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Play the Oude Westen

Rotterdam Architecture Academy

Role playing design game for spatial scenarios for Rotterdam neighborhood Oude Westen

Oude Westen dates back over a hundred years. From the 1960s on, the neighborhood witnessed a remarkable transformation into an immigrant neighborhood due to the influx of nonwestern workers. Already in the 1970s a strong action group emerged in the neighborhood, consisting of local residents. These pioneers encouraged the city council to declare the area Rotterdam’s first Urban Renewal site. This pronouncement led to a comprehensive alteration of the existing physical structure with the renewal of more than fifty percent of the buildings. Today, after almost four decades of slow partial transformation in Oude Westen, the technical and physical state of most of the buildings once again calls for improvement.

In Play Oude Westen, young architects represented randomly selected residents by translating their demands into design actions to upgrade the settlement. When analyzed, the play experiment reveals four essential phases shaping the overall design: opening up private open spaces, programming open spaces, occupation of public space by private initiatives, and both formal and symbolic customization of generic social housing.

Sharing the Private

During the analysis of the site, one of the designers diagnosed the isolated nature of the inner territories of Oude Westen. This strong observation was widely accepted in the group. Thus the first design move in the game tackled this question; a café was proposed with an entrance opening not to the street, but onto a courtyard. Further steps such as opening same private courtyard to an adjacent public square, designing similarly public enterprises, such as a bike shop and a gym, behind large transparent courtyard facades, and introducing a mobile Kiosk to courtyards, strengthened this movement. Similar to the action of occupying unused private courtyards, architects proposed the utilization of empty rooftops by making them accessible first to private users, by adding parasite home-offices, and then to a wider public by creating roof terraces for community use. The analysis of a single designer was thus translated into design steps by various players, generated an influence on the spatial composition of the district.

Programming the Private for the Community

Introducing activities to newly open shared spaces followed the first design wave. These included parasite offices for freelancers, planting rooftops, allotment gardens and public utilities such as a library or a community kitchen at the entrance to formerly closed off courtyards. As the first design step for making private open space semipublic had been embraced, the continuation of more private spaces opening to the public could follow.

Ownership of the Public

Next in the game, the architects proposed a set of design interventions that offered public spaces to alternative private uses. Greenhouses located in the middle of a public square, or aquaponics in a public courtyard are fascinating examples of this trend. In addition, privately managed sidewalk gardens replaced car parking, thus stimulating leisure and community use instead of a transitory street. How borders of traditionally public and private spaces are questioned and redefined during play signals the necessity for more ambiguous and complex open space use, as indicated by the plural structure of the Oude Westen community.

Personalized Territories

Customization of the generic spaces of the district is a trend which peaked towards the end of the City Game. It was introduced at an early phase – the sixth step – after the first design trend. At this early phase most players did not follow this idea, as they were busy programming open spaces made accessible in the previous phase. As play drew to a close, however, the idea was reborn and accepted by a larger group of architects who put their energy into customizing public housing facades, adding landmarks to city blocks, introducing uniquely designed balconies which transform social housing seasonally, or creating a corner restaurant marked by a contrasting formal design language.

An Alternative Street Network for Oude Westen?

If the tendencies of ‘Sharing the Private’ and ‘Ownership of the Public’ are overlapped and extrapolated to the neighborhood at large, a new network of courtyards and public green emerges and through which bikers and pedestrians can navigate.

Cafes and small craft and community shops are situated with stairs leading to the new roofscape. Existing narrow inner streets, which used to be dominated by a combination of traffic and car parking, can now be more easily negotiated by pedestrians and cyclists, while still catering for vehicles, as well as access to private homes.

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