Rotterdam: Story of an Open City

Rotterdam. Story of an Open City from Ewout Dorman on Vimeo.

‘This is a city haunted by the past, nostalgic for the future and unable to live in the present.’ This opening message evokes the polemic of Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ ‘second city’.

This engaging  portrait of Rotterdam reflects on past struggles such as the Rotterdam Blitz that destroyed the city centre in the spring of 1940. Each year flak lights project a strange form onto the clouds, creating the precise contour of the fire storm that tore the city apart over seventy years ago. ‘Why this mass worship of destruction?’ asks the narrator innocently. This is the inescapable past that continues to haunt Rotterdam, ‘We gaze up and are collectively transported back to that fateful day..’

There are psychological repercussions for a city that has been destroyed and then rebuilt: ‘Whenever things are not entirely satisfying, it’s entire physical shape, its ideology and its identity will be replaced by another one.’ Inhabitants feel  at once in control of the shifting identity of the city but also as a powerless audience ‘watching  the epic of the city’s constant changes.’

The death of Rotterdam’s historic city yielded the creation of an entirely new and designed city; ‘We glided as spirits between the abstract planes and immaterial volumes.’ Further from town, the city saw the construction of Rotterdam Port, the largest and most modern port in the world.  The port was open to the future and open to the world but not to the inhabitants of Rotterdam. All too soon the port became a grave symptom of the modern industrial age. An age that replaced human beings with machines. This would ravage Rotterdam’s working class communities, facing increasing challenges such as  unemployment, immigration and poor educational provision

Chronic dissatisfaction with Rotterdam’s changing urban landscape gave rise to citizen-led design efforts. Inhabitants began to demand that the city begin to consider people. This call to action yielded more pedestrianized streets and the creation of a series of neighbourhoods. However this focus on the needs of the community shifted attention away from architectural expertise and design innovation.

Therefore the following chapter in Rotterdam’s changing urban landscape would be determined by the market. People would still factor in this vision of middle-class cosmopolitan modernity, but they would appear as ideal citizens in artist impressions of a Utopian society. These impressions would fail to recognise the city’s plural social fabric. Social ills such as unemployment and increasing tensions between Dutch and immigrant communities are omitted.

In a new dawn of understanding, prescription to ideologies has been abandoned in favour of ‘Facts on the Ground’. The tenets for creating an Open City include; ‘removing physical boundaries, building shared spaces, restoring connections and revealing unexpected panoramas.’ Finally, ‘only when we accept the city as she is right now, will we be able to plan her future.’

This film forms part of “The Make-able City (Rotterdam: De Maakbare Stad)”,  a theme  sub-curated by Crimson Architectural Historians at the 4th International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam, the Netherlands in 2009. 


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