Upcoming: The blunting of discrimination

April 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

The next chapter of my research on Commonplaces

The blunting of discrimination:  Producers and consumers between the Stalinallee and the Lijnbaan.

During the 1950s, in a world polarized by the ideological divide between Capitalism and Socialism, the reconstruction of war-stricken (East) Berlin and Rotterdam was more than a mere matter of social utility. It was under this pressure that Europe produced its last significant street paradigms: the Stalinallee and the Lijnbaan. Standing on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, these street spaces epitomized two radically contrasting takes on architecture, the city, society, and ultimately human nature itself.

In Rotterdam, van den Broek and Bakema rethought the centre as a place for intense consumption, shelving away the rising class of tertiary workers in tall residential slabs perpendicular to the first-ever pedestrian commercial spine in the world. In Berlin, Herman Henselmann planned a new expansion spearheaded by a monumental axis lined by neoclassicist apartment buildings. The choice of urban setting, function, and language is so diametrically opposed as to become almost a caricature of the effort to construct two different political subjects: the consumer, and the producer.

As far as architecture was concerned, blessed were the times such a choice still seemed possible – for, as this reading of these paradigms will uncover, the two conditions shared more than we would like to admit. In a macroeconomical framework where money and wage labour could not be eradicated even by a socialist regime, Simmel’s “blunting of discrimination” is the sine-qua-non of contemporary urbanity merely because consuming and producing are actually one and the same. The Lijnbaan and the Stalinallee were the manifestos of a wonderful world that almost was – one in which boundaries were still clear, zoning still made sense, labels still held their power.

In both cases these streets spell out an ambition to create a believable narrative, a narrative that would be able to hold together the splinters of an urban context that was irredeemably leading towards extreme fragmentation – and extreme genericity as well. If the consumer paradise borrowed the rationale of modernism, the monument to the producers leaned on an attempt at reviving a Schinkelian classicism of sorts. This search for a forced identity produced results that verge on the tragically ridiculous, or the ironically heroic – and it is anybody’s guess whether still today we can reject the Stalinallee as ridiculous and hail the Lijnbaan as heroic, or rather see the matter the other way around.

The story of these two streets is also a bittersweet parable on the power (and occasional weakness) of architectural language. In ten years, the Stalinallee paradigm withered and was quickly abandoned between harsh criticism, while the Lijnbaan model thrived and influenced not only the western world, but also key spaces of East-German cities such as Dresden and Chemnitz. While it is obvious that consumption has risen to the foreground of an increasingly rarefied production cycle, this fact alone does not suffice to explain the dynamic that saw the Lijnbaan model proliferate, and the Stalinallee paradigm die. Was it the demise of Stalinism that decreed the end of a turgid yet readable monumentality, or was it rather the strength of Modernism that endorsed a new model of urban centre based on shopping as a quasi-pedagogical activity? Is it politics that trumps architecture, or isn’t it rather form that, at times, influences function?

Pioneers and Gentrifiers: Rotterdam’s Creative Class 1970-2000

March 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

If the early seventies were a mythical time for New York’s art scene, it is at the end of the decade, and at the beginning of the eighties, that Rotterdam will experience the peak of a creative season whose aura has indelibly marked the next thirty years of its history – a feeling that was still very strong when I first moved here in 2007, right in time to have a taste of the good days before the 2008 crunch hit. Patricia van Ulzen describes this phenomenon in her Imagine a Metropolis: Rotterdam’s Creative Class1979-2000 (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2007), a book that draws on her PhD thesis and that somehow fluctuates between academic dissertation and journalistic report on the golden age of a city that has gone from dirty cargo port to glittering mecca of the creative industry in less than fifty years.

As an inhabitant of Rotterdam, I found van Ulzen’s  story fascinating but ultimately pretty sad. She traces the history of the most important underground venues of the city, highlighting the significance these places had as incubator of spontaneous culture. She explains how Rotterdam has been for a while one of the main centres of the New Wave and Punk movements; how a depressed, dirty, raw industrial city in decay became an ideal playground for the provocations of young artists. She makes us envious of the crazy nights organized at Hal 4 by the Utopia Collective and of the sheer energy that should have animated the working sessions of iconoclastic magazine “Hard Werken”.

But, there is always a but. The fact is, all this electrifying creativity is simply not there anymore. It is not there because in time both the public administration and the market have tended to institutionalize what was a spontaneous wave that was unavoidably dampened by being put on a pedestal. The moment that the creative class ceased to be “bad, mad, and dangerous to know” it became yet one more wheel into the well-oiled apparatus of city branding. Van Ulzen does talk about this dynamic, but she tends to give a positive appraisal to the result of a thirty-year-long process that, seen from the point of view of my generation, seems to be burdened by a much more somber judgment. As the author feels that Rotterdam is a success story, she also tends to stress the importance of the grassroots initiative without seeing that the seemingly ‘spontaneous’ scene has been artificially kept alive for decades by a mixture of public funds and corporate contributions.

What one could actually read between the lines in van Ulzen’s narrative is a textbook transition from a good-oriented industry to a service-oriented one; or, the story of how an underground current of creativity became the main engine of a market shift that repositioned Rotterdam from traditional logistic hub to centre of immaterial production. Rotterdam’s Creative Class has the clear ambition to give back the ‘alternative’ scene its deserved place in the story of the construction of Rotterdam’s urban identity. It is surely a generous pursuit but also one that runs the risk of ending in a politically correct mystification that hides the fact that, after a burst of spontaneous initiative, the so-called Creative Class has simply become the handmaiden of a market-driven economy that has canned every scrap of idea into a saleable, appealing product: Rotterdam as a brand.

(about the role of architecture in all this story, posts will follow).

Image above from humobisten.com

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