Network Place: a photo exhibition

Walking through Oud-IJsselmonde (a peripheral neighborhood of Rotterdam) we stumble upon an odd scene. Children are rollerblading down faint asphalt hills, to a background of monumental, if not sublime, concrete monoliths supporting the Van Brienenoordbrug, the busiest bridge in our country. Above, thousands of cars pass by Oud-IJsselmonde without ever taking notice of its hundred-year old dyke houses. Below, the sound of laughing children echoes between the thirty meter tall pillars. Further away we see an elderly couple walking their dogs. Near the water the concrete pillars obscure a tiny quay that is used by the occasional couple for an intimate meeting. All recreational activity underneath this internationally important car overpass is set to a score of dim traffic noises.

Since the 19th century, cities are increasingly complex mechanisms dependent on extensive infrastructure. As part of larger regional, national and international networks, their planning and implementation is mostly (if not only) executed as a superimposition of infrastructural layers upon the local urban fabric. Vice versa, the presence of these supralocal networks in itself spawns contrasts and spaces previously unknown to planners and architects.

11 – 25 January 2019
Organized as part of graduation studio The Intermediate Size IV
by Justin Agyin, Lennart Arpots, Joep Coenen, Kenzo-Joy Lam

Infrastructure in terms of spatial planning can be understood as a multimodal and multinodal (inter)local transportation network that is comprised of infrastructural lines. These infrastructural lines might be considered the veins of the urban tissue, to use a cliché biological analogy, and allow us to displace ourselves from point A to point B, to point C and so on.

From the industrial revolution on the modes of transportation and types of infrastructure have increased. Movement that was exclusively driven by human or animal power, or by the exploitation of the wind, was complemented by mechanical and motorized traffic on water and land, as well as by airborne transportation. The arrival of these new forms of traffic resulted in radical transformations of the (urban) landscape. From being an integral part of a place and public life, infrastructural networks, mainly those for motorized traffic, but also the port infrastructure for instance, started to withdraw themselves from those places and that public life to scale up and evolve into a highly specialized and highly technocratic system of its own. Over time this led to superposed idiosyncratic interlocal networks that subtracted itself from its substrate of the (urban) landscape as autonomous entities. These entities started to dominate or impose themselves upon a certain place, sometimes also on a different level, and as such reordered these places, resulting in a confrontation between different logics that subsequently express themselves spatially.

In the jury report for the 1996 Rotterdam Maaskant Prize, the Port of Rotterdam was lauded as an inspiring example for modern spatial design, where planning and order are dictated by the movements and forces on the level of transportation and communication, resulting in an astounding spatial infrastructure. The relations between port and city are constantly negotiated, resulting in new types of spaces.

By way of observational methods from the perspective of the flaneur, in line with the writing and thinking of Edgar Allan Poe, Michel de Certeau, Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, we have contested the perspective of the voyeur, which in the words of De Certeau ‘is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp’. These photos are the result of conscious or unconscious flaneuristic explorations into the port of Rotterdam and the Japanese cityscape. We do not argue that observing the city from the perspective of the flaneur is superior to observing the city from the perspective of the voyeur. Rather we argue that, by complementing or contesting the voyeur perspective from the perspective of the flaneur, information or qualities can be discerned that cannot be discerned from maps or satellite photos. As such, the skill of the flaneur is to observe aspects of everyday life, the beauty and quality of places in our built-environment that others might not notice, to paraphrase Baudelaire.

This contrast is also visible in physical space where the confrontation between the plan logic, which appears as a coherent whole on paper, unintentionally leaves space or room for unforeseen activities. The conditions of these infrastructural spaces create some sort of spatial vacuums where highly varied, though specific activities take place that are decoupled from the predominant infrastructural landscape and as such gain a certain independence. Even in Japanese cities, where there is virtually no excess space left due to high urban pressure.

This selection of photos complements the highly functionalistic quality of these infrastructures with the unforeseen scenic, picturesque remarkable qualities of a highly technological and ordered landscape, in Rotterdam as well as in Japan.

Visual Quality

The pictorial qualities of highly organized and ‘cleaned up’ landscapes have been exalted in the history of Dutch photography by famed photographers as Johannes Linder, Frits Rotgans and Cas Oorthuys. Interestingly, they did not only focus on the landscape as perceived in Dutch landscape painting, but they also documented the technological landscapes or wastelands of for instance the port of Rotterdam. The fast-paced transshipment of goods and the sounds of the technical installations of the industry are documented on the photos and conversely, pictorial qualities, but also other qualities of such landscapes such as distance, tranquility, isolation and slowness come to the front through their photography. These characteristics also attract activities that thrive on exploiting these pictorial qualities. They take place in the lee of the port infrastructure and are decoupled from the predominant infrastructural landscape; as such they gain a certain independence to generate a space to appreciate the beauty of the very landscape they inhabit.

Stacking

In Japan, and especially in Tokyo, nodes in the overlaid networks of highways, rail transport and streets manifest themselves in complex stacks of both indoor and outdoor urban space. This in itself leads to a new network layer of suppressed and elevated passages and walkways spread out through the city, allowing citizens to sometimes walk underground for vast distances without ever seeing daylight. These pedestrian thoroughfares often constitute an equally valid and as important urban space as the conventional streets on ground level, emphasized by street names given to some important intersections in the network.

Gyoko-dori Underground Square is a suppressed circus connecting five wide underground passages underneath Tokyo Station. During the day, this urban space flooded with fluorescent light is transformed into a vibrant underground street market, with local vendors selling produce and gifts to commuters. Especially in the hot and humid summers, this results in a deserted ground level square in front of the station’s monumental Marunouchi entrance.

Gyoko-dori Underground Square

People

From traffic signs and lights, billboards and vending machines to infrastructure, they all have an equally important relation to the urban fabric. The autonomously positioned networks (such as underground tunnels, walkways and subways and pedestrian bridges, train and car viaducts) condemn the Japanese cities fairly easily to a visual chaos. However, the literal stacking of layers has its own and complete order that is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and makes the cities function remarkably well.

The temporality of buildings, in the form of the renewal process (metabolism) of life in Japanese culture, makes the cities dynamic and flexible, while the structure and the experience of the city is strongly preserved. The adjustment on the smallest scale does not affect the large scale and vice versa. It allows Japanese cities, unlike most Western cities, to split, reject, replace and reform parts to the needs of the contemporary world, without concerning about the visual coherency. It is precisely this condemned visual chaos that is the strength of the Japanese cities.

The perception of the city from the perspective of the flaneur is simply overwhelming and purely due to the sensory intensity of public space. Due to this intensity and the equal relationship between the elements of the urban fabric, the true flaneur can flourish.

Shell and yolk

The urban fabric of Tokyo is low yet dense, like a carpet or, as proclaimed by architect Fumihiko Maki, analogous to a cloud; its internal logic in an unstable equilibrium and seemingly almost chaotic, in contrast to its Western counterparts. A city-wide network of highways, in this case both elevated and on ground level, cuts through this continuous fabric. As this supralocal highway network lands on specific local places in the Japanese city, both it and its context adapt to each other’s adjacency, leading to cutting loss in the shape of waywardly formed leftover plots as well as abrupt confrontations between the large scale foreign body and the fine grain houses and streets. Over time, this extreme contrast resolves itself as large monolithic buildings form ribbons lining the new highways, adjusted to its supralocal and superhuman scale. Together they constitute what Tokyo-based writer Peter Popham calls a shell, shielding off and simultaneously protecting the urban fabric he dubbed yolk. As a result of this collision between network and fabric, Tokyo is generally less centralized than Western cities with a series of ‘hard shells’ and ‘soft yolks’ over a wide area.

Network

During one of the explorations in Rotterdam, we were part of the network itself. Immediately noticeable are the beacons or landmarks that are positioned in the network. Large towers respond to the scale of the network and make it possible to orient oneself within the network. The network, consisting of nodes and lines, can influence the beacons with these specific characteristics. These appearances are strengthened by the presence of monumental axes and their (often unintentional) monumental termini.

Furthermore, during this exploration we were constantly confronted with the immediate surroundings of the infrastructural spaces. Buffer zones are manifest along the lines of the network to separate city and network in the form of green barriers or height differences. While these buffer zones are positioned between city and network and protect the city from the results of the network, such as sound or smell, they are then occupied by undetermined functions such as a sheep pasture or day beach.

Indirect relations

Huge quantities of billboards manifest themselves both in Tokyo and Rotterdam. Where tall buildings in Tokyo are topped with these mega billboards, we encounter them in Rotterdam mainly along the water. In both cases, the buildings are used as billboards along an infrastructural line. The network creates, in these specific locations, the condition to allow this type of expression.

Both billboards respond to the vast scale of the network. In Tokyo this is the enormous scale of motorways through the city and in the port of Rotterdam the enormous scale of the water. However, advertising is not meant directly for the network, but for the flow (of people) that travels across it. In Rotterdam, this advertisement is still quiet and well-organized. In Tokyo, where this flow is many times larger, the advertising has assumed such extreme forms that it is difficult to understand.

Monumentality

The poetry of tour de force engineering to facilitate the flows traffic has resulted in large-scale concrete and steel constructions that have a certain monumental quality in the urban landscape of both Rotterdam and Japan. Pillars, portals, beams and columns shape underpasses, bridges and fly-overs. Though highly variate, they share a common paradoxical dynamic and robust design language that in turn generate interesting new spaces that are subsequently appropriated by everyday life of walking one’s dog, or provide space for play in the city. While impressive, infrastructural sculptures in Rotterdam are predominantly hidden from sight or outside the realm of everyday street life. Conversely, in Japanese cities different modes of traffic and types of infrastructure are spatially stacked, resulting in streetscapes by one, two or even three layers of infrastructure, which are incorporated into the veins of the urban fabric. 

Walking a dog under the Van Brienenoordbrug

This text was first published in January 2019 as exhibition catalogue for the Network <> Place photo exhibition in the Architecture Faculty of the Eindhoven University of Technology.

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