Finding myself in The Netherlands, my critical facilities were blown. “Holy tuning forks, Batman!” Mesmerised… and by a bridge of all things. I’m not usually guilty of overt building worship, but I’d defy anyone to journey over the 800-metre long, 139-metre high bridge in Rotterdam, especially after dark, and not utter some expletive.
Sleek, sculptural and glowing greeny-blue silver, the bridge is an angular bow, drawing you across the deep and wide River Maas to Rotterdam’s reclaimed future. Architect Ben van Berkel’s mono-suspension bridge, gateway to the Kop van Zuid, is real eye-candy.
Over the years Rotterdam has been in constant flux. The world’s largest port has had to keep up with ships outgrowing a succession of anchorages, and leaving behind redundant river frontage. Then some serious war-time destruction offered the opportunity to create a futuristic cityscape.
Don’t for a moment suppose it’s plain sailing living in a full-sized text book of architectural interventions, with a city centre given over to commerce in the form of block after block of international headquarters. Rotterdam has more than its fair share of urban problems, with gun-toting drug dealers top of the list, and a population of blue-collar ex-dock workers needing new jobs and affordable housing. But the Dutch aren’t known for sweeping shit under the carpet and when the container port finally moved down-stream, freeing up 125ha on the southern side of the Maas, the city fathers saw an opportunity for redressing some evident inequalities.
Openly learning from the mistakes of the London Docklands Development Corporation, the planners have kept tight but democratic control on the area, and put in place systems which guarantee quality control, local involvement and aesthetic innovation. High-profile architectural competitions have attracted winners with international reputations who put their plans to a panel of appointed experts and local representatives. Even Sir Norman Foster has been sent back to the drawing board.
A marriage of public and private investment, and a mix of low, middling and high-cost housing, public amenities, workshops, retail and offices, the whole is topped off with a landmark of epic proportions. Signalling that this is no two-bit, low-rent, dumping ground, the Erasmus bridge irradiates civic pride.
I first visited Rotterdam in late 1994 when the bridge was just a huge lump of concrete sneaking above the waves, but I got a close look at it from the water taxi which ferried me back and forth to the Hotel New York. Housed on the end of the pier facing the city, the hotel is a gothic pile, previously the headquarters of the Holland-Amerika shipping line which ferried old-world emigrants to a new life in the US. The subtly converted interior is a mish-mash of original features, some funky design classics, toys, kitsch and redundant nautical ephemera. My room had a walk-in safe housing tin lockers for wardrobes. There was a red Verner Panton stacking chair in the hall, and the cafe table-tops resembled salvaged tea crates, complete with stencils.
With a massive, totally unpretentious cafÃ© serving great seafood at a snip of the cost you’d pay in London, the idea was to get people over the water and inject a bit of life into the area. And it’s worked, it’s rocking. Making the journey by river taxi or over the bridge you’re treated to some dramatic geography. At night the highest points of the city are lit like fairground rides. The port authority’s observation tower becomes a column of neon and the lift-shafts of three nondescript towerblocks glow red, yellow and blue. At the end of the bridge, Peter Wilson and Julia Bolles’ Tower of Moving Numbers, a wind-sensitive giant LED telling the time and temperature, completes the scene. This is post-Blade Runner, but forget science fiction. What all these elements create is a sense of place, just as the fripperies in Hotel New York give it a character which the
Holiday Inn will never have. Nowhere looks like Rotterdam, and in an increasingly homogenous global village, that’s a big plus.
So what makes the Dutch so adventurous, so appealing? Their colonial past has translated into tolerance rather than discrimination, with a healthy economy based on trade. The Dutch respect history, yes, but they also value the present and anticipate the future. Perched on a strip of inhospitable coastline they’ve been forced to make the best of opportunities, and their constantly refined urban spaces bear it out. Just mix cool logic with white hot innovation and you get some awesome sights for sore eyes.