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Rebirth of Rotterdam

Martin Morrell

Photo: Martin Morrell

I was shown around the studio by van Lieshout's business manager, a middle-aged man with a pink nose and a white beard. He pointed out that the jerry-built office unit and dining room, made of polyester and chipboard, were meant as "a kind of critique of architecture." Beautiful finishes, expensive materials, building regulations—these are all part of the bourgeois world that van Lieshout and his acolytes claim to have rejected. They have taken Koolhaas's philosophy of making things as cheaply as possible to its logical extreme. Only if you construct your own world, with your own hands, with minimal means, without consideration for society's rules or pretensions, will you be free. Like right-wing American survivalists, van Lieshout and his colleagues make a fetish of "autonomy"; hence the do-it-yourself trailers, the private farm, the portable polyester toilets, and the military hardware, which actually turned out to be fake. The idea is at once very un-Dutch and, in its puritanical hatred of polish, very Dutch indeed.

I expected a monster. In fact, van Lieshout was a polite, rather charming man in a flowered shirt, who talked about his work in a professional manner while listening to music. We'd installed ourselves in the back of one of his homemade trailers. I asked him about his idea of freedom. I was prepared for a theory or at least an outrageous statement. Instead, he said that having money was the best way to be free. The crude architecture, the polyester furniture, are all for sale. The atelier is really an art factory. Van Lieshout is a Dutch Andy Warhol who deliberately blurs the lines between mass production and art, commerce and philosophy. The fake guns, the talk of free sex, the communal living, the pig-raising, and the production of crude functional goods that turn into art objects as soon as they are displayed in a museum, all this is part of a performance. The rebellion against Dutch order is a performance as well, much publicized by van Lieshout himself. Like the transvestite prostitutes outside his window, van Lieshout's commune, too, is allowed to operate in a "tolerance zone."

WALKING BACK ALONG THE RIVER TOWARD the city center, past the mvrdv office, past the public housing inhabited by Turks and Moroccans, past a green field, an old mill, and two or three canals, I thought how hard it was, for even the most rebellious spirit, and despite the multicultural ambience, to escape the civilized, thrifty, socially concerned Dutch sense of order. In their own ways, van Lieshout, Koolhaas, and other Dutch artists and architects represent that very same order. And yet they came to Rotterdam to rebel, because the city was still rough at the edges, lacked a coherent style, and so was open to new possibilities. I wondered how much longer that would be true.

In the old city hall, one of the buildings that survived the Nazi fury, I met Hans Kombrink, the alderman in charge of urban planning, or what is known in Dutch officialese as "ordering of space." He is a member of the left-of-center Labor Party, the same party that, 20 years ago, put a stop to the construction of corporate high-rises in the hope of giving Rotterdam back to the people. This was also the party responsible for turning much of central Rotterdam over to inexpensive municipal housing. But since then the tune had changed. Eating his way through a lethal-looking "butter cake" in his private office, Kombrink told me that it was time wealthier people returned to live in the city center. There would be more expensive housing blocks, where people could buy property. Kombrink was keen to increase the number of prestigious corporate buildings. As long as you have some "eye-catchers," he once said, "the rest will follow."

In 5, 10, or 15 years, Dutch order will have conquered Rotterdam, too. Rotterdam will be a more cohesive, more polished city, with yuppies occupying the city center and dense clusters of fine corporate buildings making for an imposing skyline. At last John Hole will have his heart back. It would not be a bad thing. In many ways it will make Rotterdam a more agreeable place. But the promise of adventure, of starting all over and making something new, will be lost. It will be the end of a rough utopia.


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