CITIES: Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Detroit

A new series looks at urban design, development and cultural life in the world’s cities. Come back often!

Bord de la Seine/Courtesy Mairie Paris

PARIS: Mayor Bertrand Delanoe won’t be running for re-election (he’s been in office since 2001), but he is leaving an indelible mark  on this endlessly fascinating city, with urban design and public amenities. Paris Plages, his answer for those who want the beach closer than Deauville, was to truck in tons of sand, install temporary swimming pools and create a summer oasis of beach chairs. Ten years later, the summer Plages are still going strong. The bigger challenge he is tackling are the expressways along the Seine that limit public access to the river bank and make it downright dangerous to cross the road. By spring 2013, a 1.5 mile section of the Right Bank will be closed to cars from the popular Musee D’Orsay to the Pont d’Alma. A riverside park of nearly 11 acres will have floating gardens, cafes, bars and places for sports. Other roadways have already been narrowed, with marked crosswalks, wider sidewalks, and street furniture along the paths. A before-and-after slide show depicts all  the improvements. Vive Delanoe!

AMSTERDAM: Amsterdammers celebrate the city’s 737th anniversary on Oct 27. The date marks the first time in 1275 the city “Amsterdam” was mentioned by name in a document; so began the “official” history of this splendid canal city that now counts 179 nationalities among its residents.Three of Amsterdam’s famed art museums on the Museumplein (Museum Plaza) are undergoing repairs, restoration and expansion that update facilities – and add new space for collections and temporary shows.

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

The Stedelijk Museum, with some 70,000 objects in its decorative arts, graphic and industrial design collections, reopened in September after a nine-year project. Typical of Dutch humor, the 94,000 square- foot expansion by Dutch architect Mels Crouwel, has been nicknamed “the bathtub” for its gleaming white surface and tub-like shape. (Watch the video) The envelope is sheathed in a new composite material with Twaron ® fiber.  Some 2000 objects from the design collections are now on display in 13 galleries. The interior is a seamless blend of walls, flooring and finishes.

Nearby, the Rijksmuseum is completing a 10-year, 350-million euro facelift that includes a new pavilion surrounded by water and renovated garden. Museum officials were set back by the discovery of asbestos that required extensive remediation.  Reopening is scheduled for April 2013, with Rembrandt’s famed Nightwatch as the centerpiece in the galleries.

Van Gogh Museum

With 1.5 million visitors annually, the Van Gogh Museum is coming up on its 40th jubilee in 2013 and the artist’s 160th birthday. A six-month closing is underway (reopens April 2013) for a phased makeover that extends into 2014. In the meantime, 75 Van Gogh paintings and drawings are on view in the Hermitage Amsterdam.

VENICE: The 13th Venice Architecture Biennale through Nov 25 titles itself “Common Ground,” but as critic Michael Kimmelman notes “the show mostly glides over issues like public housing and health…the environment, informal settlements, economic decline….” With all of the mainstream architects in the Biennale (Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Norman Foster), there is an eye-catching project laid out with no architect: an assemblage of the Torre David/Gran Horizonte, the unfinished,  45-story office tower in Caracas that is now occupied by squatters who live without elevators and running water. U-TT, along with Justin McGuirk and Iwan Baan, have been awarded the Golden Lion for the international competition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for their Torre David  installation.

Wall mural near Christiania entrance/Courtesy WikiCommons

COPENHAGEN: Christiania, the squatter settlement that sits cheek by jowl with fashionable Nyhavn and famed restaurant Nomo, celebrated its 40th anniversary year with residents purchasing some of the land they have have occupied as a “freetown” since the 1970’s. The car-free enclave is remarkably self-sufficient with shops, huge home gardens, bike repair shops and other establishments. Some 10,000 tourists a day come to visit in high tourist season (no pun intended), a contradiction in terms – well off people come to watch people who have chosen a simpler life.

DETROIT: A city that once held 800,000 residents, Detroit has lost over one-quarter of its population and has 100,000 vacant residential and commercial lots. Some would say there’s no hope, but Richard Florida (Rise of the Creative Class; Who’s Your City?) is a believer who himself once lived in the Motor City.  He believes Detroit is attracting the artists, designers and entrepreneurs who will make the city rise again. His take: Greater Detroit is the nation’s 14th largest economy ($200 billion output, including Ann Arbor). Those who are migrating now will be “the stewards of its resurgence.”

Two powerful photography exhibitions on Detroit are running concurrently (through Feb 18 2013) at the National Building Museum in Washington DC.

Thirty monumentally scaled photographs  by Andrew Moore in Detroit Disassembled depict the windowless grand hotels, vast barren factories, collapsing churches, offices carpeted in velvety moss and entire blocks reclaimed by prairie grass. These works are both beautiful and extremely disturbing, like a film unspooling backwards.

Detroit Is No Dry Bones, with photographs by Chilean-born Camilo José Vergara, juxtaposes enormous ruins with a variety of small businesses, churches and gardens. Here is a city taken over by nature; gravity has the upper hand in these urban landscapes. (Images © by Andrew Moore and Camilo Jose Vergara)