From my bed in sleepy Utrecht, from glimpses of North Holland’s rural expanse I arrive in Rotterdam. A rush-hour city made even more chaotic by the long necks of mechanical cranes peeking over the slender constructions of rebuilding from the ground up.
Between Utrecht and Rotterdam, the train passes quickly through the long strips of farms and the parallel stripes of drainage canals. The arrival is chaos in the European rush hour mania radiating from the station into the city. The station itself is currently under construction; massive pile drivers beat the earth and I-beams dangle from chains hanging from the clouds. Construction is a theme in this country.
Our group, having already spent a little time in Rotterdam a few days ago, wandered slowly through Schouwburg Plein, a plaza designed by West 8 to reference both the Dutch polder and the industrial shipping of Rotterdam’s port. I’d seen this place before, in pictures. Somehow the reality of this plaza, which I’ve imagined from a cubicle in Rapson’s Architecture and Landscape Architecture library back in Minneapolis, was very different, somehow more dynamic. We spent a few minutes ‘improving’ the design in our sketchbooks. That is, after all, what we came here to do. As presumptuous as that is, we are designers. Or becoming designers.
Next, we had an appointment with the Office of Sustainability and Climate Change at city hall. They talked to us about their activities to try to quantify global climate change as it affects Rotterdam. The city offers incentives by the square meter as people instal green roofs and is conscientious of the impact of rising tidal waters in the Nieuwe Maas upon which Rotterdam was founded. One thing they didn’t address in our meeting is that, given the amount of international shipping that passes through their port, it seems they should have some sort of plan to cope with the massive pollution that accompanies that global industry. In addition to its expansive heavy cargo shipping footprint, petrochemicals are the main industry embedded in Rotterdam’s port. I couldn’t help but wonder what sorts of subsidies it might require to put a green roof over all of this.
From City Hall, we hiked to the Erasmusbrug (Erasmus Bridge). We were to travel by water taxi on the Nieuwe Maas through the industrial heart of Rotterdam on our way to tour the RDM (Research, Design, Manufacturing) campus. This joint project between some 30 businesses and more than 800 high school and college students is based on “learning, working, and innovating” as they try to reinvigorate the massive Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij (Rotterdam Dry Dock Company) shipbuilding infrastructure. The shipyard expands into others, a seamless transition from the past to the present. The city looks on, cranes maneuver boxcars from ships to shore, the old quarantine island across the bay is now a squatters’ haven. And, nestled against windowless structures where wartime submarines were once assembled, the historic workers’ village of Heijplaat still stands in dramatic contrast.
Originally built in the 1920s by the Rotterdam Dry Dock Company to house its workers and their families, this was a very different ‘company town’ than the mining towns I studied as an undergraduate in New Mexico. The Heijplaat neighborhood embodies the two worlds of the Netherlands: The historic and the modern lie together here.
It also exemplifies the direction I want my studies to take me. I want to understand the scale. I want to know how people exist in this type of habitat, surrounded by something so huge on the horizon. I was moved as I wandered along brick streets lined with Dutch houses against the backdrop of Rotterdam’s sturdy industrial shipping mechanisms. School was being dismissed and kids were populating the neighborhood as I sketched a Gothic revival portico that separated the warehouses from the homes. Families here live a life more similar to what I’ve observed in places like Eindhoven and Edam than what I’ve seen in crane-in-the-sky Rotterdam just beyond the shipping containers parked on the borders of Heijplatt.
If I had grown up here, I would want to be a landscape architect. There was something about the duality of the place that inspired me. It could have been a ghost town, yet it isn’t. Tenement apartments on a robust wharf are being cleared for state of the art single family units on the waterfront. The shifts in scale are at once confusing and calming. Much like in Schouwburg Plein this morning, I found myself in an open space surrounded by the only vertical relief this country knows. Somehow a small, family oriented neighborhood maintains its own identity– uniquely Dutch– while the larger-than-life Rotterdam slowly ebbs at its shore.