Envisioning a transformation of Amsterdam’s Urban Conference and Exhibition Center: a paradigm shift for maximizing social, ecological, and economic value.

Teachers: Kalisvaart, Mastenbroek, Go, Harwell
Studio ‘Clients’: Riemens (CEO RAI) and Bunnik, Gout (City of Amsterdam)

RAI Amsterdam, the Netherlands premier international meeting place, will be transformed to become a vibrant urban conference facility and a resilient part of the city’s urban fabric. Rather than turning its back to the adjacent park and residential neighborhood, city-leadership and the RAI (CEO and shareholders) seek to integrate its facilities better with the immediate 1930’s surroundings and the new South Axis CBD. Open spaces and park are to be reimagined as inviting public spaces, offering diverse opportunities for community engagement. Pedestrian and bicycle pathways will be prioritized, ensuring safe and attractive connections for all modes of transportation. The RAI area has the potential to transform into a vibrant living-room for the neighborhood, without compromising its meeting-business.

In this Bass development studio, students will create a bold long-term vision for a transformation that inspires all stakeholders, taking account of the economic, ecological, and societal consequences of design decisions, and think about the strategies of how to get there. The latter half of the studio shifts focus to the architectural expression of part of the plan. We will focus on the development of the section as a method to reveal information on the proportions of urban space and explore infrastructure and multilayered connections. At the end of the studio, its results will be exhibited to the public in Amsterdam and play an important role in public discussions with key decision-makers about the RAI’s future transformation. Thereby the students’ designs will gain relevance and visibility.

The studio’s findings will contribute to a body of knowledge on the transformation of large, mono-functional facilities into vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods, offering valuable insights for urban planners and policymakers. Additionally, the studio will reinforce the architect’s role in sustainable urban development, advocating for equitable, resilient, and environmentally conscious design solutions.

1. History

The RAI has a rich history. It was founded in 1893 by a group of bicycle manufacturers, and it originally held bicycle trade shows. The current RAI complex was built in the 1950s and is partially listed as a ‘post-war reconstruction monument. With 1.1 million square feet it is the Netherlands’ largest conference and exhibition center.

Once planned and constructed on the outskirts of the city, it now borders a popular residential 1930’s neighborhood master-planned by Berlage and built in the Amsterdam School Architectural style, an urban park, the main business district, and the ring road. The RAI is now located close the center of Amsterdam. However, over the last century is has ballooned into a tangled complex and infrastructural knot, detaching itself from its surroundings.

The RAI complex has grown steadily over more than sixty years under the constant guidance of its first architect, Alexander Boden, and subsequently the architectural firm Benthem & Crouwel (BNTHMCRWL). The development, too focused on the optimal functioning of a modernist exhibition complex ‘in itself’, prevented it from becoming an essential and integrated part of the city. This is neither a surprise nor unique. Separation of functions and logistical efficiency were leading themes for decades, especially when it comes to ‘private territory’. However, a city is of course much more than the sum of individual parts.

Looking through one’s eyelashes one sees the equivalent of and industrial complex. Only, no industrial processes take place here as nothing is made here; instead, one and a half million people meet here and communicate about countless matters, while the share of entertainment is steadily increasing.

The role (and value) of this prominent function and location in the city center is being reconsidered. It is no longer just based on an assessment of the RAI’s economic contribution to the city, but more so how the RAI site and its activities interact with the rest of the city.

One observation is that all ‘clutter’ (construction and dismantling of exhibitions and most logistic movements) takes place at the visible perimeter of the complex, while human interaction takes place completely out of sight in the interior of the complex.

A second observation is the lack of any link or reference to the surrounding neighborhoods and Beatrix Park. Well, the elephant (bike) path is one.

2. The Challenge

The RAI has a significant impact on its surroundings, both positive and negative. The conference and exhibition center attracts an average of 1.5 million visitors per year, which generates economic activity in the form of employment and visitor spending in hotels and restaurants. However, the center also contributes to urban and regional congestion, carbon emissions, water usage and the large single-story events halls, extensive parking-lots and lack of greenery adds to the city’s heat-stress. Moreover, its single program makes very inefficient use of scarce developable land in the Amsterdam metropolitan region, where a huge shortage of housing of all kinds exists. What does the above means for RAI’s future?

This Bass Development Studio will investigate the RAI’s aspirations and challenge the assertion that there is no space for large conference and exhibition centers in cities.

“The twentieth century took architecture to lofty new heights. But supported by densification and technological progress, buildings became minimalist containers. However, we are witnessing a resurrection of ideas, once dismissed as utopian, expensive, uneconomical or impractical. As early as 1952, Le Corbusier pulled communal space from an apartment block and placed it on the roof in the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. But it has taken over fifty years for the fifth elevation, the roof, to become a highly coveted surface. Today, the roof is experiencing a renaissance, and luckily capitalizing on its added value is not about rolling out a green carpet, but about creating complete and complex landscapes.“

3. "It’s the Economy, Stupid”

As coined by James Carville in ’92, when the RAI had its centenary.

As mentioned above, economic considerations are not the only drivers for continuing this quite successful event location; it has now become necessary to redesign it to become an integrated part of the city of Amsterdam by adding other urban program, reorganizing logistics of trucks (and cars), and adding much needed slow traffic connections. As parklike as possible and/or at least much better connected with the adjacent and attractive Beatrix Park. As isolated event space it could rather sit at the perimeter of the city.

Be aware that for generating support of any transformation at this scale, in addition to creating economic value, it may be even more important to underline social and ecological values and include these in your proposal. There are many subsidies for sustainable and socially important developments in the Netherlands. Not everything is left to the market and there is a very strong collaboration between the municipality and the developer, with supervisors and quality teams playing a decisive role.

4. Program

Amsterdam is in dire need of affordable housing and the addition of green spaces to avoid heat stress and to buffer rainwater. Climate change also forces us to redesign and reorganize the building process in every detail. Biobased is the norm. A growing number of single households asks for adequate places to encounter each-other at the urban level. Rearrangement of the total event floor space (in whatever way) is possible but comes with major financial challenges. The efficiency and flexibility in the use of those spaces is of course important. But hey, no guts no glory.

Questions we will ask include:

  • How could the RAI become multi- rather than mono-functional? To what extend and how do we include new uses, such as (permanent or temporary) housing, offices and/or public programs, around the topics of energy, logistics, water, energy and related education. How do we incorporate green space?
  • How can the facilities better meet the current needs of its conference goers and meeting guests, and can flexibility be improved in the use of both existing and new spaces?
  • How can the RAI and amenities become more accessible to local residents and its facilities become better connected to the city? How could amenities and public space be added to serve the community as a whole?
  • What strategies can the RAI adopt to become both a permanent knowledge hub and a place to incidentally meet?
  • How can the masterplan and building designs respond to current and future needs in a cost effective and environmentally sound manner (flexibility, circularity, re-use etc.)?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities for the RAI to become carbon neutral/positive and contribute to the city council’s goals on biodiversity and climate, meeting pre-determined standards on circularity, nature inclusivity, heat stress and energy?
  • How could disturbance from parking, logistics, crowding and noise on the surroundings be reduced?

5. Methodology

After a compact analysis, resulting in a schematic layout of the most important principles for the current assignments, you will use the 3Dcityplanner platform to investigate what the design principles mean for the financial outcome. What are the consequences of demolition-new construction, phasing, and densification? Your work won’t be limited to computer modelling. Currently the site is best recorded in a map. It is also a bit of a pancake with only a few high accents, the ‘Elicium’, ‘Atrium’ and parking garage P4.

Quite often, ‘the plan’ doesn’t tell us a lot. Yes, it gives us input on the amount of Sq.ft. but it won’t give us a lot of information about ‘space’, 3D feeling, let’s say architecture through light and space. The section often reveals much more information and tells us definitely more about the proportions of urban space. It also tells us much more about (underground) infrastructure and multilayered connections. It can give us more insight into the decoupling of traffic flows that should not be mixed, such as the paying visitor of an event and a cycling city dweller.

We will focus on the section (or, if so, axonometric, perspective and model) and part of what you produce is done in a (hand) sketching, design-exploring manner. Best in color. As Mikkel Frost from CEBRA architects said (and made a book about); we build drawings.

Architects don’t build. They communicate their ideas through drawings (and sometimes text, but history has shown that this does not always have the most desirable outcome ;-).

At one point during this studio, you will experience the effectiveness of your (drawn) output when one of your ‘essential’ design drawings and/or schemes will be presented by one of your fellow students. The outcome including the following discussions can be hilarious, fun (and instructive!) to experience.

Do people see what I meant, or do they mainly see what they want to see?

In real life, presenting urban development proposals and building plans is often accompanied by many (unnecessary) emotions and understanding the needs of the spectator is essential. The listener is usually a local resident who sees his familiar environment changing. Or a client with a wallet and who can be just as insecure.

But! Not only the creator has limitations in transferring information.

Listeners also have difficulty assessing the value of a good proposal.

6. Schedule

  • After a first week of analysis of the RAI site based on our input and a visit to Javits Centre, Manhattan we will proceed with precedent analysis of suggested similar convention locations including transformed post-industrial locations from the 19th and 20th century with reuse of existing buildings and densification.
  • Until travel week you’ll work on a concept programmatic & urban design.
  • Travel week* will focus on The Netherlands with opportunities to learn from and interact with the actual stakeholders and includes a presentation of your first concepts to the municipality and RAI at the end of the week.
  • Until midsemester review you will focus on the design of the overall urban scheme. Halfway the last stretch you will focus on an important section/drawing that will be presented by one of your fellow students. The outcome will be reviewed with the group.
  • The time between midterm and final review you can zoom in on the architectural expression of part of the plan including your urban layout that might have changed due to new insights.

Travel week will include visits to the site and neighboring quarters, with buildings by OMA, MVRDV and SeARCH. Further options for travel week will include a visit to the Rotterdam roof initiative, STUDIORAP fabrication workshop and various recent innovative residential and commercial projects in The Netherlands, designed by both established architects and more recent start-up architects and landscape designers. And of course, there is ample time to explore the planning and architectural history (De Klerk, Berlage etc.) of Amsterdam and to enjoy the diverse F&B - and cultural offerings of the city. You will be comfortably housed in the wood-structure Jakarta Hotel on Java Island, designed by SeARCH, and visit their offices on the Northern IJ-banks.

7. The Bass Studio Team

The aim of the Bass fellowship is to bring private and public-sector clients to YSoA and to give students insight into the “real-world” development process and the architect’s role on a development team. This studio addresses this objective by letting the studio work on a “real-life” development in which developer, client/owner and the city of Amsterdam are committed to investigate the integration and future character of the RAI.

Developer Isaäc Kalisvaart has transformed urban areas in different countries (a.o. De Rotterdam with OMA, Frankfurt Hoch Vier and MyZeil, Westergasfabriek and ODE Amsterdam, Les Allées Provençales in Aix en Provence, Riverdistrict Portland Oregon) and has previously taught several studios at Yale. Isaäc is not your ‘traditional commercial developer’. His views on ‘the developer as producer of urban quality’ (YSoA 2013) go far beyond the financial feasibility of projects and are rooted in his firm believe that Development is about adding value to the city for all stakeholders and not just about adding square feet. He has brought together a new team for this Bass Studio, with Dutch architect Bjarne Mastenbroek of SeARCH and concept developer Erik Go of ONE.GO.

Bjarne Mastenbroek is a strong advocate and pioneer of timber architecture and over the last 30 years he has established an architectural practice characterized by a continuous exploration into the intimate and reciprocal relationship between architecture and site. Notable works include Villa Vals in Switzerland, Hotel Jakarta & IJDock on Amsterdam’s waterfront and the recently published book, Dig it!

Erik Go leverages his expertise in design and development to stimulate synergy between architects and developers. His work is grounded in the understanding that successful projects require a seamless interplay of concept, storytelling, spatial and functional quality, along with solid evaluations of market viability. Noteworthy projects include 11SQ and the Booking.com campus in Amsterdam, Paris Batignolles, as well as multiple collaborations with Isaäc Kalisvaart.

Andrei Harwell, architect, urban designer and design educator for over 20 years and the head of Yale’s urban design workshop.

On behalf of the Amsterdam municipality, supervisor Paco Bunnik and project manager Anneke Gout will share knowledge on the Amsterdam urban master-planning at large and specifically the planning on the Zuidas Central Business District Area, in which the RAI site is positioned. The RAI’s CEO Paul Riemens and his team will share their goals with the students and engage in discussions of the various plans and architectural designs.

We aim to give you insights into the development process and allow you to explore your role as an architect in that process. This entails comprehending the underlying issues and obstacles, as well as determining what adds financial value considering the perspectives of various stakeholders. Throughout the semester, you will be asked to conduct research, develop strategies, substantiate, and visualize ideas and adapt them based on input from the various participants in de process.

While financial feasibility and the business case are driving forces in any real estate development, in this studio we will use them as design tools through an AI platform rather than as a final product. The studio’s end products will focus on the narrative, strategy, masterplan, and architectural design of one or more buildings.

All Semesters

Spring 2023
Advanced Design Studio: Re-Imagining Empire State Plaza
Stella Betts, Brett Schneider
Spring 2022
Advanced Design Studio: Paradise Not Quite Lost
Mark Foster Gage