Producing the Contemporary City

24 May - 2 September 2007
PowerNotes #08
Biennale director George Brugmans on  2007 and 2009

George Brugmans is filmmaker and the executive director of the second and the third International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. 

Rotterdam, Thursday 7 June 2007


How do you make a biennale?

The how is always related to the why. The most important aim of this third Biennale, from an inside perspective, was to survive and at the same time to create an external image of complete security.

Let me explain this to you. This third edition of the biennale was barely supported by the national government, for reasons we don't have to explore here. A little over a year ago we were shutting up shop. I was telling the team, "thanks for having being loyal so long, but you need to look around for another job now". And some actually did.

And then, at the stroke of midnight, the City of Rotterdam came to our rescue and insisted that we continue, and it upped its already substantial support. It was just enough for us to decide to go on, but since then we've constantly operated on the edge.

Fortunately, all our partners, and most important, the Berlage Institute, that had already agreed to be the curator, were willing to go down that road with us, a road that could easily have led to catastrophe. I've appreciated that a lot, because we were very vulnerable: not enough money, a very small team. Everybody could have gotten hurt in the process.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. We chose the theme, POWER. And under these circumstances there seemed to be a secret beauty to it. You know, to go out into the world talking about POWER while at the same time you're very vulnerable, very aware you can slip over the edge at any time. That was very good, never easy, but it kept me on my toes and that was really good. After all, only the paranoid survive.


Of course, when you ask, "how do you produce a biennale?", this is not the answer you would like to hear, you want to hear the recipe. But I'm talking mindset. The bottom line is the people who do it. There's no easy approach to it, not a fixed procedure, at the end of the day it's the team. And the team is small but extremely good. I'm glad that we could keep the core of the team together, the nucleus of the group that also did the second biennale. This team has now done two editions, it worked with two very different curators; with Adriaan Geuze, a very strong minded and very intelligent individual; and with the Berlage Institute, through an immensely complicated but fascinatingly interesting collaborative effort. And now it can handle everything. We're ready for #4.

So alderman Kaya's announcement, last Sunday, that the City of Rotterdam has decided to support #4, comes at the right time. We now can keep the momentum going for us. Instead of being impeded by another attack of existential insecurity we can concentrate on the future. What's the theme in 2009? Who's going to be the curator?

This Friday we have the closing debate in the PowerLounge. The exhibitions will be open till September 2, but the PowerLounge will be dismantled on Monday the 11th. That very same night we have a serious brainstorm session on 2009. We've invited some partners and colleagues to sit down with us, talk, have dinner, and look at the future together. I hope to be able to announce curator and theme by the end of the summer.





How is the Rotterdam biennale different from other biennales?

Have you been to the opening, on May 24? There were some 800 people attending and I think the average age was around 35 years. That's who we are. This is a research biennale as well as a platform for a younger generation of architects and urban designers. The combination of these two characteristics defines "Rotterdam". It's a generation that isn't yet part of the problem. These people impress me every time I work with them. Very driven, ready to ask tough questions, to do the research and work on the solution.

To be able to channel that energy and intelligence into "Rotterdam" every two years is a complete joy. Why? Because it's how we can make a real difference. It's not like when you invite "starchitects", display their icons, sit at expensive dinners and have to constantly worry about whether everyone is playing up to them the right way. I need to be clear: I have nothing against "starchitects", and they are very welcome here, but we don't want to build the biennale around them, turn on the lights and tell the world it's show time.This is real. The Master class we did is real. The projects that came out of it, some of them can actually make a difference in this City. We connect the City to the world and the world to the City. Through architecture, through reflection on what the City is, can be, should be, should want to be. That's real. That's international cultural exchange as it should be.

And if we're allowed to pursue that, to develop this strategy without having to constantly worry about whether we'll still be here tomorrow, then four, six, maybe eight years from now, the Rotterdam biennale will be a very strong brand, as well as an essential element in the Dutch landscape of architectural institutions.

Of course the challenge then will be to stay close to the edge enough to continue to be dependent on people and their ideas, and not to resort to an easy recipe.


The danger of complacency?

Exactly. But fortunately there are enough things still to worry about. It's too early at this point to really judge this third edition. However, one of the things I'm not too happy about is how many people come to see the exhibitions. Not enough. The shows are considered to be "difficult" and that's become sort of a sin in this country. This is not the country of Spinoza but of John de Mol, the producer of ‘Big Brother'. Holland is caught in a downward spiral, it's "dumbing down". Over the last twenty years we have systematically destroyed our educational system. The media are competing with each other to see how far down on their knees they can go. Brazilian, German TV came to the opening of this Biennale, but Dutch TV was conspicuously absent, too busy producing game shows. This country is in the grip of an identity crisis but the media are afraid to really face up to it in a coherent and intellectual way, they have become part of the problem. So when one puts the future of our cities on the table, and this is after all the arena in which we, as a society, have to solve many of our urgent identity problems, it's a ‘no go' for a lot of people. Too complex, they think. But hey, I'm sorry, the world happens to be a complicated place.

This is a real problem for us, a dilemma we have to solve in the future: how to present serious stuff in a Dutch context? Maybe we better go undercover and become a film festival, start to do our own broadcasting or work on a strategic alliance with a smaller broadcaster to get the story across. Some 300.000 people watched the film we produced on the informal city; costs involved: a little over 1% of our total budget.


"Urbanism doesn't exist. It is only an ideology in Marx's sense of the word." (Koolhaas in S,M,L,XL, 1995)