Exhibition rethinks the meaning of urban


StadBuitenStad at deSingel in Antwerp encourages smart urban development by embracing the area between the suburbs and the city

City outside the city

The key to smart city development lies not in our inner cities but just outside the city, says Christoph Grafe, co-curator of the exhibition StadBuitenStad (City Outside the City). “We need to infuse the 20th-century city belt with a more urban character,” he says.

In the first place, he is talking about Antwerp, which is expecting a growth in population of about 100,000 people in the next 30 years. “But a lot of other cities, like Ghent, and many French, German, Dutch and Scandinavian cities of the same size, are facing the same challenges,” explains Grafe, who is also the director of Flanders Architecture Institute, responsible for the exhibition.

All these cities are growing because of a recent urban renaissance: People are choosing to live in cities again after a long period of decline and suburbanisation. But since the capacity of inner cities is limited, Grafe and the other curators – Michiel Dehaene of Ghent University, former city architect Kristiaan Borret and the Flemish-Dutch curator Jean Bernard Koeman – are trying to shift focus to these districts outside the city centre, but closer than the outskirts.

“In these heterogeneous spaces you can still develop a balanced spectrum of housing, since most of the cities mentioned above are small enough to be manageable,” says Grafe. He means you can still implement a new urban vision here, in a way you cannot in larger cities.

Grafe heard a lot about this recently at a development fair in Cannes when talking to peers, all specialists in urban planning and architecture. “Of course, my colleagues could just design the plans for new buildings to meet our future housing needs, but it’s a far better idea if you can do that within an integrated plan that enhances the quality of life in this edgeland. In Antwerp we’re talking about the areas around the 20th-century city belt.”

Eye-catching exhibition

Work spaces have been moving out of the city for a long time, he explains, meaning there’s a reliance on individual rather than on public transport, leading to major mobility problems. 

We felt it was a fantastic mirror for people who know Antwerp very well

- Christoph Graf

“We have to think about how these working areas can be integrated into the city again, nearer to residential buildings and surrounded by green, good schools, a better public transport system and possibilities for entertainment.”

To create awareness among the locals, Grafe and his fellow curators have produced an eye-catching exhibition. One of the highlights is a selection of night-time pictures in which the young German photographer Fabian Schröder, who studied in Antwerp, stresses the fragmentary character of this edgeland: there’s terraced housing next to apartments, business districts next to residential housing, schools and university complexes…

Capturing the point where all these functions meet, but from a higher vantage point – a crane – Schröder’s images are extremely familiar, especially for people living in Antwerp, but at the same time they are totally alien.

“They display the physical proximity of this archipelago of different areas and functions the city has outside its centre,” Grafe explains. “We felt that was a fantastic mirror for people who know Antwerp very well – to see their city in a brand new light and perspective but also for people who are not familiar with Antwerp at all, because they could recognise a situation they might know from their own cities, since the images are both particular and universal.”

The image of the ski slope at the Ruggeveldpark in Deurne is the most dramatic. “It’s also symptomatic and typifies the specific qualities of the edge of the city,” says Grafe. “You could never have a ski slope in the inner city.” This visual travelogue, as he calls it, may help reinvent what the city stands for and what is “urban”.

How architecture can make a difference is illustrated by the Labo XX project, an initiative by the city of Antwerp’s planning authorities. “They commissioned four high-profile architecture firms to submit proposals, and all thought up experiments about dealing with mobility, integrating collective life into urban spaces and a bottom-up financing system for large-scale housing schemes.”

Truly urban environments

Along with Labo XX’s more abstract proposals, the curators have built a wooden structure in the middle of the exhibition room, evoking this new city outside the city. “It carries a huge number of images of what the future city could be,” explains Grafe.

Some of the images illustrate historical housing schemes “that may become worth looking at again,” he continues. “Often these are alternatives to the free-standing house in the suburbs, sometimes sharing a garden, a courtyard building or even a villa.” Reference is even made to the typical Flemish begijnhof.

Living in a truly urban environment gives people the impression they’re no longer in a suburb

- Christoph Graf

Other suggestions include connecting the outlying areas of the city with each other (and not just with the city centre) through public transport and making the green landscape a real public domain again.

“In the past, gardens at the edge of the city were used more actively than today, partly for growing food but also for entertainment and culture, like the pleasure parks in 18th-century London.

London’s suburbs, known as Metroland, are also a reference. “In the 1920s and ’30s, underground stations were developed not just as transport hubs but as small city centres and markers in the urban landscape, surrounded by a parade of shops, bars, parish halls, even churches and cinemas.

“Living in a truly urban environment gives people the impression they’re not living in a suburb anymore, where they have to use their car all the time, with all the limitations this car-bound lifestyle produces.”

The displayed mosaic of images triggers the imagination as to what our cities could be in the future by referring to what they were in the past, not limiting challenges to physical changes, but also illustrating the social aspect.

Until 7 June at deSingel, Antwerp

Photo © Fabian Schröder, Jean Bernard Koeman