THURSDAY MARCH 14, 2013 Rotterdam + RDM

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To define and envelop, a scale and a space.
by Michael Schiebe

Rotterdam is home to the largest port in Europe and fourth largest in the world. It bustles with a busy morning commute and its modern facades portray an interesting and complex history. Today we toured Rotterdam and experienced a wide array of scales – cargo ships and towering buildings, gigantic interiors and inspiring exteriors. As we arrived in the newly renovated Centraal Station, we already could sense a sharp contrast to the smaller urban spaces of Amsterdam and Utrecht. Aligned to the fact that Rotterdam was bombed during World War II, much of the current city is strangely mesmerizing in its own right; the architecture describes a thriving and resilient community backed by the extensive port and enthralled with obvious progress.

The Schouwburgplein, Rotterdam’s famous square designed by West 8, greeted us as we made our way from Centraal Station towards City Hall. Looming high above the intricate ground plane made up of wood and steel, four red monolithic crane structures emulate the city’s rich history of port activity but more importantly create a strong identity within the downtown district. Although tall in stature, it is the buildings surrounding the square that create an even more immense setting of scale and grandeur. With newer buildings being constructed in recent years, the Schouwburgplein has experienced indirect change yet still carries mixed feelings about its success. Although I appreciated the precise details and magnificent space, some fellow students expressed concern that the square was too empty, too lacking of a program. As much as I would tend to agree with them if this square were built in another city, I felt that the Schouwburgplein had presented itself as a solid and grounded place and a surprisingly accurate depiction of Rotterdam.

After hearing a presentation in the Climate Proof Office of the Netherlands, we boarded a ferry and made our way towards the RDM campus to explore and learn the workings of the Port of Rotterdam. The many passing cargo ships, filled to the brink with containers, further accentuated the massive infrastructure and transportation characteristics typical of Rotterdam. As we would learn in more detail in the afternoon, Rotterdam is home to Europe’s largest port and covers a staggering forty-one square miles. It has remained strong despite a tumultuous past that includes partial destruction from bombing and also Port bankruptcy. The RDM campus (symbolizing Research, Development, and Manufacturing), is located within Port lands and houses many historic buildings that have been converted to educational and exhibition space for workings of manufacturing and engineering. When we toured the RDM buildings, the issue of scale was once again brought to our attention as the warehouse atmosphere filled with a multitude of uses was incredibly woven to the historic nature of the port. After a brief exploration of the surrounding village, we made our way back to downtown Rotterdam.

As we walked to the Centraal Station, the subtle qualities and details that were often interrupted by large spaces and towering buildings had shown through. Perhaps it was our new understanding of the Port of Rotterdam or our increased awareness of the wide array of Dutch architecture typologies. Scale was apparent and upfront, in every sense. Although most obvious in the largest spaces and port activities, Rotterdam proved to us that a city’s scale can and should bring about an identity; to define and envelop a culture and its history.

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by  Georgia Rubenstein

As we’ve traveled around the Netherlands over the past few days, we’ve seen countless examples of the Dutch innovating, managing, and planning their way out of their country’s great water challenges – and turning a problem into an opportunity. Water is both friend and foe, simultaneously providing and threatening to destroy transportation channels, rich agricultural areas, and land that many people call home. The city of Rotterdam, characterized by its fifty-kilometer port, modern urban landscape, and relatively large population, has a unique set of water challenges. But, as we’ve seen time and again in the Netherlands, through addressing these challenges Rotterdam is finding new opportunities for economic growth and improving the lives of its citizens.

Our first stop today was City Hall to meet with Chantel Oudkerk Pool of Climate Proof, who talked with us about the organization’s work to develop a climate change adaptation strategy for Rotterdam. The water management challenges the city already faces are expected to grow with climate change, as precipitation patterns and river discharge rates change, sea levels rise, and groundwater levels fluctuate more significantly than in the past. Through its climate change adaptation work, Rotterdam hopes to be “climate proof” by the year 2025 – finding ways to minimize the negative impacts of climate change while benefiting as much as possible from new opportunities. Planning for climate change adaptation is complex; the science of creating climate scenarios continue to change, predicting how various consequences of climate change will interact with one another is difficult, and tough conversations need to take place. How should Rotterdam decide, for example, how many floods each year will be tolerated, or how to prioritize adaptation efforts with limited resources? Despite these questions, the city has already begun to take action, protecting itself from the threat of increased flooding while creating multifunctional solutions and beautiful public spaces. An underground water storage space, for example, doubles as a parking garage, while an urban floodplain has been designed as a wide green promenade with benches, bridges, and public art.

Next, we hurried to the ferry and headed down the port to the RDM Campus, where the Port of Rotterdam is undertaking a large redevelopment effort. With the motto “cooperation in innovation at a historical location,” the campus is a collaborative space that houses educational institutions and manufacturing companies, provides learning and training opportunities, and promotes research, design, and economic growth. Just as Climate Proof has created new land use opportunities out of the challenge of climate change, the RDM Campus has tackled its own set of challenges – including faltering public support for ports, a shortage of skilled workers, and strained relations with port neighbors – by finding opportunity in a new use of its accessible, well-equipped location.

After spending the past few days exploring innovative water management in a historic context – the construction of polders, or the building of Amsterdam’s canals – it was interesting to see the same themes reappearing in a modern context, as the Dutch look to the future to face a new set of challenges.

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