Development of the Point/South City

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Point/South City: A Pragmatic and Visionary Design Process


Object of Study

As a reaction to what they believed was uncontrolled and undirected expansion of the built environment in the Netherlands, OMA undertook an investigation entitled Point/South City that provoked a rethink of trends in urban formation and planning. It proposed new ways of tackling problems and relationships associated with the city, landscape and sprawl.

OMA, the Rotterdam based architecture firm of Rem Koolhaas, approached the subject in a functional, pragmatic manner now often associated with Dutch architects and urban planners. Based on thorough research and analysis, a catalogue of possibility was set out, which displayed innovative and at times extreme outcomes. The intention of the study was boldly set out and enhanced by its cogent presentation of simple provocative diagrams and comparative investigations. History and context were largely rejected and the process, unlike many urban and architectural projects, did not rely upon an external philosophy or theory.

The built environment in the Netherlands is, in a broad sense, highly controlled, OMA therefore question why this erosive expansion is able to take place and how it can be countered. But, is the project meant to be taken literally as an effective solution to these problems? Or as a persuasive argument aimed at people to reconsider their preconceptions? Point/South City can be seen as a rhetorical approach, which does what is does for effect, rather than to come to a final outcome or solution to a problem. It shifts people's thoughts to observe the topic from a different stance than that which they are used to. It does not provide an answer, or even a design, in the strictest sense of the word. The aim is to make people question what is happening around them. Is Dutch planning policy shaping the future? Is the country full? Can suburban development be sustained? What is the relationship between urbanism and landscape?


Their success as provocative tools is heavily indebted to their visual strength, which conveys the thought process, as well as their outcome, or what may be called the design solution. Leach states that, 'Representation ' the realm of aesthetics ' has become the repressed discourse in Koolhaas's works, whether books or buildings.'[1] Koolhaas would rather draw attention to the process of his designs rather than their visual quality, but they are so strongly linked that it would be impossible to consider one and not the other. Representation in the project is not only linked with the practice's design process but also the strategic and political aims of the study. Central to this essay is an analysis of the process by which Point/South City was created and how OMA represented their findings, as this had a significant impact on their success. Particular focus will be put on how and why the visionary and the pragmatic may be combined in creative and to an extent irrational ways.

Writers such as Lootsma have written about the significance of Point/South City in the role it played in the criticism of planning policy at the time.[2] However, thorough analysis of how and why this project was able to do this and what changes, if any, it made to current urban expansion, has not been investigated. The study is often referenced but seldom interpreted. In reviews of Koolhaas's work, the project is mentioned briefly in relation to other more well known works, such as Delirious New York and Generic City. Since it has not been analysed in context, this essay attempts to place the project in relation to what came before and after. Although, as previously stated, the project largely rejects the past and context, an analysis of these topics is needed to understand why they took this approach. Were similar studies made or has this method of working been used before? How do they relate to important Dutch urban studies of the 20th century?

As OMA's main aim was to change people's views and provoke action; it is also necessary to find out whether this has happened. Academics such as Saunders in reference to Point/South City in particular, but also commenting on experimental architectural initiatives in the Netherlands in general, states that these plans often '...function as prototypes for later developments' and that '...consequently, realized plans are often almost as extreme and exciting as their prototypes.'[3] Is this the case with Point/South City?


This essay is split into three parts. The first aims to find out why this project stands out in relation to urban design in the Netherlands and what had happened in the past for OMA to take such a radical stance. Is there a history of similar visionary projects taking place and have they had a significant influence? Did they use provocative techniques that may have influenced OMA? The planning of the Randstad and proposals for it are also outlined as this had a direct affect on Point/South City.

The next section is a detailed analysis of Point/South City itself. A concentrated investigation is made into the representation and manipulation of data and diagrams, and how this process relates to the effectiveness and eccentricity of the project.

The final section analyses the affect of the project on what came after it. Have recent investigations that tackled the same topics like the Randstad, density and the city in the Netherlands, been influenced by OMA? Do they use similar techniques in their design process and representation? Also, has the project changed planning policy?

Urban Design in the Netherlands

Visionary Proposals

The Dutch landscape is viewed and treated as a malleable entity. This can be attributed to the massive construction projects that have shaped the country in the last century. Extensive land reclamation, the Delta Works and the formation and partial drainage of the Ijselmeer have made the way that the Dutch view their landscape very different from the rest of the world. Has this led those involved in urban design to think of more visionary and audacious schemes? To gain an understanding of what may have influenced Point/South City and in particular its process of design, it is useful to look at visionary urban developments that were proposed in the Netherlands.

Constant Nieuwenhuys was a Dutch artist who between 1956 and 1974 developed concepts, models and drawings for a visionary architectural project called New Babylon. The provocative study envisaged a series of linked transformable structures, some of which were the size of a small city, perched above ground. Its inhabitants would lead a nomadic life of creative play while the bourgeois would be left in the metropolis below. This contentious model is still relevant today: 'In the encounter of aesthetics and politics, it figures as a model for the exploration of the current cultural landscape, which is marked by a decline in the capacity to imagine the world differently.'[4] Its liberating influence was inspirational to architects including Koolhaas.

Urbanism in the Netherlands during the post-war years offered something unique, Nooteboom states: 'The opportunity of building completely new cities arises in few countries, but here, that which every architect of the twentieth century dreamed of, existed as a real possibility, in the new polders.'[5]

J.H van den Broek and J.B. Bakema were offered such an opportunity in 1965 with Pampus City, a new development on reclaimed land in the Ijmeer to the East of Amsterdam. Their scheme proposed a radical alternative to urban and regional planning, breaking though the traditional separation of city and landscape. In contrast to the traditional ring-like expansion of Amsterdam, Pampus City would be a linear extension of high density high rise blocks that would emphasise the contrast between polder landscape and the city by interweaving solid and void. Although it was a considerable shift away from the traditional, it was well received, however ultimately unrealised in their generation. Nearly 45 years later this vision became reality. The master plan by Palmboom van den Bout presented in 1995 was largely based on the original scheme and is currently in the first stage of construction. Would the new plan have been accepted if the visionary Pampus City proposal had not existed?

Nooteboom describes a backlash to this type of project in the 1970s:

'A reaction to this wasteland-building came from people like Herzberger, Piet Blom, Theo Bosch, Aldo van Eyck; they put the emphasis on the small scale; the human dimension, and ' literally ' on individuality. Their publications reveal a profound belief in the creativity of man....The philosophy is turned inward and no longer encompasses the whole world or even the whole city ' no more dream towns are designed, the architects' thinking always remains close to the people, lingers on their door-steps, wanders through their houses, ponders over the relationship between indoors and outdoors, turns away from the big manipulated ugliness.'[6]

Koolhaas, on the other hand, felt that this was a time when the large scale was most important:

' the '70s and '80s, while the world was in the process of enlarging, architecture was subdividing; there was a self-marginalization, a fanatical attention to detail, even a language that was splintering. Bigness already existed, as the outcome of inventions such as steel and air-conditioning, but engineering was still being considered a mere afterthought and not a necessary complement to architecture. And in fact there seemed to be absolutely no conceivable connection between architecture and the driving forces in society. So the reason to consider Bigness was to find a way to align architecture with the bigness of the new climate.'[7]

There is a history of studies in the Netherlands that have dealt with urban issues on a large scale. For example (fig1) shows an installation for the Dutch pavilion at the World Fair in Osaka 1970. The map by Wim Crouwel represents the urban planning scheme of the Netherlands, comparing the situation in 1970 with the one expected in the year 2000. Although this scheme did not propose any changes, it is representative of a design culture that is constantly looking to the future.

The Randstad

It is necessary to gain an understanding of the Randstad in particular the concept of the 'Green Heart' as it is one of the main notions that is challenged by OMA's study. It would be impossible to speak of urbanism in the Netherlands without reference to the Randstad. That the built environment in the Netherlands is often referred to as The Randstad and 'the rest' illustrates its importance[9] Although there are doubts as to whether this was the first time it was noted, this romanticised image is what brought it to the attention of the nation, and is most likely also a factor in the notion's longevity. It is surprising to think that an idea founded on a visual interpretation has informed urban growth for 50 years.

The cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague had, through no premeditated aim, formed an arbitrary ring-like pattern that was then manipulated and adopted as planning policy. Because the urban environment was taking this shape naturally, future developments would follow this framework, therefore construction was directed outward and the green centre of the ring protected. The strength and endurance of the notion is founded upon its clarity and ease of understanding. Many have, however deemed it to be dominated by a debilitating aesthetic vision to order the appearance of the city and the man-made landscape. There were undoubtedly many things about the traditional model of the Randstad that made it a logical plan to follow, but it is likely that the strong image of the idea meant it went unchallenged longer than it should have done. As Dieleman stated in his analysis of the Randstad in 1992, 'For a long time, Dutch politicians and scientists unanimously lauded the benefits of this form of urban development. Only recently have scientific analysts questioned the concept and the direction in which the Randstad is headed.' [10]

Before WWII planners had already become concerned with overcrowding in the west of the Netherlands. This concern however, did not prompt a solution through increased density. Instead an anti-urban approach was taken which suggested that; a Dutch city should not have more than a million inhabitants, that open spaces in or near built up areas had to be preserved and that migration from the rest of the country to the Randstad should be limited.[12] This was a response to the belief that the Randstad was full and that the rest of the country was empty.

Chief planning consultant for the Commission for the Western Netherlands, J.P.Thijsse illustrated growing concerns with intense suburban development and higher than expected population growth, with his doom scenario that depicted swathes of development infiltrating the green heart. This diagram was crucial in a heated debate that occurred within the Commission for the Western Netherlands in the 1950s. At the time there were a number of dissenters, among them representatives of the representatives of the Ministry of Transport and Waterways, who stated that the preservation of a 'Green Heart' ran against economic logic. They also suggested that the growing dominance of 'green' agriculture in the region, which was responsible for over-production, substantial pollution and greenhouses that blighted the landscape, were not worth being protected. Thijsse's diagram swayed the rest of the Commission against the dissenters that wanted change.[13] As a result the concept of the Randstad has persisted and the 'Green Heart' has pursued largely unchallenged until the present day. This shows the power of the visual representation of a vision of the future upon planning policy.

The problem of sprawl was largely ignored until 1966 when the 'Second Report on Physical Planning in the Netherlands' was published, which was the first planning document that came close to being a national plan. It put forward policies for accommodating a population of 20 million in the year 2000, while taking a negative view of suburban sprawl which became synonymous with the policy of keeping the 'Green Heart' open. To achieve this, the 'concentrated deconcentrated' (fig 1) policy was put forward as a solution. This strategy allowed people to live in a suburban development, but these developments were concentrated within designated overspill areas. These expansions would rely upon neighbouring cities, thus creating a 'city region'.

This coincided with the restructuring of the planning system from being centrally governed to decentralized in the new Physical Planning Act of 1965. This had a pronounced effect on the effectiveness of control, as Musterd points out, 'Since then, national and provincial plans are merely indicative and not binding, as they used to be. The plans allow for few reserve powers for higher authorities to ensure that wider concerns are observed by lower levels of government.'[15] Therefore the powerful notion of the Randstad became, in many ways, a hindrance.

The late 1970s was a period of stagnation in Dutch architecture. As a way of reversing this trend supportive infrastructure was set up by cultural institutions. Among initiatives such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute and the Netherlands Architecture Fund to reinvigorate the profession, the Rotterdam Arts Council initiated the international design event Architecture International Rotterdam (AIR) in 1982, which aimed to confront the isolated nature of the profession in the Netherlands through a discourse with acclaimed architects and critics from abroad[17]

Point/South City

'Holland is nothing but a burned-out skeleton of a culture that was once ambitious, critical, and devoted to a kind of modernism.'[18]

Criticism of the current situation

Point/South City was part of AIR 1993 which focused on Rotterdam's postwar urban development, the urban periphery and their development in the urban landscape, in particular the north eastern area called Alexanderpolder. Alle de Jogne, the director of this manifestation of AIR, states their aim was to investigate, 'the relation between suburbia and the traditional city, both from functional and cultural perspectives. This was set against a background of increasing individuality, heterogeneity and fragmentation of society on one hand, and economic globalization and technological expansion on the other.'[19] OMA moved beyond Alexanderpolder and Rotterdam to consider the limitations of the current process of urban expansion affecting the Randstad and in effect the whole of the country.

In the foreword to their visual studies, OMA comment on what they feel is the irony of the treatment of the Dutch landscape, 'the (one) country that more than any other fabricated itself, now treats its territory as if it has the authenticity and inevitability of nature'.[20] They state their dismay at the almost indoctrinated, unconscious acceptance of Dutch planners that envision the Randstad as an organic, outward expanding city that encircles an empty green centre. They challenge the fact that this ideal has never been scrutinised, analysed or adjusted. Is there a functional reason for the cities to develop like this? OMA convey their apathy towards this weak approach:

'Through this lack of conceptual explicitness, political decisions are not placed in the context of a particular vision or ambition but are seemingly degenerating in an endless series of pragmatic adjustments that cumulatively have eroded whatever contents of clarity there was in the formula 'empty heart full periphery'.' [21]

This erosion has meant that the Randstad cities on the periphery are spilling into the open heart and spoiling the contrast between urban and open, with low density architecture. Sprawl is damaging the relationship between city and landscape by blurring the contrast of its surroundings by blending the unique qualities and identity of different parts into a generic mass. The quality of variation between open and closed space has become diluted by horizontal expansion. The reduction in density and dilution of the complex spatial interaction has meant that a vital element to the success and character of cities has been lost. OMA suggest that this trend should be reversed by increasing density to achieve, 'truly urban conditions'[22] Their short manifesto puts emphasis on the loss of difference that has been created by the dispersed built environment that is porous to the natural landscape. The complex vibrancy of the city has degraded towards blandness. They intend to challenge the government's persistence to continue implementing the policies of the past. They believe that re-enhancing these contrasts and strengthening their control through an innovative set of planning principles would have a significant impact, not only on the existing spatial landscapes, but also on the social and political ones.

OMA's Aim

OMA's response to the failings and lack of innovation at the highest scale of national planning are two proposals for the entire country. Both are extreme interpretations far removed from convention. They state that the investigations are, 'models that have as their cardinal virtue the fact that they abandon the systematic denial of reality which gives the entire official thinking such a problematic and ineffective aura, and that they reintroduce explicit ideological choices.'[23]

One of the main aims of the investigation was to initiate a debate on urban expansion at a national scale. Their provocative studies were an attempt to; get people to question urban development rather than to let it happen as if it was an uncontrolled certainty, to provoke professionals involved in the built environment to imagine their work in the context of a larger scheme and to inspire the general public to think of their effect as a collective force.

Point City, the first proposal, discovers a new potential from the existing condition of the Randstad by creating a city within it, while the rest of the country would be given a restrictive policy that is devoted to nature, leisure, history and tourism. South City is an even more extreme option that does not have the sentimental value of Point City, as it involves the destruction of the Randstad cities. All future planning would be directed to the lower half of the Netherlands under Alexanderpolder, therefore positioning it closer to the most active zone of Europe. As a result of this, South City has the capacity to provide for a larger population but would have a greater impact on the landscape. The advantages of both these schemes is that a concentrated environment would have: efficient infrastructural networks, dense, truly urban conditions, highly developed planning and a concentrated power of decision instead of an opaque system of decentralization. The proposals reject what Dutch planning policy has advocated for over 50 years.

Point and South City are tested with varying extremes of density using the real examples of Los Angeles and Manhattan. As well as being generally well known, these precedents are the focus of important works in architectural discourse, Reyner Banham's 'Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies ' (1971) and Koolhaas's 'Delirious New York' (1978) and were therefore known well to many involved in the AIR design event. The density of Los Angeles is used to construct a dystopian scenario which shows the affects of a highly dispersed urban environment on the Netherlands, either using up much of the land or displacing part of the population. Alexanderpolder represents the density of typical expansion of the built environment in the Netherlands. OMA also state that the role of the Alexanderpolder region in the project is to act as a ,' 'zoom' which allows us to imagine a totally unrecognisable new Dutch reality' Alexanderpolder is at the centre of both visions and therefore is seen as the birthplace of the new city which can act as a testing ground of its potential. Manhattan represents an ideal high density urbanism.

Visual Analysis

It is ironic that what follows is an analysis of the design process of the project in words, as its strength comes from not having to be explained like this, but to find out how the diagrams are effective, this is necessary. The diagrammatic sequence follows a narrative logic. It begins with information input: a simple line drawing of the country, existing population data, land use statistics and three density precedents. These informative diagrams feed into the following stage, the Point/South City design process, which combines these inputs by reorganizing and redistributing space and density. The final part is a comparative review of all the parts of the investigation.

The first diagram of the input stage is a map of the Netherlands in which the main land uses have been redistributed. This type of diagram would usually be the second step in a process, the first being the display of the current land use distribution. This irregular approach sends out a clear message that the current layout of the Netherlands has little relevance. The programme of the country; the percentage allocated to agriculture, nature, infrastructure and the built environment has been redistributed horizontally across the map. This creates an understanding of the percentages as the data is put into a context that is spatially understood by the viewer. This image is also the first iteration of South City.

Also part of this introductory section is a graph that shows the changes in population dispersal at intervals of 20 years in the Netherlands between 1900 and 1990. This is the only definitive time scale used in the whole project and the only direct reference to the past. This highlights one of the main concerns that OMA has; that the population of the Randstad has been gradually migrating from its biggest cities to the rest of the country. A comparative study of Los Angeles, Alexanderpolder and Manhattan, displaying their required size to accommodate the current Dutch population, is also conducted at this stage. At Los Angeles density the current built environment of the Netherlands would have to be extended by 2850km2 and for Alexanderpolder and Manhattan it could be reduced by 1275km2 and 2550km2 respectively. At this stage the densities are given abstract representations to be used in the following diagrams. This first section provides all the elements which are needed for the creation of Point/South City.

The main diagram of Point City shows how the 15 million inhabitants of the Netherlands would be accommodated within a circle in the middle of the existing Randstad. With a diameter of 43.6km the density of the city would be 10054 people per km2. Under this is a series of diagrams showing the process by which the rest of the country would gradually become void as people relocate to the new city. There is no definite time span, which indicates that this process is flexible and could therefore happen at any time and at any rate. The following six diagrams are split into two columns and are the most successful as provocative gestures. The left column shows the diameter required to accommodate the current population at the precedent densities. The right column shows the densities at the desired 43.6km and indicates the affect this would have on population. Only 3.73 million people could inhabit Point City at Los Angeles density; this figure increases to 37.3 million at Manhattan density.

The main diagram of South City is a map of the Netherlands that shows the built environment filling up from the south to Alexanderpolder, roughly in the middle of the Netherlands. For this area to accommodate the Dutch population there would be 1290 people per km2, making it less dense than Los Angeles. However, as indicated in the last image in this section, at Manhattan density this same area could accommodate 290 million people. The rest of the diagrams follow the same process as that of Point City, with a phasing indication and the two columns of density studies.

The final section of the project is a review of the most important findings to come out of the investigation. The Los Angeles, Alexanderpolder and Manhattan densities for Point and South City are collated on one map as line drawings. This allows for a clear comparison of the spatial impact of each. Also featured is a more detailed phasing strategy that shows the plan of Alexanderpolder becoming a city, which is represented by the urban pattern merging into a more solid form, or becoming void which is represented by the urban pattern decaying.

Both studies present Manhattan as the best urban model for the Netherlands. The high density of the grid plan in Manhattan represents timeless and flexible urbanism that can create a basis for planning which matches the speed, flexibility and adaptability of a modern nation.

'Through graphs, diagrams and other forms of statistical analysis, they explore the factors that inform and influence society today. Their emphasis is on the processes that lie beneath the surface level manifestations. Although the primary concern is an attempt to understand process they nonetheless subscribe to an unacknowledged discourse of representation. They are not just diagrams and graphs. They are exquisitely designed diagrams and graphs.' [24]

Diagrammatic clarity

Those who attended the Alexandpolder conference were a combination of professional and non-professional, local and foreign delegates. Therefore the design had to have a global understanding. Even if the short written outline was not read, the project had to be understood. Reading of the Point/South City diagrams is more or less instantaneous; there is an immediate apprehension of the general idea that is presented. This is largely because the diagrams are kept simple with only three variables used in the entire study: time, land use organization and density. The simplicity of the proposal makes it easy to interpret. What may be lost through lack of detail is countered by the speed by which the scheme is understood. The map of the Netherlands, combined with the spatial ordering and abstraction of density, allows for the creation of one simple, succinct diagram that displays the idea, as well as demanding attention. Point/South City's simplicity contradicts the complexities inherent in the topics it deals with. OMA uses the diagrams to question what most merely accept. Does there need to be a step back from these complexities, so that problems can be viewed in a wider context? Do we get caught up with the intricacy of detail? Does there need to be a clear vision and structure to adhere to?

As important as the solutions that OMA provide, is the inclusion of diagrams that display the working that has gone into developing them. What would the study demonstrate if only the final outcome was shown? The inclusion of these diagrams that show multiple effects and scenarios provide depth and rigour to the conclusions, while also making the study more transparent. This adds to the persuasive element of the process as it highlights the investigative research. It also emphasises that this is an honest method that does not aim to hide its constraints or deceive.

The diagrams move from a European to a national and eventually to an urban analysis of a kilometre square, but the national scale features most prominently. Koolhaas asserts that the power of the large scale lies in the, 'artificiality and the fragmentation it produces, and how, in a way, the very bigness turns into an antidote against fragmentation. Each of those entities acquires the pretension and sometimes the reality of a completely enveloping reality, and an absolute autonomy.'[26]

The investigation's clarity is also enhanced by following a logical progression; from a study of land use in the Netherlands, to precedent density comparison, and the two applications. Taken as one entity the project functions as a cogent piece of graphical design that strengthens its case as a proposal for the future and a protest of undirected urban expansion.


The abstract nature of the project makes it open to different interpretation. Although the investigations are a criticism of the bureaucracy inherent in urban development which manifests itself in poorly conceived and unregulated regulation, Point/South City does not provide a concrete solution or definitive outcome to be adhered to. This point may be dismissed by stating that the ideas within this investigation are, unattainable and not realistic, and therefore do not require such guidelines. But this approach can also be viewed as a flexible strategy to deal with the indeterminate field of contemporary urbanisation. Therefore the investigations can also be interpreted as an alternative to highly regulated urban development that instead advocates an open ended approach. This method is promoted by Dieleman who suggests: 'Dynamism, flexibility, and the capacity to adapt, on the other hand, and stable basic qualities on the other, will be the key to optimal development opportunities for an urbanized centre such as the Randstad.'[27]

Even though Manhattan is used as an example, its black representation in the diagrams, could resemble any urban formation that would provide this level of density. Point and South City would most likely become what Koolhaas describes as a 'Generic City'. Koolhaas elaborates on his criticism of current urbanisation with this statement:

"People can inhabit anything. And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. More and more I think that architecture has nothing to do with it. Of course, that's both liberating and alarming. But

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