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Densifying cities, humanizing architecture

A humane, sustainable approach to urban sprawl

For Rotterdam-based MVRDV architects, a human-centered approach to urban density is a key focus. Its solutions include spectacular combinations of mixed-use construction, greenery and sustainability that minimize automobile traffic.Jan Knikker, one of the firm’s partners describes:

“In terms of philosophy, we really believe that urban sprawl is causing a lot of problems. Even though it’s very comfortable to live there, you always need a car. Hence, it is really bad for the environment”,

He continues: “On the other hand, if you stack up the city and densify it too much, you may get something like Hong Kong which is a really a very stressful place. So, at MVRDV, we’re trying to combine these two things so you have dream houses with a lot of greenery in the suburban lifestyle but they are stacked on top of each other. And this might be located in an inner city where you can basically take the elevator down to the opera.”

For David Schill, Aritco’s Marketing Director, the more housing, greenery and entertainment are designed to be accessible to each other, the more Aritco’s lifts will be needed. “Increasing density always means more stacking vertically,” he says. “But new combinations of functions can also mean unique combinations of shapes. Our, lifts, because of their design, create a minimum of interference with an architect’s solution, and, in fact, enhance it.”

“Architecture should also be loved”

Jan says that to preserve the planet, we need to transform construction and do it well, not just make a lot of additions to ugly buildings. “Architecture should also be loved and should be wonderful in order to be sustainable, because sustainability is also the love for a building so you do not ever want to remove it again,” he says.

Often that means coming up with unconventional ideas.

  • * In 2000, the firm designed a sustainable iconic building with windmills on the roof that “scream out” to do something about climate change.
  • * In 2014, MVRD built Rotterdam’s landmark Market Hall, which is a mix of a market hall and housing that has turned into the living room of Rotterdam.
  • * In the new library in new Rotterdam, the books are visible from the outside as an advertisement for reading, because Rotterdam has the lowest readership in the Netherlands. “It’s also one of the best performing buildings in terms of sustainability, so you can can have good architecture and you can hide the sustainable features as much as you want,” Jan says.
  • * In Seoul, MVRDV converted an inner-city motorway into a into a park. The solution, which cost EUR 30 million, works like a linear botanical garden. One million people every month walk through and can can sit on the planters and enjoy the greenery amidst the concrete environment of Seoul. Interestingly, KPMG found out that the city’s initial investment of EUR 30 million increased the value of the surrounding properties by hundreds of millions of euro.

“Unconventional buildings need unconventional solutions. The buildings of the future will be as beautiful as they are unconventional. Our job is to design the lift solutions equally beautiful and to make lifts that architects love. Customization, digitalization and sustainability are key for the future lifts.”

A skyscraper like an Italian mountain village

Skyscrapers, of course, are an obvious way to create density. The question is how to put the qualities of the European city into a skyscraper – and avoid Hong Kong-levels of stress. In a traditional skyscraper, you can only go up and down and look out. You might never meet your neighbors. But by creating much more irregular shapes with cantilevered apartments and terraces you can go out, have more views, step out and meet your neighbors.

“This is the beginning of a vertical village that’s basically what we want to do,” Jan says. “We change more parameters in a computer program and then suddenly you end up with a skyscraper that has qualities of an Italian mountain village. You can imagine that people will actually get to know each other.”

With the help of LEGO, which donated 2 million pieces of LEGO, the company created 350 variations on the European skyscraper. The final result, which will open next year, was optimized to provide an ideal mix of outdoor space, views, shadows and acoustics as well as more technical issues like the amount of facade panels or window types.

Buildings that create community

Like everything MVRDV designs, the “Valley” complex in Amsterdam has been designed with human scale in mind and will transform the neighborhood into a more livable and complete urban quarter. When it opens in 2021, it will have three tall structures of varied heights reaching up to 100 meters

There will be a public footpath that people can walk up and around, as they weave through retail spaces, terraces and roof gardens, leading to a central ‘valley’ area which is placed on the 4th and 5th levels surrounding the central tower.

There will also be big, cantilevered outdoor spaces. “Here you can have a barbecue and invite your neighbors,” Jan says. “It’s really important that you create a community here in this kind of building.”

Kiel citizens make a daring choice

These new approaches are getting an enthusiastic response from local residents. In Kiel, Germany, the firm entered a competition to build a skyscraper but had a bit of doubt, so they sent in three entries, one the typical German skyscraper, one that was a bit more daring, and a third which they themselves called “crazy.”

“To our great shock, the city and the citizens actually wanted to have the most radical tower,” Jan says. “And this is the option that we’re now going to build. So sometimes it’s very good to just show the alternatives and suddenly people fall in love with something that is more daring – even in Germany.”

Apartments with rollercoasters and climbing walls

MVRDV has also launched an experiment to see what happens when people decide for themselves how they want to live. “We matched to 17 architecture students with 17 clients,” Jan says. “They were very different people, from the guy in The Big Lebowski to the ‘Desperate Housewife’ and from Marilyn Manson to a guy who likes rollercoasters.

“So for all these people, we made a dream house that would be the ideal house for them and then we put the houses into software that would coordinate between these individual dreams and put them into a very rational structure without losing too much of the qualities these people wanted.”

Customized lifts for different homes

David says that Aritco elevators are designed with this kind of thinking very much in mind. “Speaking about customization, no home is alike,” David says. “My home is different from your home. People have different ideas of how they want to live and what they want their living spaces to look like.

“Making products where people are living their lives, there is a must in a possible and easy way to allow a lot of customization, whether you are a rock star or a suburban family!”

Jan says building apartments with all these people in mind is basically just a matter of taking the IKEA kitchen planner a few steps further. “If you look at the IKEA kitchen planner, you can already design your own kitchen. The IKEA kitchen planner is the first step and this is the end point, where you can basically create your dream house. You can even have a climbing wall or a roller coaster in your apartment.”

Jan Knikker’s talk was one in a series of Architects‘ Know-How Sessions  presented by The Art of Business.

Come back next week to see how Jan Knikker applies his ideas on architecture to transform urban planning.

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