In the Future, We’re All Going to Be Dutch


I’m still making my way through the New York Times Magazine‘s "The Next City" issue after a wild weather weekend, but here are some notes on what I’ve read so far.

The first full-length story, "Face Value," looks at an interesting subspecialty in architecture: façade design. The subject of the story is an engineering firm called Front, as if the firm were a high-end restaurant. The technical challenges of cladding a library in glass is interesting–I wonder who had to tell Rem Koolhaas he couldn’t make the exterior walls of the Seattle Public Library structural–but while the Front engineers are ingenious, they don’t really have much to tell us about how cities will be built in the twenty-first century.

Note to editors: I know it’s the end of the year and everybody is rushing to get their projects in before the summer, but a little context-setting would have helped here.

Next up is Darcy Frey’s look at a Dutch whiz-kid architecture firm called MVRDV that designs unusual boxes. They’re severely theoretical–one of them once worked for Koolhaas–and they like to keep their interlocutors off balance with questions like "Can you imagine if we grew our tomatoes 10 kilometers high?" They think a lot about cities, gathering their thoughts in books like KM3: Excursions on Capacities, which is largely a paean to data, "huge, pure data."  Their conceptual masterwork is something called Datatown, a SimCities-like experiment that crams every American into Georgia–one gigantic Atlanta. The architects then ran a software program to answer questions that I guarantee you wouldn’t be uppermost on Americans’ minds if we all had to live in Georgia:

What if all the residents of Datatown wanted to live in detached houses? What if they preferred urban blocks? What could be done with the waste? (Build 561 ski resorts.) What kind of city park would be needed? (A million Central Parks stacked up over 3,884 floors.) "The seas, the oceans (rising as a result of global warming) the polar icecaps, all represent a reduction in the territory available for the megacity. Does that mean that we must colonize the Sahel, the oceans or even the moon to fulfill our need for air and space, to survive? Or can we find an intelligent way to expand the capacities of what already exists?"

The buildings that emerge from MVRDV’s obsession with data are a combination of Silicon Valley data mining, Dutch pragmatism, and Middle America big-box retail design. A representative building is the Mirador, built in a drab corner of Madrid (image above, from the NYT article). MVRDV’s apartment block is a preening swan among ugly ducklings, but it’s part of the flock nevertheless. Evidently, the numbers still say pack people up in boxes surrounded by bleak wastelands, just as the numbers indicated in the 1950s. The cutout terrace is an attractive novelty, but it’s an incomplete solution to the problem of integrating nature into the urban.

Maybe in the future, when we’re all living in megacities, the closest we’ll ever get to nature is a wind-swept container park, at which point it will be tempting to give up on the whole idea of bringing nature into the city as just a lot of bother. Connecting to nature will be one of those outmoded ideologies we need to prepare ourselves to abandon.

Or maybe we will discover that a small green terrace will do quite nicely, especially at a time when global warming is changing our relationship to nature. If the Dutch, stranded between an implacable sea and the continental hypermasses, can teach us anything, it’s that the city of the future isn’t going to conform to current notions of ideal urban space. The next city isn’t going to be a cross between Tribeca and Walden Pond; it’s going to be completely unpredictable and unmanageable, vulnerable to the heightened forces of nature and global economy.  As Winy Maas, the "M" in MVRDV says, "There is this beautiful German word, Trost. It means empathy, or solace, or maybe consolation. I think that is what our building meant to express. You know, if the waters are going to come, let them come. Let’s do it. Let’s just turn and face it." In other words, in the future we’re all going to be Dutch.

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