Archive for August, 2015

The artist’s rationale: contempt for Rotterdam

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015
Two giant globes on a square.

Sculptures proposed for Rotterdam Central Station square.

In Eeva Liukki’s article in Vers Beton ‘Hoe Kissing Earth toch kan slagen’ (How ‘Kissing Earth’ may yet succeed’) she explains why Mr. Eliasson’s sculpture is so wrong for the new station square, partly in a hypothetical future open letter containing the artist’s ‘rationale’. I would like to add my thoughts, inspired by Ms. Liukku’s post. (Note: I quote the ‘letter’ from Ms. Liukku’s post, and have provided translations into English.)

Mistake 1: The station square is not empty!

A square like this one is not an empty pedestal. It is a screen upon which the story of public life unfolds every day, a fabric of small and large interactions. Being part of this, and observing it, is one of the unique pleasures of life in a city.

Public life: the density and variety of these low-intensity contacts in cities is beautiful in itself, and plays a more critical role than it first seems in creating the quality of life in a city. Architects Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre explain this in the books ‘Life between buildings’ and ‘How to study public life’. They have improved public life in their native Copenhagen and in many other cities around the world. (Have a look at their Oculus book talk.)

Ms. Liukku’s states in her opening remarks: ‘Het is alsof de Rotterdammers via hun protest tegen dit werk hun liefde verklaren vóór de leegte, een fata morgana uit de tijd dat de stad nog plat lag.’ (‘It’s as though through this protest, the people of Rotterdam declare their love for emptiness, a ‘fata morgana’ from the time that the city lay flattened.’) Actually, people are defending their enchantment with the new experience of public life this innovative station has introduced them to. They’ve fallen in love with it, and rightfully so! The comparison to the ‘flattened’ city after the bombing is inappropriate: no-one in Rotterdam has any love for this idea, no-one likes ‘emptiness’.

Mistake 2: This is not an argument for or against ‘modern art’

Supporters of the sculpture paint us, the opponents of Mr. Eliasson’s sculptures, as people with narrow, retrograde taste who oppose any work of modern art. This is misleading. We are opposing ONE work which is inappropriate for THIS location, and we have good reasons for it. We are defending a highly innovative modern building against a sculpture which will literally physically destroy part of our ability to enjoy the square – this is hardly a retrograde position.

Mistake 3: Narcissism

Ms. Liukku puts her finger on the main problems with the rationale behind this work: it’s a banal idea based on cliches about the work and the city.

Some quotes from the hypothetical artist’s rationale (‘open letter’) in her post:

‘Voor één keer wilde ik niet spelen met water of licht, maar met de zelfperceptie van een volk. Rotterdammers kwamen op mijn pad als uitstekende slachtoffers. Ze troffen mij als het prototype van de chauvinistische en zelfvoldane stadsburgers.’ (For once, I decided not to play with water or light, but rather, with the self-perception of a population. I found the people of Rotterdam to be victims par excellence. The struck me as the prototype of chauvinistic and smug city dwellers’).

‘Ik heb niet lang nagedacht. Ik moest een narcistisch werk maken, een werk waarin de stad zichzelf kust in de spiegel. Voor één keer kon ik uitpakken met de meest platte symboliek die ik kon bedenken: een wereldbol.’ (It didn’t take much thought. I had to make a narcissistic work, a work in which the city kisses itself in the mirror. For once, I could fully deploy the most vulgar symbol I could think of: a globe.)

This is a good explanation of Mr. Eliasson’s own limitations: he can basically only think hoary old cliche’s about the culture of a city (eternal victim, chauvinist, inferiority complex, working-class heroes). And he has only a banal idea for the sculpture.

Mistake 4: Ignorance

To the city authorities responsible for this plan: please re-assess it! Find the right expertise to ensure that it doesn’t end up damaging the city’s public life.
Rotterdam has shown exceptional public support for culture, modernist, traditional and otherwise. As one former director of the International Film Festival of Rotterdam put it: ‘We couldn’t do this in Amsterdam. There would be only a few volunteers – in Rotterdam, enthusiastic volunteers turn up by the hundreds.’ It’s the same for Poetry International – Rotterdam’s diverse population rushes to volunteer as interpreters, facilitators and general supporters of the event, hardly a low-brow affair. And yes, it’s a genuinely BIG city, with wealth and industry and diversity and poverty and culture and problems of all kinds. If it is beyond Mr. Eliasson’s abilities to design for such a complex context, then Rotterdam should tell him, in the words of its honorable mayor Mr. Aboutaleb in a recent speech: Rot toch op! (Get lost!)

Please: cancel this plan. Put the money into something worthwhile.

For deeper understanding of how design supports the quality of public life, I highly recommend Gehl’s work ‘Life between buildings’. Here is a screen cap of a relevant page, from the Amazon viewer:

Page from Jan Gehl's book 'life between buildings'.

Excerpt from Gehl’s ‘Life Between Buildings’, courtesy of

To the creators of the new station in Rotterdam: an appeal for help

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

This post has two purposes: to thank everyone who created this wonderful station, and to appeal for their help in stopping the initiatives to place hideous sculptures (Kissing Earth) on the station square. Placement of these sculptures will destroy our enjoyment of both the public life this square enables and of the beauty of the station.

Part 1: Why I love the new station

Rotterdam Central Station.

Rotterdam Central Station – “Rtd CS-III” by Jan Oosterhuis. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

The new Rotterdam Central Station – created by the cooperative efforts of Benthem Crouwel Architects, MVSA Meyer & Van Schooten Architects, and West 8 – has improved the lives of thousands of residents and commuters, including myself. This large and yet remarkably transparent building is technically a marvel, enabling thousands of people to flow without stress or disorientation. It is a design that accommodates newcomers to this global harbor city – its distinctive form is unique and memorable, and even from outside, one can see straight through to the trains. Everything is findable.

The quality of the materials – the stone floor, wood cladding and especially the irregularities in the bright metal covering of the exterior, give it an almost handmade feel. And the ‘coolness’ – the subdued tones – was probably a wise choice, considering that a station of this size can otherwise quickly become overwhelming. It has a beautiful cafe (the ‘living room’ full of vintage furnishings) which offers that second essential quality of a station: refuge from the flow.

The overall shape of the facade connects to the surrounding buildings in way that makes this piece of skyline feel more coherent. And it is not an arbitrary form: to me it seems to embody the speed and the extreme linear perspective we experience with when trains pass us. The integration of the old lettering and clock, and other components of the former station, is very welcome in a city in which Nazi bombers destroyed so much of what connects us to the past.

Part 2: Help get rid of these horrid balls!

Two giant globes on a square.

Sculptures proposed for Rotterdam Central Station square.

As I write this, I’m looking in horror at a proposal for two giant, garish, banal sculptures which would totally ruin the station square in front of the facade. What’s at stake here is more than a detail – it’s the whole experience. That square is one of the few inspiring, humane spaces Rotterdam has, and it’s a stage for public life like no other – a genuinely social space! This is important in a city where public life has struggled to re-emerge after the destruction of WWII.

Those sculptures are about as appropriate as a floor-to-ceiling beach ball crammed into your living room. They block the sightlines in this open space and get in the way of every kind of enjoyment of the square and the station. And – it must be said – WHAT STUPID, BORING SCULPTURES THEY ARE! The globe, stylized ?! Granted, this is a prototype – the final design is more subtle, but every bit as banal. The artist has attempted to make up for an impoverished concept by blowing it up to inhumane proportions – basically shouting in our faces.

HELP! I don’t know if it’s possible or desirable, but perhaps as the station’s creators, you can lend your voices to protest these monstrosities! Help us if you can. It would be a terrible shame if we could no longer experience the magic of the new station in full.

A petition can be found at: