition catalogue).
NAI Publishers, 2003 Houben, Francine, and Calabrese, Luisa Maria, (eds), Mobility: A Room with a View. NAI Publishers, 2003 In Transit: Mobility City Culture and Urban Development in Rotterdam.
Meurs, Paul, and Verheijen, Marc, (eds). NAI Publishers