Our future is gridlocked cities, scarred countrysides, suffocating pollution and a bunch of architects racing to find ways of making sure it doesn't happen. Building found out how at the Rotterdam biennale
Transport routes are architecture's wild frontier. That, at least, is the premise of the first International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam, on show for the next two months at the Netherlands Architecture Institute and other venues around the city. The theme of the biennale is mobility, acknowledging the fact that we are a society increasingly on the move. In fact, the premise goes, we spend so much time inching along rush-hour roads and sharing body warmth on train carriages, it is a wonder so little design energy goes into our transport infrastructures.

"It used to be just working, living and recreation, and mobility was just something in between," says Francine Houben, director of the biennale and principal architect at Dutch practice Mecanoo. "Now mobility is so much a part of our daily life and our culture that I'm very interested in what the future will be and whether or not there will be architects involved, because most of the time it's just the domain of politicians and planners."

The biennale breaks the problem into two not altogether separate issues. The first is overburdened infrastructures. This is addressed in an exhibition entitled World Avenue, in which the transport culture of nine major cities is analysed. The second is design quality, represented by about 100 transport-related projects, some recently completed, some that will never be.

The Dutch seem particularly preoccupied with transport. A trip on one of their enviably efficient double-decker trains might leave one wondering what they are worried about. But roads are the sore point, and one in particular: the 150 km long ring-road that links the Netherlands' main cities. Because Holland is so compact, for decades it has been relatively easy for people to live and work in different cities. But now that commuting by car is so prevalent, the traffic's not moving quite so smoothly – in 2001, tailbacks measured a total of 115,000 km.

The biennale invited 11 university architecture schools and departments, headed by name architects like Zaha Hadid, Hani Rashid and Alejandro Zaera-Polo, to propose design solutions for the ring-road. The day before the show opened, as members of the press toured a collection of bare galleries, stepping gingerly over paint pots and dodging students with stapleguns, none of these solutions seemed yet to be on display. Suddenly, the promise made an hour earlier by Aaron Betsky, architecture mandarin and director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, that the biennale would be "a long series of spectacular explosions" seemed more of an overstatement than it had at the time.

Still, the World Avenue exhibition, in which transport issues are treated on a global scale, was ready for viewing. Here, the transport culture of nine metropolitan areas – Los Angeles, Mexico City, Tokyo, Beijing, the Pearl River Delta in South China, Budapest, Jakarta, Beirut and the Ruhr region in Germany – was presented in a broad sweep of engrossing statistics and local habits (see boxes). In a populist touch, films of the city roadscapes could be viewed from the front seats of revolving cars. Budapest was represented by a Lada, naturally, and Los Angeles by a Ford Bronco, memorably used by OJ Simpson in his slow-speed getaway from the police in 1995. Simpson had had the uncharacteristic luxury of an empty freeway – the 110 km loop of freeway analysed in the exhibition can take anything up to four hours to complete.

Los Angeles, described in the exhibition as "the Rome of freeway culture", offers a prime example of infrastructural overload. It is a city of 6 million cars (as many as in the whole of the Netherlands) and the traffic and smog are legendary. Yet the target set by the California Transportation Company (CalTrans) for 2025 is to maintain the current standard of service, which it grades, euphemistically, as mediocre. There is no room to expand the freeway network and the population of LA is expected to grow to 13 million by 2020. There are no solutions proposed in this part of the biennale; the idea is to reveal the patterns of behaviour unique to each city in the hope that awareness will ultimately breed answers.

There are proposals aplenty, however, to be found in two warehouses across the river from the institute. These range from the fanciful to the concrete, such as the recently completed Yokohama Ferry Terminal, designed by Foreign Office Architects, and the Heron Quays Docklands Light Railway Station in east London, designed by Will Alsop. Projects such as these have been picked as exemplars of transport design. Other realised proposals are less ambitious and more whimsical and include a mobile garden in Beirut and an emergency traffic-jam kit complete with water pistol – both intended to reduce gridlock-related stress.

As for the future, there are grandiose plans – such as German architect Peter Haimerl's utopian vision of Zoomtown, in which Europe is so well served by its 400-600 kmph rail links that air traffic will be reduced to intercontinental voyages – and then there is the wave of major designs under construction. These include German practice Ingenhoven Overdiek's Stuttgart Central Station, pictured on the previous page, which is due for completion in 2008, and Foster and Partners' immense Millau Viaduct, in southern France. The viaduct, due for completion in 2005, will stretch 2.5 km across the valley of the River Tarn and connect a motorway to Paris with one to Barcelona. The highest pylon on the cable-stayed structure will reach 343 m, taller than the Eiffel Tower – an apt comparison since the Eiffage Group is not only supplying the steel structural elements but is also picking up the €320m tab.

Aside from projects that have been given the go-ahead, the biennale falls understandably short on predicting the future of transport design. But at least the Dutch are giving the subject the attention it deserves and providing a showcase of the issues. Francine Houben is not expecting miracles: "I first just want to change the attitude. If you teach people to look at things, teach them to see, that's the first part of being a good architect. This biennale is about getting people to look, and then maybe there will be some new ideas. Because this biennale is the starting point, it's not the end."

Los Angeles

LA has a population of 9 million and is home to 6 million cars. Ninety-one per cent of car users drive alone, and they cover an average of 85 km a day. The total road network is 34,000 km. The freeway network has no room to expand, although the population is expected to grow by 7 million by 2020. Multilevel freeways are prohibitively expensive because the city is in an earthquake zone. The California Transport Company (CalTrans) has vague plans for a “multi-nodal” transport system, involving trains, ferries and buses, but concedes that public transport is unlikely to work in LA because citizens are used to door-to-door travel. A scheme of “community-based planning” – improving local facilities – is proposed so that people do not have to leave their neighbourhoods as often.

Mexico City

Mexico City has a population of 18 million people and 2.8 million cars. The combination of the traffic and altitude – it is 2200 m above sea level – makes the city one of the world’s most polluted. Birds have been known to fall dead from the sky. There is a system in progress limiting drivers from using their cars one day a week, organised by the last digit of the registration number. Future plans being considered are the installation of giant fans to blow the smog away.


The Tokyo metropolitan area has a population of 32 million, of which 85% make daily use of public transport. The average home-to-work journey is 64 minutes. Trains run punctually every two to three minutes. Each stop has a jingle. Almost half the lines are privately owned by railway companies that also regularly develop the land along the lines. In the Shibuya area, there are homes, hotels, shopping malls and car parks over the lines. In order to buy a car, you must prove that you have a private parking space – parking is forbidden on most streets. The average speed on the elevated expressways is 15 kmph.

The Netherlands

The Dutch Directorate-General of Public Works and Water Management has been undertaking a programme called Roads to the Future to develop innovative approaches to mobility and infrastructure. These range from tested technical innovations to futuristic concept schemes – the idea being to plan ahead rather than trying to deal with infrastructure problems as they arise. The motorway house
Living on the motorway is not everyone’s idea of bliss, but the Dutch are devising ways to develop housing along transport arteries and minimise sprawl into the countryside. With noise- and pollution-proofing incorporated into some inspiring designs, motorway housing could be an effective way of maximising mobility. More than 80 architects from Europe submitted proposals for the scheme, projected for 2030, and the best will be scrutinised by government bodies. Flexible road markings
A pilot scheme was tested in Utrecht in 2001 to use electric lane markings. Using embedded lights rather than paint, a two-lane road can become three lanes at the press of a button. The scheme is in development. Prefab road surface
Factory-made modular road surfaces have been tested since 2001. They would be quicker to lay, reducing traffic disruption, and could be formulated to make the surfaces quieter. The floating road
With Holland’s fluctuating water levels, the theme of flexible infrastructure includes the development of a road that can float on water. Selected by Roads to the Future from responses to a European invitation to tender, the prototype is being trialled.