How an integrated approach to planning conference centres can enhance urban social networks

Conference centres need to find additional value beyond their core purpose. They could be transformed into multipurpose buildings that are sustainable, inviting and connected to metropolitan city life. UNStudio has an outspoken vision on future-oriented conference centres. For a short period in 2021 and 2022, the RAI Convention Centre in Amsterdam became a pivotal place in the city, on a magnitude of life and death. Usually a collection of large, inhuman scale buildings, with programme that has little relevance to everyday life, RAI became a key destination for all Amsterdammers. We went in droves, not to learn about innovations in car manufacturing, or about the latest trends on flower arrangement, but first to get a life-saving vaccine, and then to greet refugees from war-torn Ukraine. All of a sudden, RAI became a place of salvation. Walking through the bare halls, while queueing for my vaccination passport to be stamped, I wondered, how could we re-integrate conference centres into our cities to an extent that goes beyond once in a lifetime events?

The legacy of conference centres

The conference centre and expo space is at its roots a place for celebration of innovation and ideas. It is an inherently public space designed for collective activities. A ‘universal space’, as the Swiss architect Mies van der Rohe labelled it, it is a symbol of modernity, some may say, of democracy itself, allowing for various people and uses to fill it at any time for various purposes. From the World Fair of 1851 at the Crystal Palace to the 2020 Dubai Expo, the conference centre accommodates a coming together of people and ideas in a dynamic, adaptable space. As a building typology, the conference centre requires large, uninterrupted, flexible and uniformly serviced spaces, and has more in common with a shed as any other building type. While its outer envelope is fixed, a reconfiguration of smaller spaces inside can be planned. A conference centre’s functional value, the provision of large flexible spaces well connected to a global transport network, is also its greatest challenge when thinking about its relation to the city. As if ignoring the outside world, conference centres stand apart from the urban surrounding. Conference centres often feature tall, blank facades and are separated from street networks by vast parking lots and wide infrastructure ramps for delivery trucks. When not attracting tens of thousands of people for a specific event, they tend to stand dark, surrounded by vast empty space. With the cost of energy rising and with an increasing transition into remote communication, conference centres need to find additional value beyond their core purpose. They could be transformed into multipurpose buildings that are sustainable, inviting and connected to metropolitan city life. They should become an integrated part of an urban system, capitalising on social, energetic, and functional synergies, to become valued places within neighbourhoods, and by that fulfilling their legacy as democratic, universal places.

The power of design to bring people together

We can imagine the conference centre as an everyday destination for people by focusing on human scale, designing with sustainability in mind, and offering a mix of uses that can host activities at various times of the day and night. Design for people should include a sense of discovery and possibility by offering opportunities for collaboration and learning. Conference centres should cease to be solely energy consuming but use their large roof surfaces for energy production, rainwater collection and greenery to support biodiversity. They should directly link to local public transport networks and micro mobility solutions to discourage the use of cars. They should be part of a circular system of waste and recycling, and aim to tap into local commerce initiatives. By using a toolbox of design principles, designers and developers may be able to infuse urban conference centres with a new identity and role:
  • Plan for optimisation of land-use from a metropolitan perspective;
  • Plan for multipurpose versatility that can offer a variety of experiences;
  • Integrate technology that can bring together physical and digital realms, offer interactivity, and provide tech enabled ecosystem for efficient use;
  • Create a social hub by integrating local community events;
  • Increase market value for the surrounding area by providing valued visitors year round financial sustainability through various types of economic support to the community;
  • Integrate a sustainable and innovative road map that includes e-mobility, circular materials, energy independence though solar panels and energy hub for the neighbourhood, while focusing on social sustainability by training, inclusive and diverse hiring practices.
While re-imagining the conference centre, the neighbourhood around it can respond with its own innovative urban design approach:
  • Provide outdoor public space for spill-over activities;
  • Generate a lively neighbourhood with a dense mix of functions for locals as well as visitors;
  • Provide smart infrastructure – capitalise on the opportunity to link the conference centre with public and smart mobility.

An integrated approach to conference centre design

At UNStudio, we specialise in sustainable and innovative design of cities and buildings. With over 30 years of experience, we have contributed to cities’ growth and identity by designing places and spaces that ensure health and prosperity. “For us”, commented Ben van Berkel, UNStudio’s founder, “sustainability and technology is essential in the design process. It is both a design tool and a way to better understand how cities operate and what people’s needs are.” The studio has recently completed two visions for future-oriented conference centres in the Netherlands. For the Brainport Congress Centre in Eindhoven we brought an innovative approach to sustainability through technology. First, by featuring a wooden staircase with vertical green gardens we were able to introduce a healthier indoor environment. For the exterior of the congress centre, we brought together timber and glass facade that is able to capture nitrogen-dioxide through absorbing surfaces – an innovative nanotechnology that can capture pollutants from its surroundings. For a recent concept study of a future-oriented conference and expo centre, we put a focus on social sustainability. We suggested to enhance the programme of the conference centre with co-working spaces, retail and amenities that can serve the surrounding emerging neighbourhoods. We have also offered an outdoor public space that can be shared by residents and conference visitors alike. With an enhanced micro-mobility system of bikes, Segways and shuttles from a nearby train station, this urban conference will become a destination for every day as well as for exceptional occasions.

Conference cities of the future

Conference centres around the world are slowly picking up their regular schedule, with dental expos, container shipping shows and the like. When we think about the future of conference centres and the potential they have, to be integrated in greater metropolitan areas and urban places, we can already imagine a flexible use of the space that may serve city users’ needs. As planners and developers, we must build to last longer than the event and leave a lasting legacy. With an innovation toolbox that is multi-scaler we can revolutionize the conference centre on a neighbourhood and building scale, improving management and staff wellbeing, and delivering an enhanced experience for visitors and residents alike. Dana Behrman is an Associate Director and Senior Urban Designer at UNStudio. Based in Amsterdam, she has been practicing as an urban designer for the past fifteen years in several award-winning international offices. She is currently a teaching associate at Harvard GSD, teaching a design studio together with Ben van Berkel.
What is UNStudio?
UNStudio, founded in 1988 by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, is an international design network specialising in architecture, interior architecture, product design, urban planning and infrastructural projects. Its mission is to design for lasting impact and contribute to the societal challenges of urbanisation, climate change, ageing populations and socioeconomic inequality. "We create value by designing places that make our lives healthier, have little impact on the planet, and have a lasting positive impact on our cities and people."

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