“A bridge is not an object, but a switch in the city”

26 september

When Keller Easterling visited Rotterdam for her lectures in De Dépendance and the IABR, she spend a few days in the city. Frank Loer and Sereh Mandias took her on a trip along the river, and interviewed her for online magazine Vers Beton about her work and her thoughts on Rotterdam.

A Dutch version of the interview can be found on Vers Beton.

In you last book, you wrote about the free zones in the world. Does Rotterdam relate to the free zone in any way?
The free zones I am often talking about are installations in developing countries that establish a kind of island with exemptions from the laws of the host country. Some are even mega-cities. The port of Rotterdam also has free zones, but they do not rival the urbanism of the city. Many free zones have a logistical apparatus like the ECT terminal for automated handling of container shipping and materials in port or an airport. So while Rotterdam isn’t Singapore or Dubai or any of these new world city free zones, it shares technologies with them.

In your lecture for the IABR you will speak about Extrastatecraft, can you explain what is mean by that?
I am using that word ‘extra’ to mean ‘outside of’ and ‘in addition to’. Extrastatecraft describes a world where the nation has a new set of proxies and sneaky partners—a place where there are exceptions, privileges and advantages for some, while others are consistent losers. This extrastatecraft is manifest in a matrix that I have called infrastructural space. This is not only a space of pipes and wires in the ground, but also an infrastructure of rules and protocols and spatial products.

When we just biked around Rotterdam, did you see this somewhere?
What I have called “spatial products” are repeatable formulas for making space—the rules for making skyscrapers, resorts, franchises, airports, golf courses, suburbs, malls etc. that look the same anywhere in the world. You can see reflections of those formulas, maybe in the Market Hall and certainly in any skyscraper in the city. But Rotterdam is also so particular. Most of the spaces I look at are very extreme, they are quite obviously a repeatable formula rolled out into infinity. And most have little to do with the particularities of urbanity that you find in Rotterdam.

You are talking about invisible processes, I can imagine that agreements with developers or powerful companies also shape the contemporary city. Things that as an outsider you don’t see, but those companies or those investors are really influential for the final shape of the city. Do you think those invisible processes should be designed or regulated in a different manner?
What I am trying to suggest is that designers are very good at making object form, and so we should be. Geometry, shape, silhouette, that’s all part of our job. But there is also a curiosity about a different kind of form making, which is not object form but what I’ve called active form. While an architect is often satisfied in saying here’s my building, here’s my masterplan, let’s take the photograph, I’m asking if what we might leave behind is a completely different organ of design.

Does this mean it is more about urbanism than about architecture?
It is definitely about urbanism, but I don’t separate those two.

Can you give an example of what you mean?
Imagine that you want a city with less parking. The USA is filled with cities that have many parking lots. So maybe your invention is to change the way that parking operates. So for example it becomes time-shared. The church uses it sometimes, the law firm uses it at other times, or at any moment you can go to your app and see where the closest parking spot is. So it might be an invention of a protocol to make this possible. This is not about designing a thing, but it’s about changing some of the rules, about having our hands on the faders and toggles of our cities.

To give another example, some former students of mine have developed a concrete detail that could handle flash floods, or any kind of floodwater. The construction detail can appear in a curb cut or something the size of the Tate Modern turbine hall. They were not only designing the detail, but also designing the way in which it becomes a multiplier. Beyond the clichés of start-up culture that often favor new digital technologies, I’m arguing that space is the underexploited medium of innovation. Spatial variables and spatial practices might have more authority in global governance.

The way Rotterdam has been rebuild has resulted in quite a fragmented city. How could you imagine Rotterdam could benefit from the way you propose we think about the making of cities?
The role of the architecture in Rotterdam seems to be a much more traditional. Some of the places in the world I’m thinking about are much more extreme, their problems are much more extreme, and there isn’t a satisfactory answer coming from the state or an NGO. One of the protocols I am working on right now has to do with retreating from the coast. Since Sandy and Katrina, the US coast has changed, and these hurricanes have been rehearsals for long term effects of global warming. The Netherlands have long provided global models for water management, but it happens through a kind of top-down planning. But since government doesn’t always have that kind of authority in the US these protocols are working on how to trick capital into more productive practices.

Do you think there is a way to interest top-down management for bottom-up interventions?
In the book I talk about the way in which you have to design spatial change, as well as the spin that goes with it—the sneaky or sly fiction or or trick that accompanies the design. Otherwise you have little hope. The formulas for making spatial products are often saturated in fiction itself rather than cast-iron economic logics—fairytales and irrational desires. Maybe in the EU reasonable things happen, but in the US things usually spin around unreasonable things. So you always have to think about ways to outwit halfwit ideas.

Thinking about this new bridge that Rotterdam is planning to build in the west, what would be the questions you would ask? What should be taken into account?
You can think about changing a street by changing all the storefronts but also by changing the number times the train stops there. You just pointed out how the Willemsbridge and its huge ramps seem to shut off the flow of pedestrians from the waterfront. So you have to be able to see how a piece of the city has a remote control over other parts of the city. Sometimes you are designing a thing, and sometimes you are designing a switch within a network of things—seeing its remote effects, it population effects or what it’s turning on and off. So a bridge is not only a thing, it is also a switch, a relationship, a linkage between things.

But it will also be an object. How do you value its appearance? Does it matter what it looks like or is that irrelevant?
It does matter what it looks like. Its profile. How we understand it optically. What it means to the body. But we can extend those powers to be able to see linkage within the city. I am looking at the city as a kind of information system with flows and connections to make it more robust. So while it absolutely matters what the bridge looks like, you also want to position it so that it can take advantage of other amplifying effects.

Frank Loer, Sereh Mandias