The city is the spatial theme which will be of the greatest importance in the future. There‘s a very good reason why the theme of the 5th international architecture biennale rotterdam was the expressive making city: no cities, no future. The figures speak for themselves. Cities have experienced exponential growth over the past two hundred years, growth which shows no sign of slowing down. In 1800, 3% of the global population lived in cities; in 1950 this was 30% and in 2006 it was more than 50%. It is expected that by 2050, more than seven billion people, out of an estimated global population of nine billion, will live in cities.
How can administrators, policy-makers, politicians, market parties, designers, and citizens understand something as huge and as apparently chaotic and incomprehensible as the city? And what does urban development mean for companies in terms of things like acoustics, fire safety, energy use, and sustainability? According to the British theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, a scientific approach is necessary in order to properly understand and control the city and the future.
In 2002 he began researching data on cities from all over the world – everything from the number of petrol stations, coffee shops, and murders to residents’ personal income levels – and reached a remarkable conclusion. When the size of a city doubles, the income, consumption, and productivity all increase by about 15 percent. This explains why people around the world are drawn to cities as iron to a magnet. Big cities mean bigger chances – for work, for a better existence, for a bigger, more interesting life. Cities are responsible for 90% of our wealth. And apparently, the bigger the city, the bigger share of the wealth each resident has on average.
Of course there are two sides to this story. West also discovered that when a city’s population doubles, it’s not just the wealth and innovation which show a 15% increase. Crime, pollution, and illness increase at the same rate. Rampant urbanisation creates major socio-economic and ecological problems. It’s clear that if cities continue to grow unchecked, these problems will get out of control. It’s also clear that cities will need to be the ones to find solutions for the major issues of the twentyfirst century. This is because cities are also the source of human creativity and innovation, leading to an increase in wealth.
As the organisation of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam states on its website, ‘… our cities can only take us to a better future if we do a better job of designing, planning and governing them.’ But what is better? Scientists, designers and politicians are engaged in conversations about where the focus of urban innovations should be. ‘I have no doubt that the city is where it will be happening in the future,’ says Alexander D’Hooghe, associate professor of Architectural Urbanism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). ‘But there’s a misunderstanding as to what is contained in the city. Usually it’s reduced to its historic centre. Architects are obsessed with ultraurbanism and denseness. “Condensing” seems to have become a sort of synonym for “sustainable construction”.
But the capacity of the existing urban web is limited. And in all honesty, it’s easy to say that we should all be living close together, but seventy or eighty percent of people don’t want to live that way and choose to live in an environment with more space, more greenness, and more quiet – in other words, in the suburbs. That’s why I think we are heading towards a mixture of the city and the countryside. That will be the trend: continuing to build up the edges, the remaining areas. That is the city of the future.’
This is a very different idea than the typical image we have of metropolitan cities like London, New York, or Peking, cities which are associated with skyscrapers, iconic buildings, and large city parks. These are the cities we all want to go to. But the current development which D’Hooghe sees is taking place in the gradually changing and condensing urban corridors, where green zones transform into asphalt while the density of the average four-storey building doubles or triples. D’Hooghe recognises that this does not make for an attractive city. But it is reality. Urban developers and architects have the responsibility to develop a sustainable perspective for these areas, for which there are no overarching plans, and to create new typologies for the less compact city.
D’Hooghe sees three important themes in this: first, the development of enclaves, ‘cities within the city’ which have a specific identity and meet the needs of a specific target group; second, the design and re-use of the many ‘big boxes’ found in the suburbs – big, flat buildings which were originally built as distribution centres or shops (such as IKEA); and third, the integration of architecture and infrastructure – the crucial connecting element in the modern city.
D’Hooghe also sees a clear task for Reynaers in this urban context. ‘Reynaers could act on the specific needs for bringing daylight deep into large buildings without losing energy.’ An illustration of this technology can be found in the Sopharma Litex Towers in Sofia, Bulgaria (see page 46). In D’Hooghe’s opinion, one eloquent example of the suburban architecture of the future is the municipal hall completed this year in the Belgian municipality of Oostkamp. It’s a typical ‘big box’ which was transformed and given a light, cloud-like interior by the Spanish architect Carlos Arroyo.
“PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD ARE DRAWN TO CITIES LIKE IRON TO A MAGNET. BIG CITIES MEAN BIGGER OPPORTUNITIES – FOR WORK, FOR A BETTER STANDARD OF LIVING, AND FOR A MORE INTERESTING LIFESTYLE ”
Erik Rasker, Reynaers’ Chief Technology Officer, also predicts new developments in terms of acoustics, fire safety, and sustainable construction. ‘Whenever buildings are constructed with greater density, whether in the city centre or the suburbs, this means it’s necessary to look extra carefully at the fire safety requirements. This is true both within a single large building and between different buildings.’ According to Rasker, the theme of acoustics is of primary importance around airports, major traffic axes, and park and ride centres. ‘But more and more often, we are developing separate products for specific projects and fine-tuning them in our acoustics test lab.’ Reynaers has placed importance on sustainability for a long time, and the carbon footprint is of course an important criterion. Erik Rasker says, ‘Aluminium is a very strong material which can be recycled almost indefinitely.
But the use phase is at least as important – we’re talking about buildings which have to last for fifty years or more. During that period, we want our products to contribute as much as possible to energy savings while making the best possible use of solar heat and daylight.’ In terms of cities, Rasker would like to see more integrated cooperation between urban developers, architects, landscape architects, and producers. ‘What usually happens now is that energy use is examined per building. At the end of the trajectory, those products are selected which best fit the building. But the potential interaction between buildings and the related infrastructure is ignored. There are definite profits to be gained in looking at a complete urbanisation trajectory in the long term. We would like to get in at the start of this trajectory in order to help think of solutions which will enable flexible, sustainable use over time.’
In London, where Reynaers was involved in the construction of the Olympic Village, this is already a reality. The sustainable reuse of the entire property, which was converted into a new residential district after the Olympics finished, was one of the most important goals of the London organisation from the beginning. The Village housed the athletes participating in the Olympics, then the athletes participating in the Paralympic Games, and finally London families. ‘The tilt-turn windows in the buildings had to meet the requirements of all three target groups in terms of accessibility and ease of use. This is just one example of how Reynaers can contribute to sustainable urbanisation.’