Of Rotterdam and the erasure of spatial histories

I have given up chronology. On this blog, for the time being, and perhaps also in life. It is so unlike experience and it rarely coincides well with narrative. So, while I’ll post a note dedicated to each of the three European cities I’ve visited in the last two weeks, the order and content of these missives* will not run parallel to my own geographical trajectory.

The first of these notes (you’re reading it now) is about Rotterdam, a city intimately acquainted with the refusal of chronological history. Bombed twice in World War II, once by the Germans (a port city, it was an appropriate target) and once by the U.S. (by mistake, at least according to my Dutch sources) the post-war city served as a kind of tabula rasa for modern architecture. Rotterdam is all shiny surfaces, covered in a patina of dust knocked up by continuing construction. There is only one section of the city which resembles a pre-war Rotterdam and, as far as I could tell, it devotes itself to nostalgic tourists. The bulk of the city is new and committed, it seems, to the endless positioning of itself in the present. The “architectural capital of the Netherlands,” and home to the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi), Rotterdam is in a constant state of (re)production.

It also manages to be charming. Really. I should know. I got lost in the city at least once a day for the four days I spent there. Alleys to jog down, small green spaces and canals to hop across abound. I was particularly fond of the Museumpark which houses both greenery and striking contemporary architecture. Planned and delivered by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, it is Rotterdam high brow, perhaps par excellence.

All this city space was made more thoroughly enthralling by the fact that my days were spent attending workshops and talks for the Prototyping Futures/Occupying the Present symposium hosted at the Piet Zwart Institute.  Talks by 2012 ArchitectenMen in Grey, Danja Vasiliev and Julian Oliver; the truly wonderful Active Archives folks; and many astounding others made space in Rotterdam, in cities everywhere (and in our imagined futures) come very much alive. I was particularly fond of the workshop I attended with the Failed Architecture group. You will, eventually, be able to see my notes on the matter in the archive (also active) of the conference.

I wondered often as I wandered through the city if novelty wares on the people of Rotterdam. To have a history built, erased, rebuilt, erased, remodeled and built again (even if at the slow pace of material construction) would mean a different sort of narrative of urban life than the one that exists in a Paris or a Buenos Aires. I also wondered if such reformulation, such spatial re-telling isn’t so much more in line with the way we engage history and spatial narrative in the contemporary moment. Wouldn’t Los Angeles or Rotterdam (and the two have much, I’d say, in common) be more suited in their development, in the way they’ve turned their backs on certain of their traces, to life in the contemporary moment? Is not novelty and the quick rise and demolition of structure just the stuff to which we’ve**  become accustomed?

These are urgent questions, but ones I won’t attempt to answer here. Let it just be known that Rotterdam is an urban landscape well worth exploring. And one that might, despite itself, tell us much about city histories. Certainly, if it gets its way, it is already telling us mountains about city futures.


*Can, indeed, you call something that exists somewhere on a server a missive? What is ‘sent’ on the internet?

**’We’ is always dangerous. I know. For the purposes of this particular entry, I’ll go out on a limb and say I’m speaking from a very particular, U.S. and Western European stance. Call it ‘Global North’. Call it ‘developed.’ Call it what you will.

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