Five Questions To Reinier De Graaf (OMA)

The famous annual multidisciplinary conference TED is spreading across the globe. As of 2010, so-called TEDx events have been held in over 60 countries. Under the slogan ‘somethink completely different’ TEDxRotterdam took place on Friday June 4 at the New Luxor Theater, featuring twelve hours of performances and ‘ideas worth spreading’ from some 30 designers, scientists, musicians, architects, et cetera.

Photo: Bram Muller

One of the keynote speakers at TEDxRotterdam was Reinier de Graaf, partner of the world-famous Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and director of its research platform AMO. His short lecture featured the Energy Roadmap 2050, a revolutionary plan on EU scale for capitalization of renewable energy sources in a situation of mutual benefit. The project is commissioned by the European Climate Foundation and is based on extensive technical, economic and policy analyses conducted by five leading consultancies including AMO, KEMA, McKinsey & Company and Oxford Economics. Under the slogan “a practical guide to a prosperous, low-carbon Europe”, the roadmap proposes a complete integration and synchronization of the European system of energy provision that takes maximum advantage of the continent’s geographical and climatological diversity. In other words, an entirely integrated system, which is called Eneropa, allows the North to take advantage of solar energy of the South, and the South to take advantage of wind turbines in the North. Designboom writes:

“The report’s findings show that by 2050, the simultaneous presence of various renewable energy sources within the EU can create a complementary system of energy provision ensuring energy security for future generations. (…) Reinier de Graaf, OMA’s partner in charge of the project, said ‘in our profession there is a lot of talk about sustainability, but it is generally only dealt with at the scale of buildings. This project allowed us to address the issue at an entirely different scale. In the end, the planning of a trans-national renewable energy grid has a much larger impact and more widely shared benefits.'”

During TEDxRotterdam, Pop-Up City spoke with Reinier de Graaf about the merging disciplines of architecture and marketing, and about the Roadmap 2050.

AMO is based on the key principle that architects have great ideas on marketing and art. Why do you think that these other disciplines could learn from architecture, and to what extent?
“Architecture is a profession in which organizational thinking plays an important role, and architects are learned to think in (thought) constructions. Take a look at terms commonly used in the media to describe situations and ideas. ‘Arena’, ‘platform’, ‘structure’… those are all words that touch upon architecture and building practice. In contrast to many other specialistic professions, architects are stimulated to think less lineary but rather in linkages and connections. When working on a project like the Roadmap with many partners involved, you are unable to gain knowledge about every element of the plan. Nevertheless, as an architect you are constantly busy creating a narrative by connecting all those elements, and coordinating people that you are dependent on, and who have their share in the final proposal. I am convinced that architects have a better rhetorical position, and are thus better able to tell the complete story. That is what strikes me, also when working on other projects.”

Eneropa seems to be an invisible network… or will this network allow for the emergence of any visual icons?
“On the one hand I prefer speaking in terms of an invisible energy revolution that will change about everything. On the other hand, the central objective is that nothing has to change. However, mankind is stuck with a way of living that will unevitably lead to the end of the world within fifty years. There should happen something radical in order to maintain our Western lifestyles but tremendously reduce carbon footprints at the same time. This is a strange issue for architecture, since architects are used to focus on externalities and visual results. In the end, Eneropa will lead to the emergence of sustainable energy plants, such as windmill parks, but it could be interesting to design something iconic that will represent this apparently invisible content-wide energy system.”

The Roadmap 2050 implies an eternal supply of sustainable energy in the future. Which effects will Eneropa possibly have for cities and urbanity, for instance the concept of polycentric cities?
“Well, Eneropa could strengthen the development of polycentric urbanism as it will lead to energy nodes. Saving on energy use is a good reason to build cities in high densities. In case a sustainable energy revolution will succeed, this could imply that much of that idea will not be applicable any more to urban planning. That means that other reasons should be found in order to build in high densities. In the past, the emergence of the car as a mass consumer product resulted in a flow of massive suburbanization. Then car use became something to regulate due to issues such as traffic congestion and air pollution, so urban densification gained relevance. I am not sure if an eternal supply of sustainable energy will result in new forms of urbanity.”

Should European citizens become ambassadors of the plan, and how?
“Effects of the creation of Eneropa will be noticeable by citizens of the EU. Every tiny piece of success should be screamed into the world. In the end, the worst environmental pollutors should not be solely dealt with by a system of restrictions, but rather by fresh perspectives provided by a system of new technological opportunities.”

Which steps should be taken first in order to prepare Europe for a sustainable energy future?
“First of all it is very important to expand the energy transmission network — the connections between the several EU countries. Currently these connections are only used in case of energy black-outs, but capacity should be substantially increased to prepare the network for structural trans-European exchange of energy. When such a system will be up and running, you can connect sustainable energy sources as if these were acupuncture needles. On a pan-continental level the European Union should play a coordinating role. The EU began as the European Coal and Steel Community. Now it’s time to re-focus on energy and to build a sustainable future that will contribute to revitalization of the union.”