Post.Rotterdam

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Post.Rotterdam, Architecture and City after Tabula Rasa was my first curatorial project. Produced in 2001, within the celebration of the twin cultural capital cities of Porto and Rotterdam, it was an attempt to tackle with the lasting fascination generated by the turn of the century Dutch architectural production vis-a-vis the laboratorial nature of Rotterdam’s post-war urban history. Crimson, Architectural Historians, curated the historical section of the exhibition.

Hype(r)scapes

After supermodernism, after the SuperDutch generation and after the hype that surrounded Dutch architecture in the nineties, Hyperscapes reflects the proliferation of images, diagrams and concepts that came to stay, transformed in architectural hypertext. After the artificial landscape, after the datascape and before the already suggested totalscapes, here is the imagescape, the intermediate and intermediary scape where the link over the image can either take you to a complex web of information, to a diagram of a bureaucratic regulation or to a photoshop texture.

After the tabula rasa and after the build-up of the surgical excerpts of the modern city, the laboratory of the formless city brought about a combination where architectonic subtexts of various origins connect to the most diverse extrusions of statistics and rules that define everyday life.

It has become a habit in the past few years, every time one talks of architecture and urbanism in the Netherlands, to start off by pointing out the figures, the statistics and the data that characterize this relatively small-sized nation. People are taken by surprise when they realize that, behind the Netherlands’ discrete profile, hides an economic power that matches other countries with a far greater exposure within the European context.

Linked to the datascapes that make this piece of territory notorious, readings of a specific culture also emerge that seem to have explicit influence over an exceptional architectural and urban production. Such phenomenon suggested a closer look at the protagonists of an architectural input that has not only been subject to extensive publication in the Netherlands and abroad, but has also received constant press coverage from the specialized media.

Because the opportunity so beckoned, this external look focuses on Rotterdam and aims to determine up to what point a laboratorial approach to the urban and architectural research was taken to the extreme here, both during the city’s evolution after the May 1940 bombing, and due to favourable conditions for a leading architectural activity.

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Exhibition design by a.s*, with Pedro Gadanho.

The Dutch architecture of the nineties has been compared to previous historic moments when the ‘tradition of the new’ also found in the Netherlands one of its most fertile laboratories. And part of the conditions that made Rotterdam an attractive city for the experimental research that makes up this phenomenon, are said to be present, by nature, in an important part of Dutch culture.

It is not unusual to visit various Dutch cities when tracing the great works and authors that marked the beginning of the Modernist movement in Europe. It is also not unusual for reputed Dutch architects -even those preceding the Modern Movement- to be perceived as fathers of the invention and research of new architectural typologies.

However, and as opposed to the social model that supported the ideology of the Modernist architectural culture, it might seem strange that an architecture deemed radical and experimental emerged, in the past few years, amidst the culture of consensus that today characterizes the Netherlands.

The strangeness lies in the paradox of it being possible to find a dramatically individual expression for the cultural identity of a nation in which the most demanding consensus is always demanded. And the phenomenon is only fully comprehensible when one analyses some of the methodologies that characterise the design process associated to this architectural production.

The attempt to eliminate subjectivity, so frequently referred to by MVRDV, is a precise strategy to bypass the problem of consensus. By linking the design options with measurable data, which express statistical truths and generally accepted regulations, a crucial means of communicating the project was established, both regarding the clients and the authorities involved in the decision-making.

The aesthetic and subjective components are necessarily inserted – in an ironic manner, actually – into the process of freezing the potential shapes that allow for a translation of the initial data. But this decision is deliberately excluded from the communication of the design, in this way supporting the idea that decisions are indisputable. And, essentially, they are indisputable because they belong to a logical chain well founded in the reality of the immediate context.

On the other hand, the idea of new and radical solutions isn’t looked upon at all with mistrust by the political class or by the Dutch society as a whole, even if – or because – any decision is, a posteriori, subject to a long public debate.

It is certainly not by chance that, in the introduction of the book Remaking NL[1], the Dutch Housing, Planning and Environment Minister underlines “ the often exceptionally inventive manner in which (in the Netherlands) apparently conflicting interests are combined and become mutually advantageous.”

In the same publication, Maarten Kloos points out that understanding the idea of territory in the Netherlands means “ the acceptance of the idea that it must be possible to change everything fundamentally at any given time. This is now highly topical, because the country is being profoundly redone at the beginning of the XXI century.”

This attitude -along with the fact that the concepts of territorial intervention developed in the Netherlands are, in fact “radical, imaginative and comprehensive”- lead Kloos to state that “what this all unmistakably shows is that the Dutch, and certainly the Dutch planners, realize that city and countryside, like pieces of décor in everyday life, are utilities whose form and content can be manipulated.”

Isn’t this the engine running behind the design strategy of a good part of recent Dutch architecture? When this architecture takes different aspects of architectural tradition and language -and even external elements- to manipulate them freely, it shows exactly the same post-modern disposition not to stick to rigid and preconceived categories.

The M and the A in OMA stand for ‘metropolitan architecture’. This predicts the import of urban concepts to define architectural strategies. But one can go further and defend that the logic that often characterizes an important part of recent Dutch architecture is no longer urban but territorial. It is this special relationship with the territory that grants unique characteristics to the Dutch approach to architectonic thought.

After all, it is the feeling that everything is possible, inherent to all engineering feats, that allowed the Netherlands to conquer a third of its territory to the North Sea. And this feeling is certainly perceptible in the research of the physical and conceptual limits inherent to certain practices in Dutch contemporary architecture.

Issues such as the artificial nature of a large portion of the territory; such as the horizontality and geometricality of the landscape; as well as a level of density that can only compare to Japan, all seem to surface when the actual architectonic objects are being created.

The paradigmatic example is the Dutch pavilion at the Hanover world exhibition 2000, which was symptomatically accompanied by the publication of the abovementioned Remaking NL. Designed by MVRDV, the pavilion is firstly a metaphor, if not even a literal demonstration of a strategy aimed at dealing with the territorial reorganisation of the Netherlands.

mvrdv_dutch pavilion_lgThe building draws attention to some of the most radical transformations occurring in the Dutch landscape, but it does more than that. It is an ironic and media-appealing physical manifestation of its authors’ reflections on the Dutch territory and on how this territory has reached its density limit in terms of usage and occupation.

Actually there are surprising resemblances between the themes that have become the backdrop of recent Dutch architecture and the terminology used to characterize the current territorial renewal undertaken in the Netherlands.

As Kloos states in Remaking NL, “the process of renewal that is going on at the moment is characterized by a search for intensification, compactness and an increase of complexity, in the hope that this will give the city a more urban character.” There will be a point where it won’t be possible to distinguish what influences what: if it’s the territorial discourse that influences architecture, or the reverse.

The possibility of the new became even more extreme in Rotterdam because, contrary to what happened in other Dutch cities- notoriously in Amsterdam- after the Second World War no heritage remained for the city’s cultural identity to grow out of.

But there has always been a certain freedom regarding the moulding of Rotterdam’s urban identity. This fact had already acquired precise contours at the end of the nineteenth century when it was determined that the city would follow the economic logic of its expanding port.

Once decided that Rotterdam’s port would be the biggest in the world, the city could do nothing but follow this logic, defining itself as a city of labour, of industry and services and especially as the centre of logistics in the Dutch territory. These factors would eventually combine with the pragmatic profile of Dutch society and ultimately reflect on the city’s cultural identity and on the city’s cultural production.

Due to this economic pressure, modern ideals were pursued and, from an early age, Rotterdam experienced the need to express its progressive personality. It was such a combination that led to the construction of the rail viaduct that destroyed the centre of Rotterdam in the middle of the nineteenth century. After this traumatic moment, Rotterdam accepted its condition of a city made ugly by progress and characterized by an absence of culture.

Curiously, as early as 1936, the people of Rotterdam believed that the city’s ‘ugliness and boorishness’ made it more authentic and freer than other cities.

In some way this feeling of freedom was responsible for one of the city’s rare cultural outbreaks, challenging an intellectual elite that envisaged the possibility of building in this city a different and more assertive future. It was during this period that the city hosted the first CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture) and witnessed some interventions carried out by local modernist architects such as J. P. Oud, thus initiating a tradition of debate around architecture and urbanism.

It was also the aura of ‘modernity and dynamism’ created at this time that most probably led to a post-war reconstruction process unlike any other in Europe. It was such an aura that made the city’s main objectives during the reconstruction towards the idea of the future and the ability to create novelty. As Martin Aarts and Ben Maandag state in Accelerating Rotterdam[2], at that time “the zeal and enthusiasm is so great and the urge to forget the past so powerful that they all too eagerly welcome the latest architectural inventions in order to give shape to contemporary feelings of pride without historical deadweight.”

These experiences gained international admiration and recognition and, in a way, made Rotterdam a real collage city, full with contemporary European urban ideas. The feeling that the city juxtaposes many of the urban proposals of the time – with solutions that can be recognized and identified in other European cities – is almost perverse: in fact, it is the solutions seen elsewhere that may have been inspired by Rotterdam…

There are other factors that ultimately explain Rotterdam’s attraction to many praticioners in the fields of architecture and urbanism.

The laboratorial character of the city and the absence of historic vestiges are important in conveying a feeling of freedom to the city. But the port also played a fundamental role, even if an indirect one.

Not only the logistical conditions were fuelled by the presence of the port. The port with its shipyard created an atmosphere of constant renewal that many have perceived as welcoming. And as the port and its functions changed – and become progressively autonomous to the city – new spaces become available. The urban and economic tissue of the city was constantly free to reinvent itself.

On the other hand, the proximity of Delft – a city home to one of the most prestigious Dutch technical universities – can also be seen as one of the reasons why Rotterdam was always provided with manpower in the fields of architecture and urbanism. This mainly contributed to underline the technical and pragmatic approach of some of the architecture produced in Rotterdam.

But mostly the fact that OMA opened an office in the city in 1978 was even more significant in consolidating the architectural atmosphere that can be felt in Rotterdam today. From the eighties on, one cannot overlook the role of Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture in defining Rotterdam as the Silicon Valley of Dutch contemporary architecture.

When the opportunity arose to extend the London OMA headquarters to Rotterdam, a new experimental ground was created. New values and strategies were able to incubate in the (industrial) laboratory that the city already represented.

1PostR0Cat(And it was Rem Koolhaas who named Rotterdam the formless city.)

In terms of architectural culture, it is OMA that, after successive periods of urban strategies dictated by economic necessity, links Rotterdam with the outside world. Rem Koolhaas brings a theoretical input to the city, which was certainly removed from the scope given to the urban regeneration practiced in Rotterdam immediately after the radical years of the tabula rasa effect.

Only with OMA do certain issues – not directly related to Rotterdam’s urban identity and economic activity – return to Rotterdam’s agenda, though not necessarily to Rotterdam’s urban physical development.

And during the Nineties a generation grows up from OMA which will play a leading role in Rotterdam’s professional architectural milieu. Architects like Kees Christianse, Willem Jan Neutelings, the founding members of the MVRDV, Winy Maas, Nathalie de Vries and Jacob van Rijn, or Rients Dijkstra, of Max1, amongst others, start off with OMA before setting up their own offices.

Such practices have meanwhile matured onto diversified paths following personal themes, options and obsessions. The openness of Rotterdam allowed for different strategies and ways of working to breed next to each other without any conflict.

Apart from the direct descendants of OMA, very diverse approaches to architecture coexist in Rotterdam, somehow questioning the architect’s traditional modus operandi and thus suggesting further, specific reflections.

When architects end up organizing themselves in groups or networks – and get rid of the solitary practitioner’s myth – they create new possibilities of specialization and task distribution within the team. This allows groups such as MVRDV or GroupA to handle great amounts of data when organizing their intervention concepts.

Accordingly, Rem Koolhas comes to realize that the information analysed, treated and generated during the design process, can have an autonomous value. This is how AMO is created, as an alternative office to OMA, where the specialised activity is now the organization of information, both to feed the architectural strategies – thus substituting and overtaking direct end-of-the-line analysis – and to consolidate an important niche activity.

On the other hand, the actual role of the architectural team is altered, by having to deal with specific requests from the sectors of research and consultation, sometimes more than from the traditional design field. With Schie2.0, the network philosophy is assumed in the constitution of the team as well as in the variety and direction of the services offered. What in other places works as an informal and eventual process is in the Netherlands a professional breakthrough.

Rem Koolhaas still takes on the figure of leading thinker but he himself expresses such a distanced and critical attitude towards the classical role of the architect, that he opens the way to the progressive dissemination of tradition and suggests possibilities to be pursued in various manners.

Architects also embrace the idea that their contribution is part of a larger discourse. They refuse the autonomy and isolation of their subject and they like to submerge into the extended discussion that permeates the Dutch society. This occurs, either by a sort of guerilla activism that the authorities come to allow and even stimulate – as has happened with Schie2.0 and MVRDV – or by way of an apparent integration in the midst of the ‘superliberalism’ mechanisms, in an attempt to mine its mediocrity from within – like in the cases of Rem Koolhaas and MAX1.

Others, such as West8 and Neutelings Riedijk, adopt an attitude of optimism and social participation, which, as Adriaan Geuze states, still protects the repertoire of their own thematic and formal researches.

Hyperscapes is, in this context, a selection, a cross-section, a hyperconcentrated landscape that demonstrates the vitality of an exceptional milieu. What is shown here, after all, is a culture in vitro that isn’t at all representative of the average qualities of Dutch architecture. We are talking about the laboratory (of advanced research).

This exceptional character is even more relevant when we realize that the average is the typical obsession of the Dutch culture of consensus. It was only through the consolidation of a certain pattern of mediocrity that it was possible to respond effectively and in an egalitarian way to the massive housing demand that came about in the Netherlands, unlike anywhere else in Europe.

Dutch construction, even though it is characterized by a great technical development in the application of pre-fabrication methodologies and repetition, is one of the most conditioned in Europe. This is due to regulations, laws and the price of construction – cheaper than in any other European country. It is a medium quality construction that predicts a great degree of substitution and is meant to have a short lifespan.

Apart from that, labour is very expensive, which means there is no time for expensive and elaborate details. The use of very pragmatic materials, such as glues, is the fastest solution to a great deal of problems. This is the logic that, by subversion and irony, passed onto Rem Koolhaas’ work, establishing a formal language and almost a ‘style’.

MVRDV or Max1 take this trend to the extreme, although in different ways. MVRDV adopt the fear of design and lead it to the reinvention and absence of detail, using a language without language that challenges pre-established solutions. It is only within the context of such formal freedom that successive collage operations allow the integration of MVRDV’s conceptual themes into the architecture, literally blending them into the physical constitution of the buildings.

Max1 establish a subtle relationship with the aesthetic landscape that the market offers them in a finished, plastic, ready-to-use way. They rework the fast-food architectural lexicon by playing with the boundaries of the unappealing and being ironic with the unbearable, often revealing a hidden beauty.

Meanwhile the equalitarian tradition in the Netherlands is questioned and some call out for a more generalized differentiation and for a multiform architectural culture. And it is this differentiation that, in some way, has been explored and demonstrated in the laboratorial context of the most interesting offices in Rotterdam. Not only by the directions taken by the various researches – and in the diversity of attitudes and positions that characterize them – but also in the way research takes a very important role in offices that, at the end of the day, are still market-driven.

Having satisfied the basic necessities of the Dutch society, it is clear that the support the Dutch government has continuously given to publications, research and theoretical studies in the areas of architecture and urbanism had more consequences than a mere growth of the internal debate. It stimulated creativity and cultural intervention, but it also contributed to the expansion of the identity and influence of the Dutch culture in Europe. It recognised how high the export value of intelligence and creativity can be.

Thus the hype created around the Dutch architecture of the Nineties had a parallel in the strong dynamism that, over the same period, characterised creative areas such as the visual arts, industrial design, and graphic design.

However, the moment when the operative strategies of this section of contemporary Dutch architecture become efficient exports is, paradoxically, the moment when apparently, and amid various signs of discomfort, there ceases to be a market and internal conditions to maintain the hype surrounding this same production.

(Don’t believe the hype?)

If a legacy of the hype generated by the Dutch architecture of the nineties remains, it isn’t constituted by an imposition of a certain style but by the consolidation, expansion and export of design processes that, symptomatically, free themselves from the conventions and disciplinary rigours of architectural modernity.

From the work carried out in the OMA laboratory, a new process was defined that sedimented communication capacities and the ability to analyse profoundly the real demands of program and intervention context.

In-between the typical Dutch pragmatism, the radicalisation of problems, the exhaustive analysis of program possibilities, the re-articulation of lexicon and content with great formal freedom, the questioning of pre-conceived tectonic categories, or even the use of successive models to ensure an accurate visual analysis, this process produced an almost obsessive method of testing the architectural solutions. It presented itself as an alternative to the more traditional approaches to the practice of architecture.

An architectural reality was produced that is hard to ignore and will probably cause a reaction. This is an architecture that is often irresistible because it bears the freedom to obscenely abuse conventions and is able to produce work that stands out through the absence of an absolute meaning.

But this is also an architecture that, even in its ironic gestures and its intelligent and subversive comments on super-liberalism, seems not to have generated sufficient answers to alter the rapid progression of reality onto a culture of renewed self-indulgence and fast-food tradition.

In this sense – and unless one simply wants to preach political correctness or the moral imperative of stagnant architectural concepts – ambiguous expectation is also the attitude with which one may produce an enrichening analysis of this architectonic production.


[1] Sjoerd Cusveller, Oene Dijk, Kirsten Schipper (eds), Remaking NL, Stedebouw & Architectuurmanagement, Amsterdam, 2000

[2] in Martin Aarts, Ben Maandag, Jos Stoopman, Harm Tilman e Hans Werlemann, Accelerating Rotterdam, Stad in Versnelling, edição dos autores, Rotterdam, 2000.

3 responses to “Post.Rotterdam

  1. Pingback: Archives of Re-Incidence #01 « shrapnel contemporary

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