Archive for February, 2011

Intermediair published a rather thoughtful article about the changes that the city may experience in the future. They summarize what others (including me) have stated before: that we have a planning and building policy that is completely based on expansion but that there is no real basis for that expansion anymore. The author, Kees Versluis, predicts that existing excess capacity in office and retail space will not be used in the future, period. That leaves massive amounts of built but empty spaces. Those places will become increasingly unpopular, leading to a downward spiral. The urban has been through such spirals before (the article refers to Detroit as an example) but there are two reasons why this time it is different. First of all, it is unlikely that the consumer base will increase as populations start to shrink (provided that immigration continuous to be discouraged). Secondly, it will reinforce city centres rather than weakening them as happened during the phase of suburbanization. City centres, with their specific qualities, are likely to become more interesting than bland office parks near provincial towns. This corresponds to findings from my research and the research by colleagues. The article is in Dutch and I encourage all Dutch readers to have a look at it.

IJburg under construction in 2006. The article in Intermediair refers to this large new area, east of Amsterdam. Picture by me.


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How to convert an abandoned shipyard into something useful? That is a question many port cities struggle with. If the shipyard is located in the city centre and therefore sitting on expensive ground, things are not that difficult. If this is not the case, things are suddenly much more complicated. Recently, I went on a site visit to see how this was handled in Rotterdam. The site: Heijplaat. The shipyard: RDM Heijplaat. The task: preserving the monumental buildings through creative reuse in an area relatively far from the city centre, in the middle of a fully functional port.

RDM stands for Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij or Rotterdam Drydock Enterprise.  RDM used to be one of the main builders of ships in The Netherlands. It built a great number of ships, including iconic ocean liners such as the SS Rotterdam. Because the shipyard was quite far removed from the city, the founder of RDM built a separate workers’ village next to the shipyard. This was called Heijplaat, after the location. The village is a hallmark of socialist-capitalist entrepreneurship because it was believed that happy workers are of great importance to the company and should therefore be treated in a good way. In its heydays, the village featured a booming community. The shipyard itself went from good times to bad times in the 1970s and several mergers and bankruptcies marked the end of the company, as happened to most of such companies in Europe. RDM also built war ships, including submarines for the Royal Dutch Navy and ROC Taiwan. Here is a picture of the Zwaardvis class submarine while being repaired:

Zwaardvis class diesel submarine at RDM. Picture taken from http://www.dutchsubmarines.com

The shipyard and its intellectual property was taken over by businessman Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen, which marked the end of the naval activities. In turn, he went down amidst charges of gross corruptions and briberies. His downfall also meant the downfall of Willem Scholten, the director of the Rotterdam Port Authorities. In a complicated move, the port authorities suddenly found themselves in possession of a defunct and bankrupt shipyard. Both gentlemen are currently on trial. The Heijplaat village, meanwhile, had defended itself against plans to demolish it during the 1980s. It is now accepted by the Rotterdam municipality that demolition is not an option. There are plans for renovation and some small-scale new property developments have taken place.

If anything, the old shipyard is an industrial beauty. A few years ago I wandered around its empty premises. There was something monumental about the abandoned buildings and the sense of history that appeared in every detail.  Here are a few pictures from that trip, shot on old-fashioned film.

Inside the main machine hall. Picture by me.

Cranes suspending from the roof inside the RDM machine hall. Picture by me.

Monumental entrance to the main RDM hall. Picture by me.

The bottom line: an enormous industrial complex that would collapse in a couple of years if no one were to step in. Luckily, there were chances of recovery. The municipality decided it wanted to redevelop it into a creative cluster, focused on technology and innovation. I’m very cautious when civil servants start blabbering about ‘creative clusters’ and similar vocabulary that comes from Richard Florida and the likes. Still, I can’t deny that much, very much, has changed since my previous visit. It houses a polytechnic school (Hogeschool Rotterdam) and multiple companies. It houses the Rotterdam Academy for Architecture and Urban Planning and multiple facilities for conferences and workshops. The Museum Boijmans van Beuningen uses the so-called Duiktbootloods (submarine pen) for special exhibitions of contemporary art. There is a fast ferry connecting the site to the city centre in ten minutes. Here are some pictures of the current situation. Compare with the pictures above…

Renovated entrance to the main building. Picture by me.

Inside the so-called Innovation Dock. Picture by me.

View on one of the workshops. Picture by me.

Looking inside another workshop. Picture by me.

Another view inside the Innovation Dock. Picture by me.

Detail of a display at the Academy for Architecture and Urban Planning. Picture by me.

So… all is well that ends well? The transformation is astonishing. The whole area is vibrant again and I love the atmosphere of students and companies working on new ideas and trying out new things. It is definitely a much more interesting place than the dull, mind-numbing office park that houses my university. This area makes me want to invent something new and I think that this is exactly this kind of atmosphere that makes it such an attractive place.

But this blog tries to look at such developments from multiple angles and one thing that I consider a weakness is the fact that it is all there because of public money. It is public money that keeps the schools open, it is public money that pays for the fast ferry and it is public money that helps the museum organizing exhibitions. The thesis is that public money is necessary as seeding money and that private investments will appear in the long run. Perhaps. It is still too early to tell so the jury is still out. But there is a danger that private money will not pop-up. As discussed before, it is already difficult to develop houses or office spaces in the most popular parts of town and I can’t see that changing soon so I doubt that there are chances for this to happen at RDM. But let’s not be pessimistic. Let’s return here again in a few years to see what has happened. I will post the results here.


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If there ever was the ultimate soundtrack for the urban at night, it would be ‘Sunset Mission’ by Bohren und der Club of Gore. It is darkjazz at its best, to be played around midnight during a rainy evening in, of course, a big city. Bohren et al. started as a German collective playing metal but those influences gave way for jazz and Sunset Mission was the first release where no guitars were used anymore. Subsequent releases become more abstract pieces of art, aimed at achieving maximum impact with minimal means. In a sense, Sunset Mission is their most accessible work in the realm of jazz. But don’t be fooled because the music on Sunset Mission becomes more abstract over its +70 minutes playing time. The art is in the fact that you won’t notice this unless you put your player on repeat, in which case the opening song sounds almost too straight in your face. The overall atmosphere is unbelievably heavy and gloomy but in the nicest possible way, i.e. you don’t feel inclined to reach for your razorblades. It invites you on a journey into your own thoughts. There are times when I don’t want to listen to it because I know it will expand my gloomier self. However, when in the right mood, it hits the right spot and I keep playing it over and over again during night. Highly recommended.

Sunset Mission - Bohren & Der Club of Gore

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