The Invisibility of a City – Reflections on Rotterdam
The inhabitants of Rotterdam must love tall buildings. Visiting Rotterdam last week turned out to be a bit of a strange experience for me. It is after all a major city in The Netherlands, and indeed globally. However, not only had I never visited it before, I also had no idea of what it actually looked like. It is an interesting phenomenon. We can visualise the landscapes of many cities, even the ones we have never visited. Think of Paris, think of London, New York or Moscow, and your mind conjures up pictures of important landmarks, defining events, well-known inhabitants and types of architecture. Fed by images in the media, informed by pictures from history books, influenced by the sounds of the local musicians, you get some grasp of what a particular city could be like.
Not so with Rotterdam. I came down to the city to visit the photography museum and the main art gallery. Whilst trying to find my way around the place, I was struck by the strange mixture of architectural styles. One minute I was surrounded by historical canalside buildings, the kind you find in Amsterdam, the next I was being confronted with massive skyscrapers which would not be out of place in New York, only to run then into mills you would find in Manchester and Liverpool. I started to ponder why the real Rotterdam jarred with my image of the city, especially considering my image was pretty blank.
We can visualise the landscapes of many cities, even the ones we have never visited. Think of Paris, think of London, New York or Moscow, and your mind conjures up pictures of important landmarks, defining events, well-known inhabitants and types of architecture.
Then I realised I hardly knew anything about Rotterdam. My knowledge was limited to the city being one of the major ports globally, and being bombed to smithereens during the Second World War. The latter goes someway in explaining why I could not project an image of Rotterdam. After all, its historical centre was literally taken off the map, and has clearly been filled with much modernist architecture since. The importance of the harbour also contributed to the landscape, with many large global firms taking up office space in tower blocks. Walking through Rotterdam filled me with the sensation I was no longer in The Netherlands. Instead I had ended up in some large futuristic American industrial landscape, with some touches of the industrial North of England. It did not help that the sky was overcast too.