Beyond Buildings


How to Rebuild a City

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The explosion of a fireworks storage shed in the Dutch town of Enschede on May 13, 2000, precipitated one of the largest inner-city redevelopment projects in the Netherlands, and one that can stand as a model for such tasks around the world. Everywhere factory buildings are becoming redundant, especially if they are within urban cores. These areas offer great potential for attractive living areas, as they have good transportation and shopping nearby, among other built-in amenities. What they need is a new image and anchors to attract inhabitants. There is nothing particularly complicated about what it takes: a cultural, medical, or other semipublic facility, decent public space, good transportation, and an image that speaks both of what we think of as cities and of something new and attractive.


In Enschede, urban planner and architect Pi de Bruijn, working from a concept by Riek Bakker, produced a logical plan. What made it really work was the city’s investment in the area, as well as the design of the architects who carried out the actual design of the elements, in particular the landscape architects Sant & Co., who created the fabric that ties the place together.


Roombeek plan

The Roombeek plan, from Architecten Cie.


The Roombeek neighborhood now consists of distinct blocks that continue and strengthen existing streets. Each of these sub-areas has its character, from varied rowhouses to stand-alone villas (including the one I discussed in my last post, designed by SeARCH), to the old Grolsch brewery that is now becoming lofts. Its central axis is an old railroad line that serves as a route for a high-speed bus. This allee is not so much a boulevard as a dividing line that visually unites these separate pieces.


Along that line, a set of three major open green spaces gives Roombeek a larger scale and unity. The largest is an open field that marks the site of the explosion, with an imploded concrete plate at the center serving as a memorial. To the north, the designers uncovered the old creek, or “beek,” that gave the area its name, letting it appear to emerge from a large pool that is actually a storm catchments basin and then letting it flow down the middle of the street to the west.



The newly uncovered creek. Design by Sant & Co.


All these devices give what is in effect a new neighborhood a unified character without forcing any of the parts into subjugation to a collective order. The anchors are what remain of the old textile factory buildings and breweries in the area. They are becoming a “culture cluster,” designed by SeARCH. A new tower, clad in a skin of metal mesh and expanding as it rises, marks a combination of old factory structures and new spaces designer Bjarne Mastenbroek wove together into exhibition spaces that spiral from one building, across a pedestrian street, into another one, and back, while housing and atelier space nestles around the central institution. The final part of this complex will consist of a factory building SeARCH and OMA will slice apart lengthwise, inserting a new glass floor in the middle.


Cultuur Cluster

The tower of the Cultural Cluster. Designed by SeARCH.


The explosion gave Enschede a chance to start over again, though they paid the heavy price of 22 lost lives. The designers used this opportunity to create a model of urban renovation, in which the urban plan has a clear image and structure. It made possible the beautifully developed landscaping, with its strong open spaces and its connection to the existing as well as the urban geography. It made place for architecture that used existing buildings, then wove something new and unexpected through that inheritance, all to come together to create a neighborhood with a clear character.


The lesson is that it takes government investment to have successful urban revitalization, but also an ability to use the old while making room for the new. It takes vision and the ability to think in bits and pieces. It takes good design to make a village.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.