Urban Planning

Unreal Realism #2: More Stories from Postcards (and some from Google Street View too)

Here are the results of combining a couple of imaging and imagination techniques I’ve developed in two blog posts. The first are my continuing close-up studies of ‘normal’ behavior taking place in the background of postcards. The second is the use of Google street view to capture distinct moments in time. Here are two examples. The first is of Tintagel in Cornwall (sent in 1959). This is the original postcard:

Postcard of Tintagel, Cornwall, with Fore Street shown in the bottom left frame (sent 1959).

Postcard of Tintagel, Cornwall, with Fore Street shown in the bottom left frame (sent 1959).

In the bottom left frame of the postcard is a picture of Fore Street and within it, two men walking side by side – click on the image to see a close up. Here are the two men taken with a macro lens attached to an iPhone 5:

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Close up of Fore Street, Tintagel, showing two men walking together. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

The rendering of the image with the shallow depth of field captures beautifully the historic ‘feel’ of the scene. It could easily be a carefully composed photo taken by a local photographer. At first sight I thought the two men were wearing overalls – perhaps walking home from working at a local tin mine, deep in conversation. Closer inspection reveals both in suits, however, so the interpretation of the conversation shifts to one of business being discussed (perhaps about the local tin mine?). They look like they are walking home, to lunch or dinner, relaxed in each other’s company.

It’s an interesting experiment comparing these images with modern day ones made from Google street view. In some ways the two processes – of making postcards and of producing street view images – are similar. The people that figure in the background are equally unaware that they are being captured, and each image is a public one – sent through the post or digitally referenced.

Here is the 2011 Street View image that most closely follows the frame of the original Fore Street image:

Google Street View screenshot of Fore Street Tintagel, 2011.

Google Street View screenshot showing Fore Street, Tintagel, Cornwall 2011.

The town appears to have changed very little over the intervening years. The Hotels, both to the left and to the right in the original postcard image, are no longer hotels; pavements have been added, telegraph poles removed, and of course the cars are modern. But the rhythm of the built form; the mullioned windows, bay fronts, and roof angles – the essential structure of the place – remains.

Here is a close up of the people in that image:

Close up of the Google Street View screenshot showing people in Fore Street, Tintagel.

Close up of the Google Street View screenshot showing the people bottom left in the image above.

The people, pixelated by the digital zoom and anonymised algorithmically by Google, are distinct only in their forward movement; some look like holiday-makers though there is a man in a dark jacket who looks purposeful and businesslike, a distant echo of the two side-by-side men in suits.  He appears as a leader, the others following him either to be saved or led to their doom.

The second example is of Rye, in East Sussex (circa 1970). Here is the original postcard:

Postcard of Rye, East Sussex.  The bottom right frame shows East Street.

Postcard of Rye, East Sussex. The bottom right frame shows East Street (circa 1970).

In the bottom right frame is a photo of East Street, the Union Inn prominent and with three people in the scene. Here is the close up of them:

Close up of Postcard photo showing three people on East Street, Rye. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

Close up of Postcard photo showing three people on East Street, Rye. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

In contrast to the Tintagel scene the shallow depth of field in the macro-shot doesn’t reveal a ‘photo-within-a-photo-within-a-postcard’ but a scene made impressionistic by revealing the pattern of colour making up a half-tone print. Outside of the area of focus the photo looks normal, but it takes on a painterly quality as the focus sharpens, abstracting the two figures in almost pointillist fashion, patterning the women’s skirt in the foreground.

The scene shows a couple walking towards the camera, while a younger man with teddy-boy hair and turned up trousers exits a door behind them. The couple have baggage with them. The woman holds a red handbag in her left hand while dragging a suitcase. The man, seemingly dressed in military fatigues, holds a bag in his left had while gesturing with his right. Perhaps they are on their way to the station after a weekend away – did it go well? It’s difficult to tell, though there is a feeling of slight disconnection or unfamiliarity between them – the man and the woman don’t quite fit as a couple.

Here is the 2009 Google Street View version of East Street in Rye:

Google Street View screenshot showing East Street in Rye, East Sussex, in 2009.

Google Street View screenshot showing East Street in Rye, East Sussex, in 2009.

As with Tintagel the built form is largely unchanged. The Union Inn (sign just out of view) is still functioning and really the only difference is that an (ironic) ‘historic’ streetlamp and a few bollards have been added. The photo, with dynamic digital artefacts bottom left, also reveals a striking similarity in the people that are captured; a couple walk up the street while a person exits from the same doorway as before (the building now revealed as a dental surgery). The close up is shown here:

Close up of people in East Street, Rye, East Sussex from Google Street View screenshot.

Close up of people in East Street, Rye, East Sussex from Google Street View screenshot.

This time the man of the couple looks up at the camera (the Google car is a strange beast to behold) while arm-in-arm with his partner who carries a handbag. The woman exiting the dentist does so carefully, waiting on the top step before venturing further, perhaps slightly in pain from the dentist’s poking around; recalling where to go next.

There is a stability revealed in these various fragments and stories, of slow-changing environments with familiar rhythms and uses, and of age-old behaviours, interactions, and movements. The public facing camera that ostensibly documents and replicates place reveals all kinds of other things about the daily lives of people who populate those places. One only has to look with a magnifying glass (or digital zoom) to find that, in many English towns, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Respectability and Indigence in the Urban Environment

In his twenties, Thomas Hardy, the author, was working as a successful architect which makes reading his novels with an eye on design a revealing activity. Hardy writes with a depth about the built environment – and ‘place’ more generally – that is unusual in literature. The experience he gained in practice clearly gave him an observational capacity that renders the features of houses, streets, roads, markets, inns, hotels, etc. in fine detail. This is from Chapter 5 of The Mayor of Casterbridge describing a scene where the town band has begun to play:

“The building before whose doors they had pitched their music-stands was the chief hotel in Casterbridge – namely, the King’s Arms. A spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico, and from the open sashes came the babble of voices, the jingle of glasses, and the drawing of corks.”

That ‘spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico’ might be a line out of one of Pevsner’s guides to the Buildings of England but it is the social context through which buildings structure human activity that comes through most of all in Hardy – the shaped behavior following the shaped environment, to draw on Winston Churchill’s famous quote. A good example of this comes in Chapter 32, where Hardy describes two bridges in Casterbridge:

“Two bridges stood near the lower part of Casterbridge town. The first, of weather-stained brick, was immediately at the end of High Street, where a diverging branch from that throughfare ran round to the low-lying Durnover lanes; so that the precincts of the bridge formed the merging point of respectability and indigence. The second bridge, of stone, was further out on the highway – in fact, fairly in the meadows, though still within the town boundary.”

That move to describe the first bridge as: ‘the merging point of respectability and indigence’ combines the spatial aspects of the town with the human aspects. It is a point that will be familiar in many other towns: the place were upmarket connects with downmarket, where honest toil meets dodgy dealing.

Hardy describes the bridges further:

“These bridges had speaking countenances. Every projection in each was worn down to obtuseness partly by weather, more by friction from generations of loungers, whose toes and heels had from year to year made restless movements against these parapets, as they had stood there meditating on the aspect of affairs. In the case of the more friable bricks and stones even the flat faces were worn into hollows by the same mixed mechanism. The masonry of the top was clamped with iron at each joint; since it had been no uncommon thing for desperate men to wrench the coping off and throw it down the river, in reckless defiance of the magistrates.”

The bridges, in other words, had become places to ponder, worry, and reflect on things gone awry in life. The external movements connected with those thoughts – toe and heel movements, leg movements, hand movements, and grasping at loose material – had further served to shape, and communicate the meaning of the bridges according to their use.  Like stone steps, worn down in the middle after decades of people climbing up and down. Indeed the bridges said this very clearly through their ‘speaking countenances’.

Did the architects of the two bridges intend that they would find use in such a way? One might think it unlikely, the main function of the bridges really being to take a road across water, but the parapets – the worn down projections – indicate a secondary function: places for people to stop; to fish, for example, or to keep out of the way of wide traffic, or to look out on the river. So the pondering activity is there in the plan somewhere, if not accurately defined or envisaged. What an architect might not expect is the subsequent shaping of the bridge, through friction, to more accurately define the human activity that takes place on the bridge.

Casterbridge, the imagined town in Hardy’s literature, is derived from Dorchester, the real town in Dorset and it is interesting to think how fiction and reality might be connected and overlap, especially when one thinks of the work of an architect or urban planner as a kind of fiction or authorship. The vision expressed through sketches, drawings, or artist’s impressions, that I’ve talked about in other blog posts, show a potential narrative that is then further formed by actual use. And now Google Street View, time-lapsed over years, can reveal a post-design narrative (see Figure 1). Places take on meaning as much as being given meaning.

The First Bridge

Figure 1: A Google Street View image shows the place of the first bridge in Thomas Hardy’s description of Casterbridge (Dorchester) above. The bridge is ‘immediately at the end of the high street’, though the man caught on camera on the bridge doesn’t look as desperate as the men of Casterbridge.

A prime example of this, and a kind of modern day Thomas Hardy example, came to me when I lived in the centre of Milton Keynes some years ago. The centre of Milton Keynes is a shopping mall. A reasonably nice, high quality, grade 2 listed shopping mall; but a shopping mall none-the-less. Butting on to the shopping mall, further down the hill to the east, is Campbell Park: “the largest and most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century” according to Pevsner (Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire). The centerpiece of the park, leading directly from the axis of the shopping mall, is a belvedere; a huge pile of earth projecting out from the natural hill to give a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape looking eastwards. It is place, in other words, conceivably not dissimilar to the bridges in Casterbridge. The amount of ‘desperate men’ (the law courts in Milton Keynes are further than in Casterbridge I’d wager) is probably far outweighed by the number of people seeking a nice view in their lunch hour, but there is a kind of ‘speaking countenance’ there.

Campbell Park was generally emptier than it should have been. Housing schemes surrounding the park were only partially completed, so outside the hours of business the number of people in the park was often in single figures, outnumbered by the sheep that were allowed to graze from time to time.

The flat I rented looked into a wooded area at the side of the park and, after a year or so of living there, I noticed some odd behavior. My flat, as well as looking directly at the wooded area of the park, overlooked a car-park; a place, I assumed, where people would leave their cars while having a relaxed weekend picnic in the park with their family. What I began to notice was a pattern: single men would drive into the car park and wait in their cars while looking at their mobile phones. After a period of time, they would walk purposefully into the wooded area of the park before reappearing, less purposefully, some time later. Then they would drive off. What was confusing was that the path the men (and it was almost always men) walked so purposefully towards only led out of the park again some way down, after passing through the wooded area – it was a path that led nowhere! Figure 2 shows the place.

Campbell Park, Milton Keynes

Figure 2. A Google Street View image shows the wooded area (left) in Milton Keynes where a gay cruising area had formed. On the left, near the ‘keep left’ signs, you can see the entry point for ‘the path that leads nowhere’, while the car park is to the right of the picture (behind and out of view). The man caught on camera looks like he is headed to the path.

Now, it might seem obvious now, but at the time I was genuinely puzzled – why would you walk down a path that led nowhere? The question rolled around my head for a few weeks until my friend D arrived to stay. D, who is gay, had a very simple answer to my question: “it’s a gay cruising strip”, he said, nonchalantly. “How do you know?” I asked. He shrugged, “it’s just obvious, take a walk there and you’ll see people in tracksuit bottoms.” This was all news to me, but to prove D’s point we took a walk down the path and sure enough, up came a man wearing tracksuit bottoms, and paying us a lot of attention. “It’s the sense of danger” D explained of the behavior more generally, “or maybe they are married and don’t want their wives to find out”. A place for desperate men, in other words.

D had another theory. Perhaps the path had been deliberately designed for the purposes of gay cruising? After all why would a path that led nowhere make it on to the plan for the park? Maybe this was why Pevsner had called it ‘the most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century’? It’s a nice thought, that someone in the planning office was discretely tending to the needs of a community of people for outdoor sex; intending – by arranging parking, woodland, and a path that leads nowhere in close proximity – that outdoor sex would be the result. More likely is the Thomas Hardy explanation though, that the place came to support, and eventually help to shape, the behavior. And one way of doing that is to place a space at the border of respectability and indigence.

Double-Barrelled Design (or How Designers and Engineers can Co-exist in Harmony)

Last week’s fire at the Glasgow School of Art brought to mind a lesser known Charles Rennie Mackintosh building, far from the Mackintosh theme park of Glasgow. 78 Derngate in Northampton was completed in 1917 and comprehensively restored with a museum added in 2003.

The Doorway to Charles Rennie Mackintosh's 78 Derngate in Northampton, 1917.

The Doorway to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 78 Derngate in Northampton, 1917. All images in this blog post are reproduced with kind permission from the 78 Derngate trust.

Rennie Mackintosh, on the shallow, downward curve of his career, remodelled the original Georgian town house for his client and patron Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke, the owner of a local business manufacturing model trains. The house was for Bassett-Lowke and his new bride, Florence Jane Jones, and features top-to-bottom, inside-and-out, furniture-and-all, familiar Rennie Mackintosh tropes; super-sized chair backs, vertical extension in composition, repetitive patterning effects, and sharp symmetry throughout. A minor masterpiece well worth a visit in other words.

That model train connection turns out to be interesting. Bassett-Lowke’s business was essentially a manufacturing engineering business, turning out train sets and accessories for a growing market in the early 1900’s.

Bassett-Lowke model train and figures.

Bassett-Lowke model train and figures.

The train paraphernalia needed ‘designing’, for sure, but it was Bassett-Lowke’s commitment to a larger idea of design that is striking. His investment in, and collaboration with, a world-leading designer and architect is unusual for a manufactuing engineer, to say the least, and reveals a mind open to the value that good design could bring, both to business and to life.

The battles between engineers and designers are well known to anyone who has worked or taught in one or other of the subjects. Engineers think design is some fluffy (and probably unnecessary) addition to the technical, manly, business of producing important things, while designers generally think of engineers as small minded, unnecessarily obstructive, and overly conservative. Though the cliché wears thin in places, the structure of it remains sound.

Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke posing with a catalogue of Bassett-Lowke scale models.

Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke posing with a catalogue of Bassett-Lowke scale models.

Why did Bassett-Lowke see a value in design? We might think that the model products of his business – railways, stations, figures, houses, hedges, and, of course, the trains themselves – led to thinking of the subsequent construction of the model as a creation of a small world (every consumer an omniscient narrator of infrastructural development!). Bassett-Lowke, a successful businessman, probably viewed the actual world a bit like that; a manipulable, work-in-progress for a better future. And this view of the world helped him to realise that good design could help achieve and communicate concrete, ‘real-world’ progress. He also clearly saw it as something that could have a qualitative effect on his life.

The collaboration with Rennie Mackintosh – and it does seem a genuine collaboration with Bassett-Lowke asking pointed questions of Rennie-Mackintosh’s evolving design – would have provided great insight into the process of design. Subsequently, perhaps through ideas of design that he was introduced to by Rennie-Mackintosh, the output of Bassett-Lowke’s factory was more consciously designed. Not the trains themselves, which remained simulacra of the real thing, but the packaging, which was more graphic and composed, as was the lettering and graphics for the company.

Christmas card designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Bassett-Lowke in 1922. The trains and ships refer to the Bassett-Lowkes model toy business.

Christmas card designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Bassett-Lowke in 1922. The trains and ships refer to the Bassett-Lowkes model toy business. © 78 Derngate Trust, reproduced with kind permission.

Each year, starting with Rennie Mackintosh, Bassett-Lowke would commission a designer to design a Christmas card for him, something that would have seemed something of an indulgence to most engineers (and probably most in his own company), but something that illustrates a growing aesthetic sensibility and its importance in achieving longevity. Over time the collection of Christmas cards has formed a significant legacy of Bassett-Lowke’s company.

When it came time to move house from the Derngate, Bassett-Lowke turned to another discipline-spanning designer, Peter Behrens, who worked at many scales, from products to graphics, to architecture, famously with AEG in Germany. In another whole-hearted collaboration, though this time led by an increasingly confident and design-literate Bassett-Lowke, an entirely new Northampton house was designed and realised in 1926, appropriately called ‘New Ways’; one of the first houses of the modern movement to exist in the UK.

'New Ways' designed by Peter Behrens in collaboration with Bassett-Lowke in 1926. One of the first houses of the modern movement in Britain.

‘New Ways’ designed by Peter Behrens in collaboration with Bassett-Lowke in 1926. One of the first houses of the modern movement in Britain.

As demand for train sets began to dwindle, during the Second World War, Bassett-Lowke turned his model-making skills to help in rebuilding a battered and occasionally ruined country. He worked with local council architects and planners to produce scale-models of new urban environments, helping to envision a new designed and ordered world. This way of visualising the urban future through physically modeling would have been relatively scarce in 1943, though model-makers are often part of large architectural and urban-design practices now.

Bassett-Lowke's model of the proposed new city of Coventry in 1943. The photo caption reads:

Bassett-Lowke’s model of the proposed new city of Coventry in 1943. The photo caption reads: “Model of the New Coventry, showing the Central Market and Commercial Buildings”.

Bassett-Lowke’s is a story both of appreciating the value of design – and importantly acting on that appreciation through investment – as well as one of collaborating across traditionally antagonistic disciplines. It is a little-known story we would do well to learn from.

HS2 and the Dutch Golden Age

Another day and another newspaper article on HS2, the idea of which is fast becoming a text for all kinds of things to be projected on to. Here are a few recent headlines:

HS2 alternatives could require 14 years of weekend rail closures (28th October, 2014)
Soil from HS2 ‘will trash’ Chilterns beauty spot (1st December, 2013)
China: We’ll help to build HS2 rail line (3rd December, 2013)
Boris Johnson’s father calls for ‘popular uprising’ against HS2 (25th January, 2014)
HS2 may increase risk of homes being flooded, senior Conservatives fear (23rd February, 2013)
HS2 will increase fertility, but may cause cancer, chief medic warns (13th March, 2013)

Ok, I made the last one up, but you get the picture. HS2 is drawn very easily, and probably unnoticed by newspaper readers, into feeding other national discourses (the preservation of nature, the rise of China, the threat of floods). It has become a sort of cipher to pour other things into to make some kind of value judgement possible. In Newspaper world the consequences of HS2 can only be dire or euphoric; the end of the world as we know it, or a new utopia.

But the textual nutmegs are sophisticated compared to the visual representations of HS2. The problem for the newspapers is that we are dealing with something that only exists – and then only tenuously – on paper; though admittedly by now, quite a bit of paper. No track has been laid, no stations built, and no trains speed through the landscape. Not much to take a photo of in other words. Apart from the paper.

So what kind of a picture fits an article on HS2? The answer is, this one:

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Image of High Speed Rail 2: The Berkswell Viaduct

The computer-generated image above, paid for (we can assume) by HS2 Ltd, and which you can see here, here, here, here, and here – oh, and here – has become the most familiar image of HS2, shown over and over again. It is an image that shows the future in a past-infused version of the now. A stonking great HS2 railway makes only a minor difference to the quiet, rural landscape, the image suggests, you might not even notice it as it blurs by. You can barely make out the hi-tension power lines that run alongside the railway against the strategically placed grey clouds. The clean, elegant lines of the viaduct complement the linearity of the canal, which appears much larger than the HS2 line; much more of an intrusion into quiet country ways. The weather is good too; there are the aforementioned clouds on the horizon but blue sky above, reflected on the surface of the water, as is the viaduct (though curiously not the train).

There are no people in the image prompting the question: if nobody sees an HS2 train cross a viaduct, does it make a sound? The answer turns out to be interesting because the image, in fact, is a frame from a well-worked, computer-animated film of HS2 that you can see below – watch it on fullscreen for the complete HD effect.

It’s very quiet isn’t it? Snaking through the landscape, barely even observable at some points in the film. When it gets to the viaduct segment at 28 seconds see how the surface of the canal gently laps and how the trees gently sway in a soft breeze. Perhaps a modern version of the question above could be formulated. If everybody sees the train silently passing over the viaduct on YouTube, does it make a sound?

The other day it struck me what else the HS2 image reminded me of. It was thinking about the reflection on the canal that did it. The image that was brought to mind was The View of Delft by Johannes Vermeer, painted in 1661 and shown below.

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Perhaps there is more of a relationship between the imagery of future infrastructure and Dutch landscape painting in the Golden Age than one might think? The painting has a similar sky to the HS2 image, though there are more clouds. A feeling of space in the painting is created, as it is in the HS2 image, by the reflection on the canal, where both Oude and Niewe Kerken (old and new churches) are both visible.

Some years ago I regularly walked past the point where the View of Delft is painted from and often wondered about the painting and the reflection. Can one really see the townscape in the canal? (yes, kind of) Would the people really appear so small? (no) The perspective does indeed float a little, giving a feeling of, if not omniscience, then slight queasyness in the viewer (quite like a computer-generated model might in fact, though the HS2 image perspective is based firmly on the toe path). But the picturing in both cases – the frame, the sky, the water; the space – is similar, and strikingly so.

Ten years ago, if there had been enough computing power to create and run it, the HS2 animation would have won awards for the subtle rendering of surface, the realism of the movement, and the quality of the direction. Today I just wonder how it is that our visions of the future are based so much on our picturing of our past? It’s almost like we’ve run out of ideas.

Delirious and Asymmetrical in Rotterdam

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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.

Rotterdam Station

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.

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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.