Interviewed: Daan Roosegaarde Invents the Roads of Tomorrow

Have you ever driven down a dark road, in the middle of the night, looked to your right or left, and noticed how beautiful the road’s lines were? Me neither. Have you pedaled your bike down a path and then stopped in your tracks to take in the haunting magnificence of the path’s aesthetics? Again, neither have I.

But that might be because we haven’t been to the Netherlands lately. Daan Roosegaarde, a Dutch designer, artist, and inventor thinks that our roads and landscapes should be smart, sustainable and beautiful. Recently Roosegaarde and his team unveiled a glowing bike path in Nuenen, Netherlands, where painter Vincent Van Gogh lived and worked during the late 1800’s. The 1km path is inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and features thousands of solar powered twinkling stones to light the cyclists path. The Van Gogh path is the second in Roosegaarde’s Smart Highways Series, made up of “interactive and sustainable roads of tomorrow.”

         

(Roosegaarde's "Van Gogh Path" in Nuenen, NL. Courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde)

I recently talked with Roosegaarde on the phone. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation, which started when I asked what’s been inspiring him as of late.

Roosegaarde: I think it happens on a weekly basis. These days it’s related to things which pop-up from nature. The notion of biomimicry. What can we learn from the existing world around us and apply it in the world of today? You have this incredibly fascinating movie of this gigantic ant hill which they poured concrete in and they start to dig all the ground around it away. You get this amazing tunnel complex that the ants created. So how to create complex systems in an intense environment. I think that was something that triggered my brain.

When you apply that to how we design our current cities, it’s still quite brutal. So there you see the notion of technology as an enabler for us human beings, but if we’re not creative, or we’re disconnected from what Marshall McLuhan once said, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” So it’s sort of where these two world meet for me.

I think that’s a huge principle, right, that we’re not passengers we’re active members. We’re part of the crew. With the design work that you’re doing. How do you see everyday citizens who don’t necessarily have a background in design, figuring out ways to get involved in planning?

There are different levels to engage. One hand there’s the pure experience of it. You’re walking through Central Station Amsterdam having your moment of intimacy with this very raw, hard public space. 50 million visitors per year but everyone sort of tries to get away of this incredibly beautiful building as soon as possible. So to create this moment of silence. (He's refering to his "Rainbow Station" project, which you can see a photo of below).

Also, the Van Gogh bicycle path where you can experience this cultural heritage by cycling through an interpretation of one of his paintings. So that’s a more immersive experience. But on the other hand, it’s about realizing that indeed we’re not just consumers, which are able to press down a button, but we’re also semi-producers. We can make stuff to personalize the world around us. So the notion of saying, roads can be more than just super functional things we look at everyday. That sort of thinking. That’s the feedback I get. People say, oh if you can do that we can also do this and this.

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(Roosegaarde's "Rainbow Station" in Amsterdam. Photo courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde)

You’ve talked about how, when we talk about mobility, everybody focuses on the car.  And so much less on the roads. What is it about the way you think about design, that makes you focus on the roads as, what you call, “an interface of information, of experience.”

It’s part of our landscape and our landscape, especially here, where we live below sea level in the Netherlands, landscape is also culture. Not just fact sheets. So it’s man or woman made. We’re working now on the Afsluitdijk, an iconic 32 km dyke which protects the land from the sea, from the north sea. On one hand it’s functional. But the other hand it’s something that we’re proud of, that people tell stories about. So the notion of the landscape is an expression. And also it’s something that you leave behind for the next generation. And also the way cities are designed influences quite heavily how people interact with each other, how they experience themselves and the world around them. So the object comes and goes but the landscape stays. When you look at urban design, a lot of it is still dominated by this sort of machine type of thinking. So maybe I’m trying to sort of hack or infiltrate that thinking and give it a more poetic or more human side.

Do you feel like you have partners in poetry?

The fun part actually is there are different partners involved. Some out of love for the future. Some out of pure desperation because they feel old systems are crashing and new ones still have to be explored. With each project, I always find some kind of partner or people who are interested to engage. Either it’s the city or a mayor or an entrepreneur, an infrastructure company or road manufacturer.

         

(Roosegaarde's "Smart Highway" in which the road's solar-powered glowing lines charge during the day. Photo courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde)

When you were in design school, how has what you thought you wanted to do, matched up with what you find yourself working on today?

For me, life was always liquid. For me, space itself was not a sum of walls, doors and windows. I always wondered why it was so static, so distant, so disconnected from how I behave or how I feel. So in a way, sustainable dance floor was a part of that. Ok, we’ll go to a club, everything moves, everything vibrates except the building around us. Why not add a second layer underneath the feet of people and actually make it so it starts generating electricity. They’re dancing anyway, we might as well do something with it. So this connectivity was important for me. The moment technology started to kick in, that was for me a breakthrough to make things more open, more connected and to learn from that. That was a big step.

         

(Roosegaarde's "Sustainable Dancefloor" which generates electrcity by dancing. Photo courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde)

I think it’s so interesting that you created a sustainable dance floor and you’re working with large governments, in Holland and elsewhere, on big projects.

Yeah, we scaled up. I think it was always in a weird way the ambition. In a way all the projects that we’ve done are sort of foreplay to make these interactive landscapes. But it took four or five years to build up a grammar, to develop the technology, to create a studio around it. But now we’re in a situation that we get these kind of commissions. It’s not so much about the ego or about the money. It’s more about the time that we get to actually make new stuff.

So for example, the light emitting, glowing nature we’re pushing now. We’re merging the luciferin of a firefly with plants to say, ok, forget about street lights, forget about the energy bill, forget about cables or maintenance. We can make nature which glows at night. That is a second or third horizon type of project. That takes time to make it. It doesn’t exist yet. There are some prototypes floating around this world, but it’s not really there yet. To have this sort of dream factory, where we can research and actually realize this. That’s the most important.

Can you explain how the Van Gogh bike path works?

It’s the second idea realized as part of the smart highway project, where we’re dragging 20 ideas from proto to product in the coming year. So glowing lines was the first one. And then we got this beautiful request, it’s internationl Van Gogh year, 2015, and the commission knew me a bit by name and started to contact me and say, 'ok, there’s this place where he lived and worked in 1883, before he went to France and made the Starry Night and the famous paintings. We find this place very special. Can you do something to make him feel even more alive? And you can make everything historical.' But we wanted to drag it within the now. So we started to work on this smart coating. Going back to the factory, making sure that it gives light. Much more than the normal stuff which is out there right now. Taking away the poisonous radium which is in it. And combining it with LEDs, which when the sun does not charge it enough, it gives it an extra boost to make sure its remained glowing. We made a kilometer interpretation of the Starry Night painting. This is actually the place where he worked and lived. So it’s nice to take something from the future and something from the past and merge it into this place.

(Roosegaarde's "Van Gogh Path" in Nuenen, NL. Courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde)

Have you talked to economists or planners and figured out ways this could actually be cheaper for cities in the long run?

Yeah. That’s actually the goal. The first project will of course be high-end. It’s innovation. It starts high-end so you need a lot of smart people, expensive materials, new technology. But within three to five years, it will be price competitive with existing street lights. Especially glowing lines. Very doable. And that’s actually one of the reasons why the infrastructure company is investing in it as well. So there’s some new economic thinking there as well, where we say, the future of our landscapes should be energy neutral. The future of our landscapes should connect with cultural heritage or some kind of history or some kind of future. But you need this sort of radical niche in the beginning to create a space to develop.

I think five or six years ago, an infrastructure company would have never done a project like this. They were in a little comfort bubble. Crisis would go away. But we see very clearly that the old systems are crashing in terms of economy, in terms of energy. Governments are shutting down streetlights to save money. Is that what we want with our future? I hope not. And that’s interesting regarding the maker movement. Suddenly there’s a desire for new ideas of big companies, of cities, of young people, to prototype this new world. And that is incredibly fascinating. And now all we have to do is to grab that. This is about new technology; 3d printing, wearables, etc. but it’s also about the mentality to realize this kind of creative thinking. So that makes today very exciting. And the things that we’ve done until now in a way are sort of just proposals. I think there are a lot more smart people out there who can invent 20 more similar ideas and I’m looking forward to see them popping up.

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