Self-driving vehicles, automated cranes and a variety of interfaces have been doing the work in the APM container terminal in the Maasvlakte II area in the port of Rotterdam since 2015, maximizing the handling of containers with unprecedented performance and productivity.
The machines follow instructions from a Terminal Operating System, while being supervised by humans in control rooms. On the surrounding logistical landscape, physical barriers and security checkpoints separate the realm of human bodies from that of semi-autonomous machines. At the same time, this smooth, self-managed logistical infrastructure has negative effects on job security for port workers, who took industrial action over increasing automation.
Maasvlakte II, the latest territorial expansion of the port of Rotterdam, boasts to be home of the two most technologically advanced container terminals in the world: the APM Terminals and Rotterdam World Gateway. Their landlord, the Port of Rotterdam Authority, moved by ambitious goals to become the greenest and most competitive port in the world, imposed very high demands in terms of sustainability and efficiency on new companies aspiring to lease its land. In particular, automation technologies were signaled as the panacea for achieving a radically efficient use of land, time, and energy in port operations. With automated processes requiring new kinds of machines, facilities, and workers, these logistical spaces are perfect case studies of automated workplaces and their broader socio-spatial implications.
The absence of information and the opaqueness of corporations complicates reporting on industrial spaces. Building a case on the automated terminals in Maasvlakte II could not be done in a straightforward manner, as our research was effectively impeded by its companies. Moreover, the fact that the terminals are highly securitized environments limited another common research practice, that of field observation, to a bus ride within the context an public tour into the grounds of APM Terminals. It was eventually for the reason that Rotterdam World Gateway was not part of this tour that the study focused on APM. Alternative sources of data and architectural knowledge had to be used to model and represent its spaces and conditions. These sources liberate architectural research from traditional ways of measuring and re-constructing spaces, such as fieldwork, surveying, or research in architecture archives. Our study draws on fragments of information, data, and episodes acquired from secondary, publicly accessible resources that allow one to reconstruct the container terminal by assembling discrete elements using architectural methods from the outside in.
Het Nieuwe Instituut's research on the container terminal was presented in the form of an installation at How Will We Work?, an exhibition curated by the University of Applied Arts in Vienna in cooperation with the Vienna Biennale 2017. In 2018, the research continued as part of WORK BODY LEISURE at the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice, manifested in an essay and installation at the Dutch Pavilion.
Research department, Het Nieuwe Instituut: Marina Otero Verzier, Víctor Muñoz Sanz, Marten Kuijpers and Grace Abou Jaoudeh.