ROTTERDAM | Impressions
Flying into Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport in the early morning, we hop the Fyra express train to Rotterdam Centraal and arrive in less time than it takes to drive halfway across our home city, Winnipeg. We’re immediately immersed in the continuous nation-city that is The Netherlands – a striking contrast to the vast emptiness of the Canadian prairies where our nearest comparable city is almost 800km away in the United States.
The new Rotterdam Centraal sets the tone for the city as we walk through the cavernous main hall, with its faceted wood ceiling floating on glass walls and an information booth shaped like two classical human heads by Atelier Van Lieshout. Sections of each face are pivoted open for access to the friendly ambassadors inside. Peering through the glass, it becomes immediately apparent – we need umbrellas. It’s raining and unfortunately, since this is Holland, it’s likely not going to stop.
We’re running on empty, but we’ve got a full day planned. Our first stop is lunch with Reinier de Graaf, principal and director of AMO, followed by a tour of the OMA offices. Our meal is a low-key, casual affair that makes us feel very privileged and fortunate to have a moment alone with someone from the very top. The office itself is impressive, and perhaps due in part to the myth that has built in our minds, we feel like we are at the epicenter of invention in architecture.
OMA certainly falls into the segment of Dutch firms that have been able to weather the local decline in economy and architectural funding. With only five out of the approximately 85 current OMA projects being domestic, this is not surprising. Jeremy Higginbotham, the American born Head of Public Affairs, later clarifies that those five projects are large ones, perhaps representing 20-30% of OMA’s total production.
During our time with Reinier, we find it both surprising and refreshing that the person in charge of one of the most highly regarded theoretical think tanks in the profession speaks so little about theory or ideas for the future. There are no big words and no pretension that he has all the answers to the burning questions of our time. Only that he is eternally curious, a sentiment that we agree with wholeheartedly.
A walk from the Erasmus bridge to the north side of the Centraal Station reveals that Rotterdam IS “Super Dutch”. The city is the Dutch playground for modern architecture – not the superficial and ‘showy’ type of Dubai or Astana, but one built primarily on the Dutch brand of hyper-rational postmodernism. It’s as if an alternate reality existed in Holland where postmodernism was built on the foundation of modernism and not its antithesis.
We continue on a few blocks north to the venue for our second Table for Twelve dinner, Post--Office. The office and event space was started by a collaborative of five young architects that felt compelled to explore new ways of practicing architecture, all while holding day jobs in several big name Dutch architecture offices. The venue is located in the structural void left by the Hofplein viaduct, a turn of the century elevated railway used for light rail until 2010. The viaduct’s gentle, concrete archways act as storefronts for the raw space inside, which has been furnished by ingenuity and resourcefulness rather than euros. Our contact, Hans Larsson, shows us around while his colleagues prepare the room for one of their regular Friday night film screenings. In light of the economic downturn, which left many Dutch architects scrambling to make it on their own, this space feels like the perfect venue to discuss the past, present and future states of Dutch Architecture – a living, breathing example of one possible future for the profession.
On the walk back to our rental apartment we cross the Luchtsingel, a fading yellow bridge over a major roadway whose construction is famous for being crowdfunded. We drop in on one of its orchestrators / designers, Kristian Koreman of ZUS. Hard at work on an important deadline, his excitement for their work in this area of Rotterdam turns two spare minutes into twenty as we listen in on the story of the Schieblock, the home of their office and the building we are standing in. The Schieblock was conceived as a laboratory for urban development, one where Kristian and his partner Elma van Boxel have invented a way to bring life back to this formerly ‘vacant office building’ (an issue raised ingeniously by the Vacant NL exhibit at the 2010 Venice Biennale). In collaboration with the owners and the local development corporation, a five year plan for the temporary transformation of the Schieblock was put in motion. ZUS’s enthusiasm for this place was obviously infectious, as the building is now overflowing with young, energetic and creative businesses. They have even bigger plans that include more of the surrounding community and based on our brief discussions, they will surely achieve them.
ZUS has taken a hyper-local approach to practicing architecture by transforming their own neighbourhood without waiting for big business or government to take the lead. While the economic model is certainly not a simple one, seeing this form of practice succeed is extremely inspiring. On our way out, we are encouraged to pop into the various businesses in the building and in particular, visit the rooftop with its edible garden that serves the restaurant at street level. A stairwell encounter with a camera crew filming a large group of partying Dutch men and women, many of whom are dressed in drag and singing along to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” at full volume, is oddly in parallel with the energy and enthusiasm it took to bring life back to the Schieblock.
Back at our beautifully designed and furnished rental apartment, a quick nap is in order before our final meeting of the day with fellow Canadians, Tanner Merkeley and Brendan Cormier. Before crashing we can’t help but wonder, “Do all Dutch apartments look this good?” The home of two seemingly average guys in Rotterdam, this place would have to be owned by a designer back in Canada. Does the Dutch design sensibility reach beyond the inner circle of designers and into the homes of the ‘public’?
We rush back out to meet Tanner, a former Winnipegger who, like so many others, followed his dream to work at OMA, and Brendan, a former partner at The Department of Unusual Certainties in Toronto (one of our “Migrating Landscapes” collaborators during our participation in the 2012 Venice Biennale), a guest at the Lisbon Table for Twelve dinner and current managing editor at Volume Magazine. Making our way down Rotterdam’s Witte de Withstraat we encounter a lively street full of restaurants, bars, coffee shops and scores of 20 and 30-somethings seeking urban nightlife (despite the rain). We end up at the Hotel Bazar restaurant, where over Belgian beer and Middle Eastern food, Brendan and Tanner offer up some great background information on the Dutch design scene and some words of advice for our dinner event on Sunday. “The Dutch don’t beat around the bush. Be direct.”
With a bit of free time on Saturday to explore, a quick day trip to Amsterdam was in order. As with Rotterdam Centraal, the Neo-Renaissance Amsterdam Centraal train station sets the tone for the entire city. A jarring contrast to modern, high-rise tower, post-WW2 Rotterdam, Amsterdam is the city we all expect it to be. In search of something unexpected, we are directed by a friendly lawyer/architectural historian at the ARCAM to visit the North side of the IJ.
A quick tour of two new public buildings, the Eye Film Institute and the new central library – both of which provide essential urban cultural spaces – precedes a ferry ride to NDSM. Essentially a city-sponsored arts community occupying a derelict shipyard, the NDSM district is made up of warehouse conversions into hundreds of studios, theatres, music festivals and underground culture events, and has quickly become a hub for cutting edge media companies. We are drawn to the crowds pouring out of a massive shipyard warehouse carrying an assortment of second-hand goods. A flea market is packing up their tables in the large vacant space adjacent to rows of what appears to be pre-fab workshop / office spaces. The monotonous thunder from above leads us to investigate a hidden mezzanine skate park full of kids perfecting their craft.
The adaptive re-use at NDSM feels natural and almost unplanned, like a city emerging behind the old gingerbread houses, canals and tourists, one that fully embraces change and runs in sync with the progressive reputation of Dutch design culture. This rare freedom from historical reference in a city defined as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is what has attracted so many Dutch architects to Rotterdam since the “Rotterdam Blitz” of 1940. In a country with such a heavily man-made landscape, the Dutch have design in their DNA and places like NDSM and Rotterdam are their playgrounds. The few brief hours of sunshine fade to rain as we make our way back to Rotterdam. Possibly our most Dutch meal is consumed on the train – a snack of stroopwafels and delicious Dutch apples purchased in a convenience store.
Following an afternoon screening of “The Competition” at the Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam and on the alleged rainiest day in 25 years, our dinner event at Post--Office goes off without a hitch. The collection of architects, designers, advocates, funding agencies, journalists and curators keep the conversation moving while Phyllis Wong (a former architect turned chef) and her team from Greensparrow keep the amazing food and wine flowing.
The openness of the Dutch design community continues to amaze us as we meet with Nathalie de Vries, founding partner of MVRDV, Sjarel Ex, director of the Boijmans van Beuningen, and Jurgen Bey, designer at Studio Makkink & Bey. All three of them open their studios and offices to us and graciously donate a portion of their busy day; at each stop we marvel at their work and gain new insights into what constitutes and sustains Dutch design culture.
Sharing the grounds with the Boijmans Museum sits the former NAi building. The recent amalgamation of the symbolic houses of architecture, design, fashion and e-culture under one roof – now known as “The New Institute” – leaves many lingering questions. This shift in how major institutions operate, still too fresh for anyone to gauge the results, has some Dutch architects worried. Will the ideals and issues facing “A”rchitecture be watered down by this merger, a consequence of conservative government budget cuts? The previous night’s discussion and the small cross-section of new Dutch design we’ve experienced suggests some architects and designers are optimistic about this shift. Perhaps the tradition of heavy government subsidy for architectural research isn’t sustainable. Perhaps the old ways of practicing architecture need a shake-up and could benefit from reaching out and rubbing elbows with other cultural endeavors. It has become clear that many of Holland’s top architecture and design minds are seeing the future shaped by a hybrid “designer”, where the boundaries of the disciplines of the past are blurred and collaboration between all types of thinkers and doers is the norm.
We are told that nearly 50% of architects in The Netherlands have been laid off since 2008, but the number of architectural practices has subsequently doubled. These new, hungry and nimble one and two person offices may be perfectly suited for the uncertain future of Dutch architecture that lies ahead. While a part of us mourns the loss of the NAi, which helped shape the Rotterdam of today and some of the world’s great architectural studios and thinkers of the past 30 years, the other part agrees with Jurgen Bey, and sees potential in change and an even more important role for Rotterdam’s bricks and mortar institutions. “These are the places where we meet physically and mentally across disciplines”; the places where Dutch designers can collaborate to dream the future and continue to re-invent.