Podium: Ole Bouman - How to turn nothing into something

From a speech by the editor of the Dutch architecture magazine `Archis' at the Riba conference `Cities in the Millennium'
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The Independent Culture
I WAS involved in the Rotterdam 2045 project, a project that included the opportunity to develop concrete design proposals for the city in the next millennium. These designs were used to open the discussion on the character of the city as a whole. Design as a political tool.

The crisis of the makeable society is being discussed everywhere. In the meantime, we carry on creating, making, building and planning. The end of the makeability sometimes seems to be only a defeatist thought, not real. Nevertheless, this question is very real in Rotterdam.

If there is one place where, after the war, a lot has been visibly achieved, where "producing an achievement" was considered the greatest value, then it is Rotterdam. Only those who, in the late Forties, after having left the Central Station, stood on the edge of the plain of Rotterdam, can understand what has been achieved here.

Nowhere else was work done so purposefully and with such concrete goals. Nowhere else was construction so much connected with belief in the future. And nowhere else did you know so precisely what your future was going to be.

At present, there is no other place where the problem of the future is as tangible as in Rotterdam. This is no abstract and philosophical problem. The project of turning nothing into something has been more or less completed. The Kop van Zuid, one could say, is the last great effort that has its origins in the Thought of Reconstruction.

This is a precious cliche: the Rotterdammer rolled up his sleeves and put his shoulders to the wheel. But we find ourselves at a turning-point with possibly far-reaching psychological consequences. How can you preserve the charm of the morale from the time of the reconstruction now the city has been rebuilt, when there is no clear goal, no more consensus on the strategy, no ethical framework in which big groups can find each other?

The doubtful luxury of the zero point of the bombardment definitely belongs to the past. There is now talk of an optimal situation as the starting point. There is a transition from growth and making, to maintenance and management. Obviously, building activities will continue, as in any other big city. However, this will not be comparable with filling the post-war tabula rasa. This is a far less illustrious destiny, with many more doubts. How does one remain enthusiastic then? Isn't the maintenance of the existing a size too small for the real Rotterdammer? Luckily, some will say, there is still the port; this symbol of growth, regeneration and international status. The spirit of Rotterdam will, no matter how, survive in the port, if only in the constantly increasing transshipment. As long as the port is growing, energy and inspiration can find a way out.

In this version of the future the city is reduced to an economic unit. The port as the essence of Rotterdam means a materialistic view of the world, in which business and international orientation are the main elements. But this also immediately indicates the vulnerability of this image. Because, according to both the idea of world-wide free trade, and to the opposite model of protectionism, Rotterdam as a port city will have to do its very best. Moreover, it is not yet at all clear to what extent the future port will have anything to do with the city.

At the non-material level there are also all kinds of developments that can put the port into perspective. What is advantageous for the port does not necessarily have to be good for Rotterdam. Similarly, what is advantageous for Rotterdam does not necessarily have to be good for the country.

Rotterdam, as a large urban conurbation, deals with the tendencies occurring in Europe and in the world. There is an increasing pressure on industrial activities, in particular in the countries of Western Europe. The growth of the tertiary and quaternary sectors is enormous, and this has far-reaching consequences for a city like Rotterdam. Migration, mobility and environment require the necessary attention. Due to the advance of the flexible capital we are witnessing how scale and territory, of geographically bound powers and material products, are being put into perspective.

These kinds of ambiguities make thinking about the future of the port, the city and the region so interesting. Rotterdam is thus an exemplary model for the future of the metropolis, which can teach everybody a lot. The project concerns Rotterdam, which in the future must also continue to offer a lot: as a special social network, as an economic engine, as a fine example of physical planning.

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