Hyper-polder model. The rebuilding of Roombeek, Enschede

Perhaps the Netherlands is on the verge of a paradigm shift in both method and substance. On the national periphery, meanwhile, the mania for not doing anything without demonstrable public support has reached a late climax. In mid-2000, a mighty explosion devastated the Roombeek neighbourhood in the city of Enschede, and reconstruction of the area constitutes a crucial moment in Dutch planning history.

When the factory of SE Fireworks, sited in the middle of Roombeek, blew up on 13 May, 2000, it left 22 dead and the whole neighbourhood in ruins. The Netherlands had not experienced destruction on that scale since the Second World War. The last comparable incident in Enschede itself dates back to 1862, when practically the whole town burnt down. During reconstruction following that fire, Roombeek, hitherto consisting of a few farms and some bleaching fields, was absorbed into the city. The area, which lies to the north of the old town centre, filled up with breweries and textile mills, both attracted by the availability of clear water from the Roombeek stream. Later on, housing was added to the mix. By the 1960s, the textile industries of the whole province were going bankrupt one by one, undercut by competition from other parts of the world with lower labour costs. Roombeek was as good as forgotten – an exceptional historical turn of events in a densely populated country used to ceaseless redevelopment.

While the buildings remained more or less the same as they had been in the short heyday of the textile industry, they slowly developed new uses. Roombeek became a part of town where artists could easily find cheap studios. Other forms of light industry of a fairly informal social category, among them the fatal fireworks factory, also found a place there. The easygoing disorder of Roombeek in the post-textile era matched the morphological character of the rest of the city, which is no stranger to ambivalence. To begin with, Enschede has an archetypal street plan: a compact centre with radial spokes extending to the city margins and the surrounding countryside. A ring road around the centre gives it coherence. This simple orderliness does not extend into the third dimension, however; it is as though the town falls apart as soon as you look up from the map. The ‘grain’ of Enschede’s urban fabric is tiny; its streets rarely have the consistency of style or rhythm necessary to unite the individual elements into a single whole. Many of the city’s streets are visually no more than a collection of separate properties or at best small clusters of adjoining buildings. Although Enschede, in common with other Dutch cities, experienced the homogenizing effect of postwar reconstruction, the contrast in orderliness between the second and third dimensions predominates and the main impression of the morphology is one of considerable heterogeneity.

Although Roombeek looked like a war zone after the SE Fireworks tragedy, it was immediately obvious that it could not be treated as a tabula rasa when it came to rebuilding. The blast was an assault that shook most of its residents more profoundly than any other experience in their lives. Whatever people were doing at the moment of the explosion was immediately and permanently engraved in their memory. Those for whom Enschede was merely an adopted city suddenly felt like born and bred Enschedeans. There were also instant social effects at a communal level. The day-to-day environment might have been blown away by the blast, but the various social groupings, including ethnic minorities, found themselves drawn closer together.

This background made the reconstruction of Roombeek an extremely tricky task from the moment work started on clearing away the rubble. Fraught as it was with multiple sensitivities, it called at the very least for a hyper-version of the polder model in order to be able to strike a delicate balance between ‘profit’ and ‘loss’. By no means the least important job of the organization which was hastily set up in the first stunned weeks after the explosion, was to channel the debate about who was to blame. Government did not escape this cathartic process. In Enschede, blame was heaped on the city authorities as well as on the tragic pair who ran the fireworks factory. Whether casually permissive or callously aware, it was the council after all that had allowed dangerous activities to go on in close proximity to people’s homes. Now more than ever, citizens constitute a highly assertive group that is always ready to point the finger at the authorities when something bad happens. Anticipating this pressure, the local council announced a catalogue of measures aimed at repairing the damage and assuaging the grief. In doing so, the authorities made themselves largely invisible by organizing both resident participation and the reconstruction itself as autonomous processes, independent of existing municipal departments. This was a sensible and constructive move: the catastrophe was effectively separated from the reconstruction which was treated as an organized activity of social construction.

No Enschede councillor could have survived the reconstruction process politically if the execution of the rebuilding plan had been based only on an interaction between the wishes of local government on the one hand and the amenability of a few major investors. Massive grass-roots involvement, in a broad-ranging application of the polder model, was inevitable. The communal participation process was consciously used in Roombeek as a means of putting the centripetal social forces elicited by the disaster to good use in the reconstruction work. A series of public meetings was held to debate such topics as the layout of public spaces, the kind of community aspired to and the package of amenities required for the district. Opinions were canvassed on an individual basis and also at various group levels, culminating in a couple of mass meetings for the whole community. There were special evening meetings held for local entrepreneurs. The phase of gathering and cataloguing public opinion was followed by one in which tentative decisions could be assessed in relation to the provisional design which had meanwhile been drawn up. As I write this, in mid-2002, the final stage of the participation process is about to begin. It involves submitting the reconstruction design finally approved by the municipal executive, section by section, to the future residents of Roombeek, so that they can have their final say.

Pi de Bruijn, of the Amsterdam architecture firm De Architekten Cie., was approached early on as a potential designer. It was a choice that, once again, testified to strategic insight. De Bruijn’s work is not particularly doctrinaire or even consistent in either architectural or urban design terms. His plans, whether for the new Lower House of the Dutch Parliament or for the urban design of the new centre of Amsterdam Southeast, are informed by the context and the occasion. He is a fairly faithful representative of that half of the architectural profession which, a couple of millennia ago, took it upon itself to be both ‘beautiful’ and ‘useful’. He is a designer who identifies with the opportuneness of individual decisions in a generally complex network of social forces. It is precisely for that reason that it is easier to take him seriously as a fellow team member than a designer who is busy pursuing his own artistic agenda and is only partly susceptible to murmurings from the outside world. An opportunistic approach to design may well be inimical to the purity of the ego, but social impact and prestige are the compensation.

De Bruijn has filled his role with verve. During the public consultation meetings, it was he who acted as the lightning conductor for popular outrage, effortlessly making his design into an empathic vehicle of everyone’s wishes, even before anyone had seen a thing. Urban design in this instance was pure communication, no more and no less.

He who chooses to use the design as an instrument of discussion or negotiation, turns it into something elastic, multi-interpretable or even amorphous. The psychological context of a traumatized population made the adoption of this kind of approach wellnigh inevitable, but there was also a ‘hard’ argument in its favour. Within a few days of the explosion, all ex-residents had been given a cast-iron promise that they would be able to return to the neighbourhood. This placed a crucial constraint on the programme and the process of reconstruction. Freedom of design was out of the question. References were made, in the period after the disaster, to the experience of Rotterdam, where a considerable part of the city had been annihilated by bombing in May 1940; but the freedom of design that was gained there was the very opposite of the state of affairs in Enschede. It was precisely that freedom that allowed Rotterdam to pursue total modernization. In Enschede, however, that path was deliberately avoided; Roombeek seeks modernization only on its own restricted terms.

During work on the reconstruction plan, references to local history took a high priority in communications with the public. A serious trauma had to be healed. The problem was that practically every building had been flattened, so a familiar-looking neighbourhood was something that could only be accomplished by sleight of hand. Nonetheless, Pi de Bruijn immediately came across some potential features that would provide a certain continuity, be it mainly in two dimensions. One was the former street plan, which could be substantially reinstated and which would provide an effortless connection to the surrounding context. Another was the track of a small abandoned railway to Oldenzaal, which could be retained as a visible line. An idea arose to revive the bleaching fields, now in the role of a park. Similarly, a plan emerged to incorporate the water of the Roombeek stream visibly in the design. At a more abstract level there was the fine-grained genius loci, which could reappear in the urban plan as a finely diversified parcelling pattern.

The structural concept for the neighbourhood which Pi de Bruijn drew in the months following his appointment brought all these ingredients together in a collage of urban design. Besides the explosion site, the collage took in the zone to its north which had been designated as a future Vinex development area to be known as ‘Groot Roombeek’. The area covered by the plan now measured a total of 60 hectares. Did the sum of historical motifs and the initial programmatic explorations offer the prospect of enough urban design elements of morphological substance to create a credible piece of urban fabric? Under normal circumstances, perhaps not, but Roombeek had a let-out. To put it bluntly, trauma and guilt are usually bought off in the late-modern society. They are worth money – and this was the trump the city council played in its deliberations with central government on a suitable contribution towards the cost of repairing the damage that had been suffered.

The government had immediately responded to the disaster of May 2000 by offering solid financial backing for rebuilding, and followed this up in 2001 by authorizing a ‘quality stimulus’ in the form of a subsidy for amenities such as a ‘broad school’ (a school with additional social and cultural functions for the neighbourhood) and a variety of cultural investments. Not only could the few remaining monuments to the past now be marshalled as symbolic elements in the plan, there was a determination to accommodate a ‘cultural cluster’ in the middle of Roombeek, with artists’ studios and various cultural institutions. The additional funding would make it possible to raise De Bruijn’s collage plan to a higher level and to infuse it with new urban life.

Statistics on the number of residents and businesses who would eventually have the courage to return to the neighbourhood meanwhile fluctuated continually. Pi de Bruijn, well aware of this unpredictable variable while working on the development plan that would represent his final offer, found the urban design theme he had been looking for. The new Roombeek was to have the maximum programmatic diversity, supported by a selection of motifs from the genius loci in coordination with a sound structure of public spaces. By presenting the design in terms of functional mixing, De Bruijn linked the future of Roombeek to an ideal of classical urbanity. Thoroughgoing typological and dimensional differentiation of the building programme tied in well with the typically fine grain of the Enschede morphology.

The planning maps for the new Roombeek, which were incorporated into the development plan, in due course presented a fascinating palette. The historicizing angle is unmistakably present in the seamless insertion of the street plan into the larger entity of the city and in the string of bleaching-field parks, with here and there a built vestige of the past. The lines and planes of the ground plan are supported in the third dimension by a simple zoning scheme which prescribes a tall building mass along the x and y axes of the design, reducing to ‘medium’, ‘low’ and finally ‘very low’ at the margins of the palette. The most striking aspect of the series of maps is the way variation has been programmed in. Living and working functions are mixed (especially in the north-western section) and each section of the plan is accorded an urban milieu with its own distinctive atmosphere. Within each area there is, by Dutch standards at least, considerable variation across the whole spectrum, from detached houses to apartment buildings. National policy has moved towards placing a considerable proportion of housing production in private hands as a way of accommodating the public demand for ever greater individualization. In Roombeek, this trend has been extrapolated into an aspiration to have no fewer than half of all housing units built by the private sector. This is already making itself felt in the extent of variation incorporated into the urban plan, from which not a single street or block has been exempted: the fine scale has left its mark everywhere. The subdivision of the inner courtyard of the former Bamshoeve (in the south-eastern section), in particular, is reminiscent of a nineteenth-century proto-suburbia, governed by the individual plot in a rural setting, although in this case circumscribed by a hard square of built fabric and inexorable diagonal transections of the kind that planners have learned and dared to use in recent decades.

Pi de Bruijn has surpassed himself in Roombeek, not so much by suddenly shedding his customary opportunism and revealing himself as a seeker after the good, true and beautiful, as by exploiting his own trademark to the full. Going along with the marvellous magic of the moment, he allowed his Roombeek design to be fundamentally dictated by the occasion and the context. The occasion called for a therapeutic version of the polder model, in which the culture of consultation would serve mainly to soothe public anguish and restore public confidence. Confidence can be restored by taking everybody’s wishes seriously. Town planning usually cannot avoid having to choose among various interests and possibilities, but in Roombeek the avoidance of such either–or choices has become the leitmotif. The development plan does not ignore a single interest; it is as though everyone has won the lottery. Do the former residents and entrepreneurs of Roombeek have any prospect of regaining what they lost through the catastrophe? Answer: yes, in every possible variation. Not only with respect to the individual residential environment, but also to the broad lines of the urban design, which are thoroughly contextual and securely attached to every remaining fossil. And has provision been made for new social categories, such as the slightly better off, to live or work in Roombeek? Yes, the plan provides for that in every shape and size. Are the employment locations varied enough to allow for all manner of activities, from working from home to larger business complexes? Yes, as long as there are no hazards involved (the latter of course being a touchy topic after SE Fireworks blew up without warning). Does the plan offer amenities and public space that give this one-time marginal area some serious urban qualities? Yes, and it is the extras made possible by the ‘quality stimulus’ that will put Roombeek ahead of the average urban development scheme; the plan includes a splendid clutch of cultural facilities.

The greatest merit of the plan for Roombeek is that it displays unabashed heterogeneity while preserving sufficient urban substance. It could be called ‘town planning without qualities’, a fitting answer to hundreds of requirements and a fairly chaotic morphology. The explicit heterogeneity gives the Roombeek plan a significance beyond the merely local. The arduousness of dealing with the functional conflicts that inevitably accompany true urbanity, is a common thread running from the town planning of the postwar reconstruction years to current urban and spatial planning in the implementation period of the Fourth National Policy Document on Spatial Planning. The postwar reconstruction areas generally provided a high spatial quality that was achieved by dint of rigorous top-down planning. Programmatically, these areas were designed as functionally homogeneous extensions to existing city centres, usually without any aspirations to an autonomous centre function.

The historic centre remained a benchmark of planning for a remarkably long period, up to and including the days of the Fourth Policy Document and its supplement (Vinex). But while Vinex claimed to support the idea of the ‘compact city’, the implementation of its policy actually set the seal on an evolution from the monocentric to the dispersed city. Continuing urban expansion itself eventually brought about the metamorphosis that policy had failed to anticipate. Even in the Vinex districts now under construction, the principle still holds that the extension is being attached as a homogeneous programme to an old centre, however much that centre may meanwhile have been functionally marginalized.

Slowly but surely, despite Vinex, a force field is becoming tangible between multiple centres in a network of mutual influence, between large and small, between old and new and between the red, black, blue and green areas on the planner’s map, on the scale of a city expanded to become a region. At the scale of this ‘regional city’, there are plenty of opportunities to try out the formula of a mixed urban texture that is being pursued in Roombeek; more than there are for the traditional formulas of urban homogeneity, which can only survive in a state of dependency.

Although De Bruijn’s plan for Roombeek may be regarded as typifying a heterogeneity new to the Netherlands, there is a striking historical precedent for the method used in tackling the reconstruction. The approach, wholly motivated by the need to cultivate public support, recalls the ‘legal action’ architecture that arose in response to the urban renewal schemes of the 1970s. In those years, too, an almost spontaneous symbiosis sprang up between the views of militant residents and the language of the design. Urbanism was deployed to correct what was deemed socially rotten. The reconstruction of Roombeek is been tackled in a similarly ‘therapeutic’ way, for which purposes the heterogeneity of the programme conveniently tallies with the city’s fine-grained genius loci.

The therapeutic approach to planning is being implemented in a location that could in the future become a vital fragment of a larger, regional entity. While the ‘regional city’ – now termed an ‘urban network’ – is mentioned in the Fifth Policy Document, it is still not credited as a design task. This hesitation can be put to good use in Enschede. The completed design for Roombeek is available as a touchstone. Admittedly, the old city centre is only a few hefty stone throws away, but in this case not too much store should be set by its proximity. Roombeek must above all be seen in a wider perspective whose contours may be traced in the still rather impressionistically defined concept of ‘Twente Network City’ (Twente being the province in which Enschede is located). If it is to carry much weight within that context, Roombeek needs more than the single functional package that might have sufficed for Enschede on its own. Urbanization implies mixing and condensing. To stand the test of the new urban network paradigm, Roombeek must at least gain sufficient critical mass for a programme with centripetal aspirations which integrates living and working. Precisely this is incipiently present in the maps drawn for the reconstruction plan.

Pi de Bruijn’s plan has emerged from all the polder model consultations as a mixture of qualities that recall the urban renewal processes of thirty years ago, and of the heterogeneity and cultural ambitions that are eminently contemporaneous. The implementation of the whole package depends on how far the polder model’s players will succeed in reaching a compromise once again. The plan’s greatest risk of failure undoubtedly lies in the sought-after heterogeneity: its main feature is also its Achilles’ heel. It is far from easy to think up a coherent investment programme for a plan as fine-grained as the redevelopment plan for Roombeek. The investors and property developers will not like being asked to deliver made-to-measure work – the Vinex building output has remained rather coarse-grained and functionally monotonous, despite all the architectural multiformity. Embracing the dimension of the regional city and embracing the fineness of grain, in the detailed implementation as well as in the plan, will therefore require a hyper-version of the polder model. If Roombeek succeeds on the ground in both these respects, it will set a precedent with an interesting ‘educational’ potential. Given the present stalemate in Dutch spatial planning policy, there is little the country needs as urgently as demonstrations of dynamic urbanity. The culture of Vinex needs a successor, and if the State can’t come up with one, it can be delivered, made-to-measure, from below.

Bernard Colenbrander is chronicler of the reconstruction of Roombeek and a theme coordinator for Culture-based Planning at the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.


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