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Designing by Flows — Jan Jongert on Plumbing the System

Jan Jongert, curator of the Dutch pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, makes the connection between water and money flows in his interpretation of the pavilion as a metaphor for system change. In this supporting article, he outlines how different streams shape the ‘metabolism’ of our buildings and cities, and how regenerative design can contribute to the creation of a system that does not depend on depletion, extraction and pollution.

By Jan Jongert,

16 May 2023

In nature, metabolism is the set of biochemical processes that occur in an organism to maintain its life, including the breakdown of food and the conversion of nutrients into energy and byproducts. When building a regenerative future – one that is not centred on the harmful extraction of resources and does not pollute the environment – we (humans) should create value with what is available: for instance, resources that are discarded from other processes, or that already flow around us in continuous abundance.

At Superuse, we distinguish 14 different flows that make up the metabolism of our buildings and cities. Materials, information, heat, people, water, and money are just some of them. As in nature, we believe that designing regenerative cities depends on how successful we are at creating mutually beneficial relations between these flows, and how we recreate ecosystems in which humans are positive actors. This requires that the flows are transparent and made available in our direct surroundings.

Aerial photo of building on a coastline, with unconventional building shapes and grass, trees and plants.

Office of Superuse at BlueCity, Rotterdam.

Hiding flows

In past centuries, many of the flows were cut loose from their natural cycles and made invisible in our building designs. Heating is cast into concrete floors, fresh air enters via ducts in a suspended ceiling, electricity is visible only as a socket to power your tools. The same goes for cities, which hide the production processes of food and waste extraction and treatment, accommodating them in fenced boxes in industrial zones outside the city limits or even on other continents.

This decision has given designers an increased freedom to create environments that are seemingly independent of, and untouched by, the environment they are built in. In the meantime, inhabitants lose connection to their surroundings and the processes that sustain their lives. Even more than industrial processes, natural processes are isolated in closed-off environments where we can spend our free time. Now and then natural disasters disturb the ideal space we live in. These, though, are regarded as temporal anomalies that can and will be brought under control with even more – hidden – technology.

The flow of water

Water – a primary source of life – has been treated similarly to most other flows. Rainwater falls on our roofs that are shaped to efficiently direct the flow into drains that immediately empty into the sewers. The relatively clean water is mixed with debris and invisibly merged with other flows below our streets. Enormous volumes of water are transported over long distances as they need to be cleaned in distant purification plants.

With heavy rainfall the sewers often overflow, polluting surface water – which would not happen were the rainfall to stay above ground instead of entering the sewage system to begin with. After purification, drinking water is transported to our homes, again over large distances, at best serving as drinking water but often flushing a toilet, washing our clothes or watering plants in dried-out gardens and parks. Using rainwater directly could have served this purpose, too. Since we lack the infrastructure in houses or neighbourhoods to directly put water to use, people now depend on a technological solution that denies them a position of control or power.

A visualisations of the complex flow of water, with flows streaming in and out of the system

Schematic depiction of a resilient neighbourhood's waterflow. Image: Superuse, 2009

The flow of money

Our economy is another human-made system, which is even more complex and hidden from sight. Where (the value) of water is immediately drained, most of the value that money creates does not even have a relation to human production. Even though the value of money starts with human activity, the benefits are kept and multiplied behind closed doors and the revenues circulated in a virtual network of exchanges and markets that are inaccessible for most. The debt-driven premise of the financial system makes everyone rely on institutions that are not publicly controlled. Until – just like a natural disaster – an institution fails and is saved by national governments putting up undisclosed procedures and taxpayers’ money.

The debt- and interest-based system also pushes the economy to grow beyond its limits. This results in more production and more extraction of resources. Growth is often referred to as a natural process but, rest assured, a tree does not grow eternally. When a tree reaches the limits of its capacity it keeps on living at roughly the same size in balance with its surroundings. Our economy exceeded that balance many decades ago.

“ Growth is often referred to as a natural process but, rest assured, a tree does not grow eternally. ”

- Jan Jongert

A circular economy is not natural

At Superuse, we have studied the route and cascading of (resource) flows since our foundation in 1997. We found waste resources from buildings and industries to be a perfect means to try and reverse how we design buildings and build our spaces. Using the remains of our consumption brings value to invisible flows and into plain sight. It requires innovation and partners to operate differently, and it changes the sterile esthetics that dominated the 1990s.

Currently our approach is usually categorised under ‘circular design’, part of the circular economy. However, we strive for an open, dynamic exchange between different actors in an ecosystem, as we consider it a misunderstanding that natural systems are by default circular: a leaf fallen from a tree never ends up as a leaf on the tree again. While the circular economy centres on a product or service, for us the process is key: cascading resources with a multiplicity of value. Finding the highest possible purpose for the leaf, not sticking it on the tree again. The Blue Economy became our most fertile ground for testing different modes of collaboration. Our office in Rotterdam is in BlueCity, where its 60 entrepreneurs share in this ultimate laboratory to create an urban metabolism with all 14 flows.

Two graphs: the growth chart of an oak tree and the development of world GDP.

The growth of an oak tree stops at roughly 20% of its lifespan. Image: Superuse

A start-up for 25 years

In 1997 Superuse was founded on the hope that a simple reversal of resource flows would help to grow a parallel economy that would become at least as profitable as the dominant economy. But we had underestimated the driving power of business as usual: the ongoing and increasing investments into the optimisation of continuous growth processes. The drivers of this economy are cheap new resources and expensive labour, therefore designs and investments into sustainable systems often turn out to be unaffordable. Refusing to accept this dominating force, Superuse has operated for 25 years as if that future economy is already here. Since governments have so far not dared to make the necessary fundamental changes, Superuse has remained a start-up and will probably continue to be one until the economic context changes.

The power of imagination

Most of us will see the systems that have been constructed around water and money flows as a given. Even the most critical among us would consider the current systems merely in need of improvement or expansion. Until someone has the guts to unravel the complexity of systems and to combine this with the creativity to invent a common language to communicate the findings. This is what Carlijn Kingma and her team have spent for two years working on, combining the investigative skills of journalists with the imaginative mind of an architect. Kingma used her deep structural understanding of construction to draw our money system as water.

This flow is not there to be drained: please use it to take a cold shower and get to work to create the future you’d like to give water, and grow into reality.

Detailed black-and-white drawing of complex watersystem

The Waterworks of Money by Carlijn Kingma

About Jan Jongert / Superuse

Architect Jan Jongert graduated from the Rotterdam Academy of Architecture in 2003. He is a co-founder of the architecture office Superuse. As a designer of interiors and buildings, Jongert works on tactics to enable the transition to a responsible society. With Superuse, he develops tools and processes and realises concrete projects that stimulate local exchange and production, as an alternative to transporting raw materials, products and parts all over the world, whereby much is lost unnecessarily. Jongert is mainly concerned with ‘flows’, both in interiors and in urban areas and in industry. He studies how they progress and builds new cross-connections and shortcuts that provide ecosystems with alternative new value. Currently a senior researcher at Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, Jongert also teaches system design for various architecture and design master’s degree courses worldwide.

Plumbing the System is on view in at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, running from May 20 to November 26 2023.