Reclaimed land in a post-modern world

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Rotterdam is the ideal place for GCSE students to study the European dimension of the curriculum - not just because most people speak English. Stephen Thomas reports. On 14 May 1940, 30,000 of the city of Rotterdam's buildings were razed to the ground in a Nazi bombardment. Allied bombing and the deliberate destruction of the port installations by the retreating Germans compounded the tragedy. Since the end of the war the city has had to recast itself, first as a model for the planned city with dispersed, specialist functions. More recently, it is being reshaped as a post-modern, integrated urban structure with culture, living space and leisure at its heart.

Rotterdam, in a country in which most people speak English, makes an excellent centre for geographly fieldwork. It is a place where students can explore the European dimensions of the national curriculum and which offers those on GCSE and A-level courses an opportunity to visit the world's largest port, examine urban planning issues, land reclamation, conservation or docklands redevelopment.

Standing as it does at the centre of the port, the Euromast is the best spot for some introductory spatial geography and a preliminary look at land use and industrial location. From the 107-metre observation platform you can see the contours of the old harbour, the Museum Quarter and the newly Manhattanised central business district. The edge of the city is fringed with glasshouses, with glimpses of the other Ranstad cities of Delft and The Hague beyond. Out towards the North Sea is the world's biggest concentration of refineries and chemical plants at Botlek, Pernis and the massive Europoort.

Short boat trips round the harbour run throughout the year, operated by "Spido". The 75-minute tour gives a closer look at a port which covers half the area of the city and handles 4 per cent of all world sea trade. The boat takes you past the general cargo and fruit harbours, the shipyards and dry docks, out to the huge container port with its automated, computer controlled handling equipment. With more than four million containers passing through every year, Rotterdam has been unglamorously dubbed "The Container Gateway to Europe".

In July and August "Spido" organise longer trips to the Europoort and to the Delta Project, the series of dams and sluices built to protect south-west Holland from flooding and to enable yet more land to be reclaimed. These longer trips are expensive and a group with a coach could organise a Europoort tour for themselves using the Havenroute Rotterdam pamphlet produced by "VVV", the Rotterdam tourist office. Costing only a few guilders, this includes a map with notes which guides you from the old harbour out to Maasvlakte, a reclaimed area at the tip of the Europoort.

The Rotterdam Archicenter is also based in the tourist office. They run walking tours of the city which look at architecture and urban planning issues. The Delta Expo at Stellenden near the Haringvleit sluices, 20 miles south of Rotterdam, is the best place to get an insight into the massive Delta Project.

Now that the major port activities have moved downstream, spiriting away much of the earthy economic guts of the city, Rotterdam has had to remake itself as a city for the next century. Culture has been at the centre of this, with a new Museum Quarter being created around the Boymans Van Beuningen Museum. 1992 saw the opening of Rem Koolhaas' zany, angular Kunsthal, a perfect example of deconstructed architecture which plays intriguingly with slopes and gradients.

Earlier this year Joe Coenen's Netherlands Architecture Institute was launched. This fine building is a national centre for exhibitions and an archive for the specialist study of architecture and town planning. One of the current exhibitions 'Hidden Agenda' which runs till January looks at the development of the Third World city. From April 15 to June 11, 1995 there will be an exhibition on the the reconstruction of the Netherlands after the war and another, "Inside Ranstad Holland", will run from June 17 to August 20.

The second strategy for dealing with the city's central area has been docklands redevelopment. This has been pursued with a commitment to partnership between local government and private capital and a determination to achieve quality of infrastructure and street furniture which contrasts sharply with the mess at Canary Wharf in London.

The Kop Van Zuid project, based on an area of semi-derelict dockland south of the river, will dramatically transform Rotterdam's identity when it is linked to the city centre by the stunning new Erasmus Bridge across the Maas. The Kop Van Zuid will include office and retail space, recreational activities, social and private housing with a new Metro station to tie it into the city's first rate public transport network. An excellent information centre with models, maps and an audio-visual display sets out the plans for the area is open to visitors.

Kop Van Zuid is particularly interesting because the development area borders three of the most disadvantaged multi-ethnic quarters of the city: Feijenoord, Afrikaanderwijk and Katendrecht. A conscious effort has been made to achieve what in the jargon they now call "social return". Two centres have been set up to help the local inhabitants develop the language and job skills they will need to improve their position in the new labour markets created during the 15 years it will take to complete the Kop Van Zuid project.

One of the first successful attempts to draw people into the Kop Van Zuid development zone has been the opening of the fashionahle Hotel New York in the old Holland-AmeriKa Lijn headquarters on the Wilhelminakade. The departure point for many of the immigrants who left Europe for the United States between the wars, the excitingly renovated building is linked to the city centre by a small water taxi which runs from the Maritime Museum.

When the recent development of Rotterdam has convincingly demonstrated the benefits of coherent city-wide strategic planning, it is ironic that local government in the region is soon to go the way of the GLC, broken down into smaller municipal units. It would be tragic if the momentum was lost. Since the war Rotterdam has reflected the various shifts in urban planning and gives an unrivalled opportunity to see how this has produced very different social and spatial solutions.

Further information: o Rotterdam Tourist Office, Coolsingel 67, 3012 AG Rotterdam, tel: 4023200 o Rotterdam Archicenter, tel: (10) 4023225 o Kop Van Zuid information centre, Stieltjesstraast 21, 3071 JV Rotterdam, tel: (10) 2130101 o Netherlands Architecture Institute, Museumpark 25, 3015 CB Rotterdam, tel: (10) 4401200 o Spido harbour trips, PO Box 815, 3000 AV Rotterdam, tel: (10) 4135400 KLM and the Dutch Tourist Board enabled Stephen Thomas to research this article.

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