In 2018 nodigde AIR namens de Van der Leeuwkring de Brits-Ghanese architect David Adjaye uit naar Rotterdam als Guest Urban Critic. Tijdens het Stadmakerscongres ging hij in gesprek met burgemeester Achmed Aboutaleb om zaken als ‘goede groei’ en de ‘WIJ-Samenleving’ te bespreken. Stedenbouwkundige en architect Selina Abraham maakte een verslag van deze bijzondere ontmoeting in de Rotterdamse Schouwburg.
Every year, the City Makers Congress (Stadmakerscongres or the SMC) seeks out the best and brightest to help Rotterdam’s city-makers navigate their expertise and investments toward meaningful endeavours. In 2018, the SMC looked to London for inspiration; the city’s mayor has initiated a Good Growth by Design programme, a plan to create a city that works for all Londoners. Sir David Adjaye is one of Mayor Sadiq Khan’s design advocates, appointed to shape a city with “inclusivity and diversity at its heart”. Adjaye joined the SMC as a keynote lecturer to lend some of his magic to Rotterdam’s own ambitions towards “good growth”.
Unlike the previous year’s keynote speaker at the congress, Toni L. Griffin, Adjaye is soft spoken and has an air of austerity about him. He brushes off the use of his knighthood awkwardly when introduced. However, in Griffin’s case, and as with the case of most policy makers, powerful rhetoric is needed to bring about societal change. But with architects like Adjaye, it is easier (and perhaps more powerful) to let his work speak for itself. His work is self-described as the manifestation of the hybridisation that many cities have seen in the last few decades; and the creation of forms that reflect the changing diversity in our cities. Through his architecture he provides various examples of designing for various conditions in our contemporary societies; designing secular and spiritual non-denomination spaces, the evolution of the library typology, incorporating the culture and needs of the community into physical design, increasing homelessness in booming urban economies, cultural institutional buildings that can empower the community and creating dynamic architecture that can be ‘hacked’ by its occupants, amongst others.
Throughout his presentation Adjaye challenges the intentions behind architectural typologies that make up our cities. For example, in the case of the library, he identifies that while the type has already evolved from being exclusive to aristocratic and elite classes to a Post-war liberalised and public building; there is still space for further mutation to suit the zeitgeist. In his earlier work with the Idea Store Whitechapel, you see Adjaye and his team push the library typology with mixed functions to further meet the needs and challenges of the 21st century, and the needs of a very diverse neighbourhood like Whitechapel. The library consciously reflects its immediate surroundings, choosing to blend in rather than standout; allowing the neighbourhood to adopt it with ease. Similarly, his work with the National Museum of African American Art and Culture, one sees a programme that reflects the identity of the rich African diaspora that make up a part of modern cities; an identity that has unfortunately not found a place to be represented in the last 200 years in the United States. Rotterdam and the mayor have many cues to work with here. The city is a unique microcosm of cultural hybridisation. But as with the library typology, does the city serve the needs of today’s hybrid society? Do the hospitals and primary health care centres reflect issues of loneliness and mental strain caused by contemporary lifestyles? Do the museums and art centres reflect the cultural and historical influences of the citizens? Do museums, hospitals, schools and libraries need to be independent entities, or do they need to morph together; parallel to a hybridising society? Are development projects serving the needs of outsiders or the communities that they are nestling in? These are important questions that Rotterdam and its Mayor can ask before it decides whose city it is.
As the Mayor of an immensely diverse city like Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb faces the challenge of managing different religions, cultures and sometimes even conflict from the Middle East or Africa. But he strongly believes that it his constitutional duty of making a built environment that everyone can call home. As he sits down in conversation with Adjaye, one can pause to admire that both are an incredible source of inspiration and icons for young people in a city for the 21st century. Together they discuss, the need for systemic change to ensure inclusive cities. The present rhetoric is that there is a dominant invisible force that works against minorities, preventing them the opportunity of social upward mobility. One that can be especially disadvantageous for young people, sometimes opening them to unwanted radicalisation and leading to the downfall of the system itself. Adjaye speaks to the mayor on his own path from living in the inner city as a youth from a minority community to finding his way to becoming an advisor for London’s “good growth”. With Mayor Khan, Adjaye has been working on making the “right” choices for the city. Adjaye describes the value that Sadiq Khan has brought to the city is to not only the micro issues (like housing, transport and law enforcement), but also the macro agenda for London. Khan has brought together professionals from the built environment, social scientists, energy specialists, economists, etc. as stewards to deal with the city’s challenges. London is a city that is a pre-emptive warning for a city like Rotterdam, the result of a free market controlling the city’s growth. The model of luxury houses that gave easy returns to developers also obliterated communities in the city. But the luxury market has now saturated, and it is upto Khan and advocates like Adjaye to teach the market to reinvent itself. But Rotterdam’s mayor is observant and is confident that his government will be a “market overseer” that will ensure that his city will not make the mistakes that London made.
The mayor of Rotterdam has still much to do for his diverse city. While, he has strongly been advocating and encouraging people’s involvement in shaping the city through his WEsociey project, he also acknowledges the resistance shown by the existing system. But Adjaye is optimistic, he says the city has all the right ingredients for “good growth”, enviable infrastructure, many development opportunities and most importantly a mayor aware of the complexity of the 21st century city. In a rapidly globalising world, cities will be valued for what they can do to make them distinct as opposed to what makes it similar. Together they conclude that Rotterdam has immense potential to be an exciting and rich environment with new qualities that makes it attractive to all kinds of communities.