Rotterdam Harbour City

article by Michelle Provoost and Wouter Vanstiphout
1 October 1997

With all the thought being given to the transformations in the old harbour district of Rotterdam we might almost forget that there is a real harbour as well. There are even calls for the city to abandon the harbour altogether, and do away with Rotterdam’s traditional identity as a port. This is inadvisable, however, as this harbour could teach the city a thing or two.

The notion that harbour and city are preventing each other from functioning to the full was recently articulated by an occasional working alliance between the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and the Nyfer economic research institute. They were called in by an agitated business community to oppose the Central Planning Office who had suggested that the creation of Maasvlakte 2 (the second vast 'plain' of that name south of Rotterdam) would not make for economic progress. In the publication Maa$vlakte, Nyfer used all the statistics and arguments on hand to show that the second Maasvlakte could be of inestimable importance for the economy of the Rijnmond region and OMA argued likewise for the spatial development of the region. They suggested that the idea of a second Maasvlakte should be seized upon as a means of conceptually separating the city of Rotterdam and its harbour.
OMA's contribution is interesting in that it breaks with a particular convention: the office is pleased to announce the end of the relationship between harbour and city. Proceeding from the persistent idea that Rotterdam is the last modern city in the Netherlands, the city of permanent transformation. The only permanent underlying factor - the harbour -is ditched to make room for a city concept freed of identity, so that Rotterdam can be the first Dutch city to 'go Asiatic'.1)
It appears as though OMA have been led on primarily by exasperation about the way the harbour is now playing a part in city development - as a tourist theme. With an allusion to its heroic period, the harbour only remains present in the city as a plaque for holiday makers in the 'Waterstad' (the water activity zone in the old harbour on the north bank) and as a ‘dash of atmosphere'2) in the shape of old quays, barges and boats. In the ambitious plans for transforming the Laurens Quarter, for example, the harbour identity is in fact already forgotten and all efforts are towards shaping a traditional city centre with labyrinthine routes and cafe circuits.
From the other side, there is an approach that seeks to make the harbour more urbane by subjecting the buildings in the harbour area to the same design terrorism as that in the city and by infilling public spaces with specially designed harbour furniture.3) Looked at this way, there are two cities in one, trying to make contact in the most superficial way imaginable.
Yet OMA's decision to forget the harbour altogether is out of the question: the harbour is an undisputed presence. References to it are not just a species of phantom pain in a city that has lost its harbour. Harbour and city are still part of a single system. In trying to understand what the system means to both sides without OMA-style emotional outbursts, we first have to look at the reality of the harbour.

System of the harbour
Since its construction in the second half of the nineteenth century, the core of the harbour has been to provide hardware that enables commercial activity, from the building of company premises, the laying of electricity cables up to and including fiscal constructs such as free market zones. The complexity of the resulting activity generates systems to co-ordinate it and look after common interests. The harbour is more a network than a hierarchical structure, a network consisting of repeatedly changing configurations of municipal services, government policy, infrastructural hardware and business activity. When one of these factors changes, the harbour changes with it. The cause of such changes lies mostly at a distance, in any case far beyond the Netherlands. The nationalization of oil companies in Iran in the seventies or the closing of the Suez Canal in the fifties were developments that lay wholly beyond the control of the Rotterdam harbour but to which it could respond quite adequately. The global economy resonates here in the most concrete terms: on a local level in full view of everyone. A revolution of unprecedented impact was the introduction in the sixties of a standard box for the transportation of goods by truck, train and ship: the container. The latest developments are informed by a general tendency towards globalization, with the harbour transformed into a ‘network harbour', a logistics centre in a deconcentrated harbour region stretching from Rotterdam to Venlo. Every time such an incident occurs it signifies a radical spatial reconfiguration of the entire harbour layout.
Nevertheless we may identify a certain continuity: the harbour has its own commercial culture, with its own rules and modified laws which make its organization more similar to that of other harbours in other parts of the world such as Pusan or Hamburg, than to cities in the immediate vicinity like The Hague or Amsterdam. This global identity, however, is filtered through the fact that the harbour is not a free state, but part of the local and national territory. The harbour exists as part of the global economy of goods, money and information, but also of local circumstances with an enormous pressure exerted by nature, dwelling and the environment. Rotterdam central city is, in its symbiosis with the harbour, the centre that each world city needs. In that centre the actual harbour has become invisible, but inhabitants of the Hook of Holland, Hoogvliet, Vlaardingen, Maassluis, Spijkenisse or Schiedam (all together the Rijnmond region, or Greater Rotterdam) undoubtedly think otherwise. There are still the trucks, the office buildings, the alarm warnings, the Betuwe slow-freight railway line, the unemployment and the new 'old' harbour basins present as signs that the harbour is still there. Continuity also exists in the spatial relationship between city and harbour. The constants here are the infrastructure of the river and the motorway ring around Rotterdam, which at this moment is being extended with extra cross-river connections, more than doubling the imaginary planning square superimposed on the city to capture the whole harbour region in a single elongated grid.
The harbour is still there, only it is no longer found in the city centre. This has many consequences for the way city and harbour engage one another. Just after the war, the ingredients of the city were configured according to Van Traa's concept of a livingworking city, based on a hierarchical model of the ‘neighbourhood idea'. Living, working and recreation were arranged in direct interdependence. Hoogvliet looked out on the smoke of the Shell chimney, Rozenburg on the fairy-tale skyline of Europort's tank parks. Since the seventies, large-scale campaigning for our daily living environment and the environment as a whole have provided for enormous recreational and green buffers along the edges of the harbour. Furthermore the Rotterdam City Development office had opted for a new expansion model. No longer were compact versions of Rotterdam built in the polders, but the existing villages became centres of urban growth. These were the starting points for a massive surburbanization, for an arcadian habitat geared to the individual. The demarcation lines and compensatory green zones that have arisen around the harbour imply an altogether different, yet highly intensive use relationship between the voids in the harbour and the city's inhabitants. In this configuration the harbour is becoming increasingly independent of the urban work force, but not of the residential and leisure-seeking urban population.
OMA give evidence of an uncustomary conservatism in focusing on the identity related to the centre. The eccentric location of the harbour is for them an argument for removing it entirely from the city's self-image. However, we should realize in this respect that Rotterdam's identity has not been fixed by the centre for a very long time now. Only a minority of Rotterdammers live in the 'real' urbanity of the centre or Kop van Zuid. Rotterdam is defined more by her access system and the fields these form than by a central city, no matter how much cappucino they serve there.

Each change in its operational management has far-reaching effects for the harbour's physical appearance. Before the invention of the container, ships were unloaded on the quays and the freight stored in sheds or conveyed further by train or truck. The crux of containerization was that general cargo could be handled as another form of bulk cargo. The effect of this revolution was that the transport world demanded new machinery that had to fit into the uniform container system of measurements, hooks, codes, securing systems and clasps. Now that even in the most remote corners of the world, there are trucks fitted out to receive containers, we can conclude that the first chapter of the revolution has been successfully completed. With the advent of the container, it became necessary to arrange the piers differently: more space was needed as storage and less for buildings. The image of dockworkers slaving away on the quays disappeared along with that of endless rows of harbour sheds of brick, concrete and Stelcon panels. In their place is an alienating mountain landscape of stacked containers, brightly coloured steel cells where to the initiated the RAL colour is a code for the type of goods to be transported.
The second phase of the revolution which began with the container, was to make transfer more rapid, more efficient and on a larger scale by automating and integrating the machinery. The best example of this is the extension to the terminal of the container giant ECT (Europe Combined Terminals) on the Maasvlakte. Already now the existing Delta-Sealand terminal is a state-of-the-art transhipment company. The transfer of containers is effected seemingly without people, just with bar codes, unmanned vehicles and a gigantic concrete platform simply bristling with electrodes.
The last development to visualize the harbour as an anonymous, synthetic environment has taken place in three 'Distriparks' (Maasvlakte, Botlek, Eemhaven).The buildings housing the expanding distribution section are predominantly of the shed typology in ever-increasing sizes. These are buildings better described in hectares than in square metres. Whenever architects are asked to contribute, these are always individuals unknown in the world of architectural magazines. Until the sixties, when familiar Rotterdam offices such as Groosman, Van den Broek & Bakema and Maaskant designed harbour buildings, the city and the harbour were a dual entity residing in the consciousness of architecture and planning. At the moment the profession is absent from construction of the harbour and that explains a certain helplessness to the designs of today's harbour buildings.
The hundred metre long walls of the un-decorated sheds have mostly blind elevations faced with some kind of panelling. At best the colour of the box refers to the logo of the firm, or the firm's name is advertised on the building. When Reebok submitted a design for a bright blue steel box of 4 hectares for the storage of sport shoes on the empty expanse of the Maasvlakte, the municipal amenities committee, used to assessing designs in terms of their contextual surroundings, found it an impossible task and their standard criteria floundered in quick succession. These are buildings meant to last until fully paid up, and no longer.
Everything in the harbour is designed within an ecology of permanent transformation. These changes may be invisible, such as when many times the costs of the Kop van Zuid development is invested by Shell within its own gates. Visible transformations usually involve features that have disappeared: a nature reserve or a few villages that are pulled down to dig a harbour basin. Another example is the harbour buildings of the abovementioned Rotterdam offices, where barely thirty years have passed and they have already disappeared. The turnover rate of architecture in the harbour is many times that in the real city. Buildings are demolished with an unsentimental ease that makes every architect and urban planner drool with envy. As a result, the harbour is not a layered structure like the historical city, but perpetually different in that its previous version has been erased. If there already is a tradition, then it is the tradition of temporary existence. It resembles the city only in the manner of Rotterdam's city centre of the reconstruction period, before that too became layered to some extent.
City planning in the harbour is an accumulation of demands by individuals, a succession of sites primed for use without attempting any sort of coherence or harmony. It is a type of urban planning that occurs almost nowhere in the Netherlands, except in other peripheral districts such as industry parks, office parks or Carel Weeber's proposed selfbuild neighbourhoods. There is a minimum of spatial or visual rules, and a maximum of others: rules fixed by the technology of transport or industry and of course environmental requirements and the Nuisance Act.

The harbour should in no way be confused with the authority responsible for its running (the Havenbedrijf or Port Authority).
Confrontations between national aspects - the national highways of the Department of Roads and Waterways, the goods transportation of Netherlands Rail, the nature policy of the South Holland Province - and international developments that rise far above the scale of the Netherlands, are the reason why harbour activity is a disparate succession of one-off occurrences. The shape the harbour has is the result of many compromises, each and every one of which is still physically legible. The elongated form is determined by the southern border established by the province, beyond which the harbour is not allowed to extend. The continued presence of the Brielse Lake and the Rozenburg and Pernis housing enclaves are examples of nature and housing respectively that according to the Port Authority really don't belong in a harbour; examples of situations in which the Port Authority had something in mind but was not allowed it by the Urban Planning department or the provincial government. Yet it is precisely this type of enclave that makes the harbour an environment of uncompromising juxtaposed oppositions. This accounts for much of its fascination.
Nature's position in the harbour adds to the image the harbour has of an environment of improbable overlappings. Simultaneous developments of infrastructure, city and agriculture have led to stunning combinations of nature, dwelling and industry, of images, functions and uses. The unprogrammed fields of green space are used by Rotterdammers for sports and hobbies and a welter of other types of recreation that one did not even know existed. The down-to-earth anarchy of this exploitation has already been fully charted by Adriaan Geuze of West 8 Landscape Architects. Simultaneously the green zones are technical spaces and illustrate a type of double land use. Running under the clay shooting runs, the golf courses, or the scrambling area are pipes, glass fibre cables and all manner of underground infrastructure.

The electronic harbour
When describing the reality of the Rotterdam harbour, we tend to use terms that seem to derive from the Asiatic city: permanent unsentimental transformation, the juxtaposition of oppositions, the limited importance of architecture, city planning that breaks away from the European tradition. There is an enormous programme and a great concentration of activities incompatible with a large built mass. The harbour appears slow, but it is swift. it seems empty, but is full. We see the occasional oil tanker, a mountain of containers, and many stationary and a few moving cranes behind a motorway with a power station in the background. What we do not see, however, is the criss-cross of tunnels and pipes under the ground where many times the above-ground goods transportation takes place. Nor do we see underneath the concrete a network of electronic wiring and above the concrete surface, a network of infra-red rays along and above which robotic goods vehicles travel like bats. We see just as little of the innumerable scenarios that are enacted most realistically in a multitude of simulation programmes. More and more of the daily workings of the harbour are determined by the use of new software, so that activities are coordinated and controlled from behind a monitor in an office, far from the place where the event is taking place. One of the most extensive components of the virtual electronic harbour is the traffic control system. The white-blue-yellow observation posts are the beacons of a complex system with a far-reaching integration of information concerning all ships and their destination, the quays, the cargo and the weather. Stevedores, tugs and clients only have to log into the system to see when their cargo will arrive.
Another system whose aim is to increase the efficiency and speed of the harbour by directly linking the goods flow to one another is the EDI system (Electronic Data Interchange) which ultimately means that no paper is needed for the endless stream of information, confirmations and checks that direct the journey of the container. Or the Smart Card and the Biometric Handreader, so that truck drivers no longer have to leave their vehicle to hand in forms or get them stamped.
The ever expanding databases are used not just to direct reality, but also in systems simulating and extrapolating disasters and real-life situations. Even before the Erasmus Bridge was completed it was possible to make a virtual boat journey under the bridge in the Maritime Simulation Centre, Norman Foster's building on the Wilhelmina Pier. Captains and helmsmen from harbours all over the world arrive in this training centre to be instructed, to navigate a ship from a virtual bridge - a bridge that really moves - under all weather conditions and in all types of ships. Filmed images ranging from the harbour of Curasao to that of Singapore are contained in the database and are used for port development studies.
With all these measures of information technology, automation and simulation, the distinction between the real and the virtual harbour, between hardware and software, is gradually disappearing. The image of the harbour is now that of a silently functioning, coded landscape, with a specific grammar of colours, bar-codes and signals. For each real occurrence there are tens of simulations with a degree of reality that differs little from the real thing. The entire harbour has become a smart building with glass fibre lines for data, asphalt routes for goods vehicles, railway tracks for trains and water routes for ships.

Harbour becomes city
The attitude of the Port Authority over and against the accessibility of her domain to people and nature has undergone a drastic change in mentality since the sixties. In those days, green areas surrounding the harbour were conceived as camouflage greenery, as buffers to hide the docks from view. Consequently the harbour is only visible from Spido pleasure boats. These days the Port Authority is not as defensive in its ideas as it was. The beach near the Slufter, the new nature reserve on Maasvlakte 2 and the seals off Oostvoorne are examples of nature developments betraying a new openness by the Port Authority towards those living in the city and those seeking recreation. It is not afraid to recommend the harbour as an educational project the EIC (Educational Information Centre) for schools is being built on the Rozenburg peninsula.
If left to the Port Authority the harbour would become more 'humane'. This is regrettable, because one of the aspects that makes the harbour such an aesthetic phenomenon is its sublime, man-made, aloof beauty, its character of untamed nature. For all that, the Port Authority hopes to entice footloose companies with an attractively designed harbour. In the first place they want to design the open spaces, to brighten up the desolate spots in this technological primeval forest.
We can look upon this as an implantation of city methods in the harbour. We should also acknowledge that the harbour's desire to look like the city is less interesting than the type of proto-city it is now, where things happen that would be impossible in the city itself. Not because the city, arranged according to traditional planning logic, has had its day but because the areas it has always neglected, such as the periphery or the harbour, are interesting in themselves. We must therefore desist in stubbornly forcing upon the harbour the model of the real city. We should sooner consider the opposite: we can take the links between city and harbour seriously by assessing which qualities of the harbour are useful for a city such as Rotterdam. The permanent transformation, the apparent emptiness, the invisible congestion of activities, the anonymity without the burden of a fixed historic identity, the fusion of oppositions, planning as a sum and abstraction of its aesthetics - how could these contribute to the task of reinventing the city? In actual fact. these very aspects correspond to the proposals OMA makes for Rotterdam should the city eventually shake off its port identity. OMA should unleash the same fascination they have with the Asiatic city on an atypical city like Rotterdam, instead of merely superimposing the Asiatic model onto it. Behind this strategy, ofcourse, we can discern a rhetorical dissatisfaction with the conservatism of European urban planning, but Rotterdam is definitely no example of this. Singapore is not the only place containing all those aspects that can make the city new, beautiful and exciting - they can be found here on our own doorstep.

This article is the continuation of a text that Wouter Vanstiphout and Michelle Provoost wrote as readers for the jury of the Rotterdam-Maaskant Prize 1997.The Port of Rotterdam was nominated by the jury, but the committee of the Rotterdam-Maaskant Foundation did not award it the winner.

1. Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Nyfer Forum for Economic Research, Maasvlakte, Den Haag, 1997, p.80. 2. Ole Bouman on the role of information technology and modern physics in the work of Winka Dubbledam, Kunsthal 1996. 3. This and other information I borrowed from an interview with Henk de Bruijn, Rotterdam Port Authority.

Archis, nr.10, 1997, pp.8-23