Travelling smoothly and swiftly on high speed rail last week, first on the Eurostar from London to Brussels and then on the Thalys from Brussels to Rotterdam. I arrived at Rotterdam in the middle of the opening ceremony for the new train station (left in the photo above). The Dutch King, Willem Alexander, had been earlier in the day to cut the ribbon and as I walked out to the main concourse the Dutch version of Arethra Franklin was belting out R&B.
I lived in Holland from 1999 to 2005 and was a regular visitor to Rotterdam (and its train station) which became one of my favourite cities. You get a kind of cold, wind-blown, exhilaration as you walk around what, to all outward appearances, looks like a modern architect’s playground. The sculptural form of the new station perfectly fits the Rotterdam cityscape which is fast becoming an essay in something much larger in scale than the humble human.
One could blame Rem Koolhaas, whose Kunsthal was an early example of his disorienting approach to architecture, and who still has his office in the city, flogging Harvard architecture graduates to within an inch of their usefulness. Or perhaps one could blame the Germans for leveling the city in 1940, and providing a canvas for a new city plan and buildings of steadily increasing modernity and out-there architectural experimentation (witness the cube houses by Piet Blom for example, or take a trip to the Netherlands Architectuur Institute).
But really, what is there to blame for? The city is a magnificent realisation of the future, where one feels properly alienated; cowed by the buildings that shift and change as the light of the day passes overhead, shafted by the cold wind that never seems to stop, and entertained by video screens as large as basketball courts. Standing in the middle of the Schouwburgplein (theatre plaza), watching people interact with the large hydraulic street lamps slowly bending over like mechanical giraffes, one feels in the grip of someone else’s dream.
Back in 2005 the Kop van Zuid, on the south bank of the Maas, was just reaching completion where the Erasmus bridge, nicknamed ‘the swan’ for it’s white, hi-tech, asymmetrical, harp-stringed beauty, brought a formal coherence to the whole scheme. Similarly, the new station, with another asymmetrical curve, and another nickname (‘the kapsalon’, a late night food dish presented in an aluminium tray package and invented by a hair dresser) feels like it properly integrates both the city space north of the Maas and all the transport systems that arrive and link together at the station – trains of course, but also trams, buses, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.
A recent punctuation point on the way from train station to river, from North to South, is the new Paulus Kerk, a copper-clad, future-take on the old church, which sold it’s land for some funky high-rise developments and got a mega-sized piece of Will Alsop jewelry in return. “when I first saw it I wondered if it was really copper”, my Rotterdam-based friend Dirk said, “but then I saw the green oxidization near the pavement where people had pissed on the building, so I knew it was.” The buildings of Rotterdam may create a thrilling skyline, but they still have to meet the ground somewhere. And as long as they continue to do so, there will always be an opportunity to piss on architects’ dreams.