By Carola Hein from Delft University of Technology
In the next 50 years, energy will probably be unrecognizably different, and the end of oil and the rise of renewable energies will bring about entirely new ways of living. We are already in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution of technological progress, particularly in artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, and quantum computation. These new technologies and new energies will revolutionize all fields of knowledge as well as logistics and transport, reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and human environments. Taken together, with the end of oil and the rapid transformation of our work and everyday life, we are facing great uncertainty. We could try to patch up the situation that we are in now — funding failing refineries, for example, or paying locally to clean up after the global oil industry. But at TU Delft we have instead started to develop pathways to future urban spaces.
How will we overcome oil?
The task is large. Petroleum is all around us, in products ranging from car fuel to asphalt, from building materials to clothing, from medicine to cosmetics. It has influenced our ways of living over the last 150 years, shaping the economy, the environment and the climate, and society. Each time technology rendered a petroleum product obsolete — think of lighting fuel — chemists developed a new one that would create new global demands and also feed them. As petroleum became ubiquitous, it also transformed the built environment around us. Tangible results of petroleum power include many structures: refineries and oil storage along ports, as well as headquarters of oil companies, gas stations, bridges, rail and road infrastructure. Together they form a network linking existing cities and blurring traditional boundaries between urban and rural spaces, between nations and continents. This network forms a kind of landscape, or what we might call a global petroleumscape. In turn, it helps sustain petroleum-based consumption and production flows.
In part because petroleum products structure our environment, and in part because this arrangement is so profitable to some big companies and countries, the oil era will probably not end soon. Nonetheless, we must engage with what climate change and the rise of renewable energies will mean for our everyday life and the spaces that we use. Changing the energy landscape means dismantling the petroleumscape, reusing major parts of it where possible. It means cleaning up very polluted industrial sites, reconfiguring many levels of infrastructure, and repurposing everything oil-related. It also means establishing new narratives about architectures of oil as part of the past rather than part of a story of progress. We will also change our approach to heritage buildings. To imagine architecture and urbanism beyond oil and to develop transition strategies to get there, we need to start by asking: Where do we come from and where do we want to be in 50 years?
What are the transition possibilities?
Building on the historical reflection, the studio we co-taught with Henri van Bennekom asks students to reflect on emerging energy sources. In replacing oil, and in parallel with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, how specifically might they reorganize the spatial relationship between city and nature? We push them to reimagine the relationships between landscape, energy, infrastructure, technologies, and global-local economies. Post-oil scenarios must do something with the many layers of the existing petroleumscape: its material and immaterial flows, its infrastructure, the historic city, the dispersed city, the landscape, and so on. But such scenarios will also contain new urban spaces, such as walkable neighborhoods or spaces that cater to new sustainable lifestyles, or new urban functions generated as automation takes over existing tasks and provides people with more leisure time. We also engage with these questions through architectural and urban design.
Moreover, we invite students to imagine transition strategies. Our first cohorts of students designed plans to clean up and redevelop the port and city of Rotterdam, and to preserve relevant heritage buildings (fig. 1 and 2). They drew a comic strip depicting a Rotterdam in which water is the main commodity and oil sites are heritage sites and tourist attractions, just as Dutch canals and windmills started out as engineering devices and have since become tourist attractions. Other studio projects are considering the transformation of Dunkerque and Curacao beyond oil, fostering community engagement and nurturing the necessary narratives for rethinking urban life.
In light of the profound changes that are starting to transform the way we live in the city, travel, and meet people, the studio identifies scenarios of change and invites students to think about the long term and the role that urban space plays in regard to energy transition and lifestyle changes. Can we regenerate existing spaces and stories to make them work for us now?