MVRDV: Beyond the Burbs

MVRDV, in case you haven’t heard, is actor Brad Pitt’s favorite architecture firm. If such a designation doesn’t brand the Dutch trio—Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs, and Nathalie de Vries—as hip in your book, then their work will, based on a new exhibition at the Yale School of Architecture that runs through October 25.

As “3D City: Studies in Density” demonstrates, MVRDV is exploring how cities can accommodate more people. Strip away the inscrutable exhibition copy and it’s clear that the firm is researching not only how to grow bigger buildings by constructing them upward or burrowing them underground, but also designing them to house multiple commercial and public functions.

For example, the MVRDV design for Brabant Library centralizes the Brabant region’s 17 libraries into one building, which frees up the land underneath the existing libraries and ultimately looks to increase the population density of the region’s core (and return the city fringes to nature). The building’s exterior form is slightly reminiscent of Norman Foster’s Swiss Reinsurance building now going up in London, but inside, the firm inserts a path that spirals to the top of the building. Both interior access route and public promenade, the path imagines vertical building in such a way that provides the inhabitants of a dense central city some elbow room.

Brad Pitt’s star power lends a bit of fashion to MVRDV’s studies in urban densification. But this is serious work about creating space, reclaiming land, and maintaining a high standard of living. And bringing the street front inside a building and running it above or below grade may have as many implications for zoning, design, and real estate as the exigencies of out-of-control population growth does

The Netherlands has long reclaimed land from the sea, and so MVRDV’s work continues this trajectory by researching ways to create and reclaim space. Yet this is an approach with limited application, at least as far as America’s consumptive, individualistic culture is concerned, as found out in a symposium that opened the exhibition. “Dense-Cities: An American Oxymoron?” opened with critic Michael Sorkin’s call that American cities are culturally unique, vibrant places that must remain the centers of repopulation and densification—a given to anybody with a European frame of mind.

With Winy Maas looking on, the symposium’s eight other speakers continued painting a picture of Americans’ hesitancy to embrace MVRVD’s outlook. James Corner, one half of the firm Field Operations (winners of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills competition;), mentioned that Los Angeles, according to a Brookings Institute report, is America’s densest city. Douglas Kelbaugh, of the University of Michigan, explained that New Urbanism may help diminish the primacy of single-use zoning and automobility, while satisfying Americans’ conservative tastes in housing and suburbanization. Living horizontally is still de rigueur.

Sprawl will inevitably face its end. So when the land grab turns back on itself, can densification be accomplished in a way that’s environmentally sensitive, socially responsible, and design savvy? Solutions are as immediately attainable as MVRDV’s WoZoCo senior housing (not on display at Yale), which uses cantilevers to enlarge the building’s square footage. The tactic keeps the building from becoming a tower, and preserves green space on the ground.

As “3D City” introduces it, the Dutch are obviously more careful with their land than Americans are; they look for new ways to increase density and still maintain good design and acceptable living conditions. Because the New Urbanism is just one potential solution, we can take a page from MVRDV, and Brad Pitt may help us find the way.

Categories: Cities