The artist’s rationale: contempt for Rotterdam

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

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