His work was also heavily influenced by Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch master of urban design. When Koolhaas was recruited to teach at the TU Delft, it was dominated by a type of left-wing dictatorship, Christiaanse recalls. “Back then we spent more time politicising than drawing plans.” All that changed when Koolhaas arrived, recently returned from New York. He put the emphasis back on draughtsmanship and championed atmospheric designs, as well as precise model construction.
When Koolhaas established his architectural practice OMA in Rotterdam, he offered the student Christiaanse a three-month internship. This led to him working with Koolhaas for eight and a half years. He remembers: “We were on a Children’s Crusade. Despite the lack of any real experience, we competed for urban planning projects across the entire globe.” After five years, OMA had established itself internationally and 50 people worked in the office. Christiaanse was so preoccupied, he almost forgot to complete his studies.
HafenCity Hamburg and Science City ETH
By 1989 the time had come to move out of the shadow of his mentor, nine years his senior. Christiaanse set up his own practice “KCAP Architects & Planners”, which today employs over 100 architects, urban planners and specialists in offices in Zurich, Rotterdam and Shanghai. A string of megaprojects followed, such as the master plan for HafenCity in Hamburg in 2003, a project intended to expand the city centre by 40 percent. Works are scheduled for completion by 2030. Anyone involved in urban planning needs to have a very long-term horizon: the process from the initial master plan through to approval by the authorities, the selection of architects for the project and the start of construction work can often take several decades.
Christiaanse and his team have also been involved in shaping Zurich’s urban landscape: he was responsible for the master plan “Science City ETH” for the Hönggerberg campus. He was also commissioned by Swiss Railways (SBB) and the City of Zurich to draw up a master plan for the new Europaallee development next to Zurich’s main railway station. Due for completion in 2020, this covers an area of 78,000m
in a prime city centre site that will host 8,000 offices, 400 rental and owner-occupied apartments and 76 shops retail units.
Zurich residents have called for a referendum on the project, partly due to concerns about gentrification and escalating rents. Christiaanse is sympathetic to their concerns – he probably would have had a similar response when he was a student. At the same time, he stresses the limited influence of planners: “With such projects, we always suggest allocating 25-30% of the floor space to affordable housing,” he says. “But ultimately the decision is obviously up to the client.” Even so, venues such as the Kosmos cultural centre prove to him that the Europaallee project still has elements of an Open City.
Urge for complexity
When asked what he will miss most on leaving ETH, Christiaanse doesn’t have to think for very long: “My team!”. One of the ingredients in ETH’s recipe for success is the ability of architecture professors to put together their own research group. “When I started in Zurich, there was not a single practice specialising in urban planning,” he recalls. “Now there are at least five, and all their founders are my former students and assistants.” He often comes up against former students in architectural competitions as well, but that never bothers him: “The great thing about urban planning is that it thrives on experience.”
How to effectively moderate complex processes involving dozens of planners, investors, politicians and specialists is not something that can be learned at university, but takes years of practice. So he is not thinking about retirement, but instead wants to satisfy his urge for complexity. KCAP has just received an enquiry from China. The city centre of Shenzhen – a metropolis of 13 million people spanning an area of 80 km
– has to be analysed from an urban design perspective and a master plan drawn up for the next ten years. This would be the biggest urban planning project that Christiaanse has ever been involved in. “As you can see, not much will change once I retire from ETH,” he says with an impish grin.