Architectural Historian and Design as politics professor Wouter Vanstiphout was invited by Blueprint Magazine to comment on (De) Rotterdam — the city and the building — currently gracing the cover of their current issue (number 331). Wouter’s eloquent lament for a city that once vibrated with an untamed, gritty energy, is published here in full.
In 1991 I moved to Rotterdam. At that time it still felt like an ideological choice to voluntarily attach yourself to this scar of a city, rather than self-deporting to the reservation for tourists and students that was Amsterdam.
The city I arrived in was infamous for its emptiness: its bombed-out urban voids and robotic harbour installations on artificial land stretching deep into the North Sea. Sea dykes, train lines and overdimensioned motorways ran straight through the innercity, discouraging the rare tourist to even cross the street to the museum or park, let alone negotiating this way to the Meuse river to contemplate the container-ships chugging upstream. Rotterdam was also loud and dark, producing new-wave dirges from its bands downtown; meanwhile the council flats reverberated with a particularly angry form of local hip hop and a brutish, prolish techno, known as ‘Gabber’ House (Gabber, ironically, being ‘dam slang for buddy or pal).
Rotterdam was also the city where a new architecture came from – not a new style or generation of architects, but really: a New Architecture. My first and very visceral confrontation with this was when we sneaked onto the site of the nearly-finished Kunsthal by OMA. Seeing the building from the inside out, resembling an impossibly raw concrete mess in mid-collapse, was mesmerizing. It condensed the strange infrastructural anti-logic of Rotterdam in a single building, which itself became part of the infrastructural network. At that stage it looked like a building project going surreally, Buster Keaton-esquely, wrong.
Rotterdam Kunsthal by OMA,1992: Photo courtesy OMA
The contractor who caught us (but then showed us around) was exhausted with having to explain that this was not a mistake, nor temporary but the real thing, that this was indeed how the architect had drawn it: the public ramp running through the building and connecting the park to the seadyke, and the dark street that ran underneath, revealing the offices. Then there was the counterintuitive asphalt cladding on top of marble, on top of glass; the slanting columns in the auditorium, the picturesque tree-clad columns in the main exhibition hall and the harsh steel grids that functioned as walkways. Continue reading