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Rebirth of Rotterdam

Martin Morrell

Photo: Martin Morrell

As you walk around central Rotterdam you notice something else that is more American than European: residential areas are mostly poor, often run-down, and ethnically mixed. There are more Moroccans, Turks, and blacks from Suriname (the former Dutch Guiana) in the streets than there are white Europeans. A quick scan of names on the doors of apartment buildings shows a preponderance of Arabic ones. Fast-food places offer shish kebabs and hummus. Children play games in Dutch; their parents talk to them in Turkish. Popular music from Casablanca, Istanbul, and Paramaribo fills the evening air. The prosperous Dutch middle class has moved to the lakes and parks of Kralingen and beyond. In more traditional European cities, it's the other way around: the poor have been pushed out to brutish, graffiti-covered suburbs, while the rich enjoy the historic city centers.

Almost every major European city has a distinctive look; Rotterdam, however, lacks a signature style. It is precisely this neutral quality, this stylelessness, this open-ended, rough-at-the-edges, unfinished atmosphere that draws many artists. One of them is Rem Koolhaas, whose iconoclastic ideas, expressed in such books as SMLXL, have made him a cult figure in Tokyo and New York, no less—and perhaps more so—than in Rotterdam. The industrial spaces and warehouses are perfect for offices, discotheques, and artists' studios. Koolhaas is not attracted to Rotterdam because it is "hot." He likes it because you can work there without being bothered by metropolitan gossip and buzz. And also because, unlike Amsterdam—which is already perfect in its way, a finished city—Rotterdam is still a work in progress, a place where anything is possible.

KOOLHAAS IS TOO COOL TO BE A BOOSTER OF THE CITY HE WORKS IN. He finds most buildings, including the showy new skyscrapers, ugly. But ugliness, for Koolhaas, can be a plus. He is the man, after all, who saw potential in the Berlin Wall.

The OMA building is typically neutral; it could be anywhere. Inside, you could be anywhere, too—except, perhaps, in Holland, since you rarely hear any Dutch spoken. I was shown a model for the new library in Seattle by a Russian woman who spoke perfect English. A young Japanese man explained the intricate design for a concert hall in Portugal, and a group of Germans, Americans, and even a few Dutch people stood around discussing a plan for a bunch of skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan. Koolhaas himself flits in and out, like a tall phantom in Prada shoes, here from Milan today, gone to Tokyo or Las Vegas or Bordeaux tomorrow.

And yet, however much he denies a particular connection with Rotterdam itself, Koolhaas has put an unmistakable stamp on the city, not just by building the Kunsthal and a mysterious private house for "Mr. X," but by stirring things up. In 1982, the Rotterdam Arts Council organized the first Architecture International Rotterdam (AIR). Foreign architects were brought in to inspire local architects, government officials, and institutions and to make the place less provincial. Koolhaas participated in the late 1980's and early 90's, and also inspired other OMA architects, such as Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs, who later formed their own firm, mvrdv. The OMA design in the early eighties for a group of high-rise buildings near an upended bridge that would itself be turned into a building—with a restaurant on top—never got built, but it did prod others to be bolder.

Roughness can be made into a virtue. If there is a common strain in modern Dutch architecture, it is the taste for modesty, the sometimes perverse love of industrial materials, the ability to build handsome buildings cheaply. Koolhaas once said, "The research into how you can carry out as many programs as possible with as little money as possible is incredibly interesting."

I visited Koolhaas's former colleagues, Maas and van Rijs of mvrdv, in their office, in a crude, almost derelict-looking building on the banks of the Meuse. It was in the kind of industrial terrain, largely abandoned, dead at night, where murders happen in the movies. Maas and van Rijs have been responsible for some highly sophisticated architecture, but their aesthetic vision is deliberately tough, even brutal. Dressed casually, like graduate students, they talked about their plans to redesign the city of Rotterdam. Why not mix industrial and residential areas?Why not have marinas right next to oil refineries?Prettiness is the enemy. Their favorite word is stoer—tough, robust, virile. It is a very Rotterdam attitude.

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