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Rebirth of Rotterdam

Martin Morrell

Photo: Martin Morrell

To embrace the Dutch cliché about Rotterdam as the city of commerce and money is to miss an important fact. The way it looks, its architecture, its hearty Modernism, is less the result of commercial interests than of a tension between business and politics. What I hadn't realized before my visit was the extent to which politics and planning had determined the shape of the postwar city. Rotterdam is one of the most planned cities west of Dresden. And the planning, which began almost immediately after the bombing in 1940, was social, even socialist.

Some bombed cities—Warsaw, for example—tried to heal their man-made wounds through careful reconstruction or mimicry of the past. This was never the goal in Rotterdam. On the contrary, city planners saw the destruction of downtown Rotterdam as an opportunity to build a totally new, modern city. That was also how the Nazi occupiers saw it; they wanted Rotterdam to be a "great Germanic port." One reason Dutch city planners were so keen to get going was that they didn't want the Germans to do it for them. Not much was actually built during the war, but by the time the Germans were defeated, in May 1945, the blueprint for Rotterdam had been ready for years.

Zones had been plotted, and plans for streets, squares, and parks drawn up. Since all private land-ownership claims had been scrapped, it was possible to start with a blank slate; the rest was up to the architects. They could choose their own styles, but city planning was subject to political and socioeconomic concerns. Industry had to be confined to certain outlying districts. Banks and offices would be in the center, and low-income municipal housing would be built around the downtown core. If you wanted to own a house, you had to move to a suburb. That's why the central residential areas of Rotterdam are still relatively poor. Yet, even before the war, some of the most interesting, and typically Dutch, architecture was built in the less affluent areas. J.J.P. Oud's two-story terraced workers' housing in the south of Rotterdam, for example, is a triumph of 1920's socialist architecture and a perfect example of the Dutch talent for turning thrift into a virtue.

So Rotterdam, despite its reputation for stinking of money, was anything but a capitalist free-for-all. It has been governed largely by Socialists, some of whom, especially in the 1970's, were actively anti-capitalist. When, in 1973, the Shell Oil Co. built an office tower on a prime site, one city alderman called it a "capitalist erection." Because politicians and planners were more interested in social policies than in aesthetics, the architectural style of Rotterdam became a hodgepodge. The downtown is a collection of buildings, rather than a coherent district. And the styles reflect the changing fashions not only in architecture, but also in politics. The 1970's and early 80's saw many small-scale, quasi-traditional, or sometimes self-consciously playful buildings, part of the government's desire to "give the city back to the people."

PATERNALISTIC PLANNING FOR A VIRTUOUS society, and the love of thrift and modesty, are traditional Dutch characteristics, the very ones that have made Holland such a well-ordered, civilized place. But they have also made it a little dull, even oppressive, and this invites rebellion. One afternoon, I had coffee with Chris Dercon, the creative director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, in Museumpark near the Netherlands Architecture Institute. Like Koolhaas, or Simon Field, the British co-director of the Rotterdam international film festival, Dercon likes the freedom of working in Rotterdam. But he has the critical outsider's view of Holland. To him, Dutch culture seems stifled by compromise and consensus. Dercon likes rebels. Koolhaas was a rebel, but OMA has become too grand now to cause much outrage. Dercon still rates Koolhaas highly, but the most important artist in Rotterdam, in his view, is a rather peculiar man named Joep van Lieshout.

I had seen pictures of van Lieshout, wearing an aloha shirt and riding in a retooled Mercedes limo, with a machine gun in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. Koolhaas had warned me that he could be a little "difficult." He had the reputation of being a "sex maniac," a superannuated hippie, a punk survivalist. In fact, he is also a serious artist whose architectural and interior designs have been shown in galleries and museums all over the world. Van Lieshout designed a bathroom for the Boijmans museum and a bar unit for a Koolhaas building in Lille, France. He has also designed jewel-encrusted knuckle dusters, "survival knives," giant phalluses, do-it-yourself mobile homes, and a mobile abortion clinic. He has a farm, where he and his co-workers raise their own pigs. His work is the purest example of deliberate roughness, of using the simplest means. The worst sin, in his eyes, is trying to make something look better or grander than it is.

The Atelier Van Lieshout, a kind of commune in which the artist and his colleagues live and work, is on a wharf surrounded by car wrecks, tanneries, garbage dumps, small factories, and an office for movie stuntmen. Van Lieshout's studio seems the very antithesis of well-ordered, civilized, comfortable, respectable Dutchness. A sculpture of a stylized nude with legs spread wide lies prone in front of the factory-like studio. But, actually, Dutch orderliness intrudes even here. Van Lieshout's street is part of a designated prostitution zone, where special steel partitions are thoughtfully provided by the municipal authorities to give the hookers and their clients some privacy. The official term for these depressing areas is "tolerance zones."

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