Blog: Arjen Oosterman

Arjen Oosterman is a writer and educator as well as the editor-in-chief and publisher of Volume, an independent quarterly that sets the agenda for design. By going beyond architecture’s definition of 'making buildings,' it reaches out for global views on designing environments, advocates broader attitudes to social structures, and reclaims the cultural and political significance of architecture. Created as a global idea platform to voice architecture any way, anywhere, anytime, it represents the expansion of architectural territories and the new mandate for design.
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Arjen Oosterman - Post 1: Heart Of The Matter

In February, ARCHIS in cooperation with Abitare, Netherlands Architecture Institute and the College of Architecture and Design at Lawrence Tech held an RSVP event in Warren (USA), a city close to Detroit where 80 % of the population works in the automotive industry. The event focused on finding pragmatic answers to how we can move from crisis to project.

This announcement of a debate in the Netherlands Architecture Institute continues: 

"A report-back and discussion meeting at the NAI on 20 March 2008 is aimed at providing cities in need with clues and concepts to revive the public domain, to re-energize its urban spirit and to revitalize its trust in dialogue as the essence of civic life."

No less. But then problems are more than serious. In times of hardship, one should share knowledge and experiences. That's how we found ourselves – a Dutch institution, two magazines and a professor from MIT – in the heartlands of credit disaster.

And what confrontation! I must admit as a Dutchman that the first impression of amazement was followed by an overwhelming feeling of … amazement, only to be succeeded by another gulf of total amazement. Macomb County, six times the surface of our Capital, Amsterdam, houses about the same number of residents. The Netherlands (with a population of almost 17 million) fits comfortably six times in the State of Michigan (population of around ten million).

Yes, on paper we're one of the most densely populated areas in the world, but in reality you can drive through larger part of the country and find farms, fields and woods, interrupted by smaller communities and some mid-sized cities (100,000 inhabitants or less). So our confrontation with this landscape of endless tracts of single-family houses, this million-fold multiplied individual dream, this top-down induced politics of sprawl, this stunningly successful marriage of industry and masses, all neatly caged in their prison of car, condo (ok, single-family home) and credit card, was impressive.

No less impressive was the energy local and county authorities displayed in mapping out and confronting their problems. One day of presentations about the economic realities was enough to convincingly show that the situation is taken as seriously as it is. So, what was there to add, to suggest, to comment upon?

Being in the middle of this crisis, and being one of the first counties in the country to feel its full force, it is not easy to switch from damage control to future-oriented change. One should, no, one must help the disaster-struck citizen, and try to stop this avalanche of foreclosures. The magnitude is such that it absorbs all energy and manpower.

To complicate things even more, there is a second avalanche ahead. A positive one, but no less demanding: it’s called the Economic Stimulus Package, billions to be spent within 18 months. The urgent needs on the one hand and tight time-frame on the other make it most difficult to develop a balanced plan, one that is based on a clear vision of what direction the country should take towards a viable and desirable future.

The discussions clearly showed that it cannot be about reconstruction and restoration. The good old days will not return. But what could be the road to new good days? Three ideas came to the fore:

  • The existing American dream, as materialized in Macomb, has to be replaced by a new dream. A dream that can inspire, a dream that does not deny present conditions (energy and ecology), but takes full account of them, is in tune and goes beyond.
  • Spreading investments evenly would at best result in temporary relief. That strategy will not change Warren and Macomb into authoritative examples of a sensible, balanced, and forward looking future. Concentration on a few well-chosen intersections or nodes, or a spatial strategy that changes one-dimensional dependence on oil and auto mobility into real different ecologies seems the only way out.
  • There is an amazing creative potential around, only held back by laws and regulations. Freeing up this force, stimulating initiative, could result in a most desirable, attractive reality.

Sympathetic ideas like upgrading parking lots, to make for a more attractive neighborhood, will not bring about the change that is needed. Instead one could think of a tactical retreat into densified clusters (the old numbers of people will not soon return), or the opposite, to make the suburban fabric radically less dense (from low density to no density) allowing (partly) autarkic ways of living. That might need all kinds of high tech experimentation, top-end knowledge so abundantly available in the region. It'll require politicians with the guts to invest for change and not for stasis.

The situation is grim, but American optimism has beaten ghosts and giants. Why shouldn't Warren be the start?

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