Wijkonomie Tarwewijk – Symposium at NAI

Last wednesday I went with some friends of the Academy to the Symposium Wijkonomie Tarwewijk, which took place in the Netherlands Institute of Architecture (NAI), and featured speakers like Charles Renfro (yes, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro), Jan Konings and Wouter van Stiphout, plus a subsequent ‘debate’ that left me a bitter-sweet taste and led me to write this thoughts.

Thomas Lommee installing The Economaat


The symposium started with a short introduction by Renny Remakers, founder and current director of Droog, preceded by the sharp and clear presentation of Charles Renfro of the project that their firm did in collaboration with Droog in Levittown, NY –OpenHouse, seeking to revitalize the classical suburban landscape (specially evident in the US); in contrast (not so sharp) with Charles’s presentation, Jan Konings presented the case of Tarwewijk (follow-up of the project?), in which they intended to have a similar approach to that of Levittown. As it would be expected (understanding the differences with a suburban US context), the project had major resistance from the community (in my opinion, for lack of engaging on an active dialog during the whole process with them) and we only got to see one implemented project (Economaat) and many sketches and proposals. Maybe for lack of time or planning, but that simple mistake (showing only speculative proposals), gave the opportunity to the third speaker of the night, Wouter van Stiphout (professor at TU/Delft and leader of the research group Design as Politics) to gain the attention of the auditorium in an eloquent speech about what they define as a top down strategy to allow for a bottom up transformation of Tarwewijk, Rotterdam South, and, potentially, many lower income communities. Their proposal, probably the most complete (and more visually appealing -difficult to prototype, though), also condemned the other bottom-up proposals as non-viable -probably the reason why a member of the auditorium said that his discourse (Wouter van Stiphout) was appealing because it was full of self-hate as designer (the speech, not him).

Collage of a landscape of small (but formal!) entrepreneurs…


I was very glad I went (the sweet taste) to the symposium, not only because the topic is very close to the one which I am addressing in an actual project (Sporen Markt) and because one of my mentors (Thomas Lommee) was one of the designers involved in the project; I was glad I went because I got to see different positions of dutch design (without capitals -not the brand) in an open debate. But, unfortunately (bitter taste),  I think the debate stayed short in arguments on behalf, while it was abundant on arguments against. I would resume the two positions this way: on one side, the policy makers (and people close to them) that insisted in top-down initiatives (first the policy and then the project) and on the other side the designers who favored the bottom-up initiatives (first the project with the people, then the policy); the first one could be regarded as building services (software) over existing infrastructure, whilst the second ones stand for building new infrastructure for delivering new products (hardware). Personally, I believe in bottom-up initiatives, for the history has taught us that we cannot rely too much on policy makers and, when we do, things go well at the beginning but end up in the opposite way -that is the way it has always been done and, probably, one of the reasons why we are in a crisis! Bottom-up innovation initiatives are emerging worldwide, having a considerable success, but still in an early stage to claim victory: as education, results can only be measured after several years (not to speak about the criteria for measuring this success). But even though I have this position, it doesn’t mean I am not open to consider other types of initiatives also viable, which, I insist, was the bitter taste I got from the debate, where an unfortunate moderator turned every comment or question in a ‘do you agree…’ or ‘is it correct…’ kind of question (it is not a matter of agreeing or BEING correct… they were all correct in some way); she was probably trying to heat up the debate by asking each of the participants THE WAY (in capitals) of addressing the complicated situation of Tarwewijk, but what she achieved to mislead the debate (in my personal opinion).

One of the houses of OpenHouse



The debate brought to my mind a discussion that Gui Bonsiepe and Victor Papanek had in the 70’s about the importance (or not) of the DIY movement for peripheral countries. Bonsiepe considered (and still does) that this was a marginal aspect that shouldn’t be taken into account for the integration of design with societies in developing countries, while Papanek was a great defender of DIY as a way of empowering the population. DIY is bottom-up innovation.

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