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Gert Urhahn on The Spontaneous City

As a continuation of our coverage on Herman Miller REACH Singapore in Cubes Indesign C64, Luo Jingmei speaks to the Dutch architect and urban designer on ‘The Spontaneous City’.

Gert Urhahn on The Spontaneous City

In 1973, Gert Urhahn travelled to Amsterdam to work as a senior urban designer for the Municipality of Amsterdam, strongly engaged in the redevelopment of the city’s waterfronts. His experience led him to open his own urban design office in 1991, and later, The Spontaneous City International (SPcitl). The latter is an organisation engaged in the transformation of urbanscapes via workshops, projects and discussions on location, with local neighbourhoods, government groups and students of the local universities. Recently, he wrote a book on the topic, which he was at Herman Miller Reach Singapore to talk about.

SPontaneous City

Spontaneous City in Almere, a new town in the Netherland, invited tender

What do you think is wrong with current or historical models of urban planning, that has led you to promote ‘The Spontaneous City’?

It’s difficult to say what is wrong and what is right if you don’t link it to a unique context. In the Netherlands, we have a strong top down planning tradition. I’m reacting against that. A city custom-made by planners is under control but on the other hand, the city is a habitat for human beings and should always offer some surprises, [be a place] where citizens can take initiative. Citizens are more than just consumers.


Workshop in Ringoen, Gothenburg, commissioned by Property Management Administration

Can you give us an example of a less-developed city where ‘The Spontaneous City’ can be applied?

Rio de Janeiro is a city in a wonderful landscape but it’s a very divided city [with clearly demarcated] rich and poor areas. So, how to unify these areas? It starts with understanding the daily lives of the people [in the favelas, or slums]. They have not legalised the situation so there is no governmental power [grid], no city control, no housing corporation, so who is organising the daily water, the electricity? [The people themselves]. I realised when I was there [that] it’s a powerful thing [when] the people are able to build their own city. Now the question is how to use this energy and skills these people have [to build a proper city]. But you cannot do it top down from a table, you have to go to the people and discuss: what are your top ten priorities for the first year?


Self management in El Alto, Bolivia, research

This ground-up approach is clearly very important to you.

I try to understand the daily life of a city by speaking to citizens, [to] entrepreneurs, not just planners. I ask them ‘what is the identity of your city?’ I see them thinking. Like in Oaxaca, a city in Mexico, I expected everybody to say they love the inner city, which is so cosy and nice. What surprised me was the contrary; they [linked] the identity of their city to the older 2000-year-old Monte Alban area outside the city. It’s a very interesting process because the collective memory of a city is what makes Singapore different from New York, different from Tokyo. It’s very important to emphasise these differences because when we make a kind of timeline, the question is ‘where you want to go in the future?’. So you have to understand who you are so that you are relaxed and not stressed and will avoid copy-paste because copy-paste is not for cities.


Co-operation in Noorderveld in Amsterdam, 4th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam

How does The Spontaneous City relate to the workplace environment?

If I’m a company and I’m looking for an area in a city [to put my office], I should feel comfortable in that neighbourhood or district. So the best a city can do is offer a lot of diverse identities, neighbourhoods within a city, [working typologies] so companies have choices because every company is so different in culture and character; there is no one formula.


Impression of Noorderveld, 4th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam

Since you wrote the book ‘The Spontaneous City’, how has urban planning as you know it changed?

In the Dutch, or European context, the crisis has worked as a catalyst. Why? Because the big dreams, the bubble has exploded so they are coming down to reality again. That means the developers are not able to take any more such big risks. It’s the same for the housing corporations. So the grain and size of developments are becoming smaller and smaller. For China, it’s totally different. They have this high-dynamic, high-speed economy so there’s a lack of time for reflection at the moment. I suppose they are producing some problems for the future because they don’t care so much for the people; they are just producing cities. The question is, and nobody can answer [now]: what do the people want and like in 20 years, and does the city that is produced now in its big scale fit to the wishes of the people in that time? We shall see.


Noorderveld with the surrounding working areas

That’s quite exciting isn’t it?

Yes, it’s quite exciting. (Laughs)

Portrait courtesy of XTRA

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