Sunday, May 29, 2011

Renzo Piano's Nemo Center

Amsterdam is filled with very attractive traditional architecture and urbanism. It also has some bleak modernist architecture; the most prominent example is Nemo (National Center for Science and Technology), which includes a popular science museum. This 1997 building designed by Renzo Piano could be a textbook example of what is wrong with contemporary avant-gardist architecture.

In order to make it an icon, the building is designed to look like a ship rising out of the water of the Oosterdok. To get this striking effect, the building has to be at the end of the point of land it is on.

In the picture below, you can see the older urban fabric of Amsterdam to the right of this point of land, and you can see the Nemo building at its extreme tip. In terms of urban design, it would have made much more sense to locate the building next to the urban fabric, in order to create a lively urban place where they meet, but Piano is more interested in creating an icon that stands out on the skyline than in creating an attractive, usable urban place.

The picture below shows the view of Nemo from the part of the city that is right next to it. The freeway goes under Nemo and then continues in a tunnel under the Oosterdok.

Of course, a better urban design would have put Nemo over the freeway at the point where it meets the city, in order to heal this gash in the urban fabric; the freeway is low enough that it would be possible to build over it. Then it would have been easy to walk to Nemo from the city, and there would have been a vital urban place where they met.

Instead, Piano forces people to approach Nemo on a long, ugly, sidewalk overlooking this freeway - which the winds blowing over the Oosterdok make even more uncomfortable.

After you get beyond the freeway, you reach the empty plaza shown below, continuing your upleasant walk through a bleak, wind-swept space. During the 1960s, modernists were often criticized for designing empty plazas like this, and apparently they still have not learned.

When you finally reach the building itself, you pass by the Renzo Piano Cafe, shown below. The seating on the plaza is almost deserted, an amazing contrast to all the cafes in the city center that you passed while you walked here, which have all their seats filled and are surrounded by crowds of pedestrians.

The Renzo Piano Cafe, designed to look oh-so-stylish but little used and much ignored by the people of Amsterdam, is a fitting tribute to the architect who designed this building as an icon meant to attract attention to itself, rather than as a good place for people to be.


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