Essays

How far off is the avenue?


essay Dirk van Weelden

Take a walk along the Coolsingel with the idea that it could be an avenue. A metropolitan grand boulevard. The city’s flagship. A stage upon which the city can regard itself with grandeur and allure. The conceit: ‘the Champs Elysées of the Randstad’.
I spent twenty-four hours on the Coolsingel, and during my half a dozen trips from the Hofplein to the Erasmus Bridge and back again I asked myself if it were really wise to saunter through Rotterdam’s reality fantasising about avenues and allure. What do these words mean here on the Coolsingel? Do they make any sense? Or rather: isn’t the Champs Elysées too far away?
I resolved to take a critical approach. It seemed instructive to go in search of a place where I felt furthest removed from the sensation that I was walking along a boulevard or avenue in a Western European metropolis, in order to find a reference point for viewing the Coolsingel as an avenue. Perhaps it would then be easier to formulate what a word such as allure might mean here.

It began as I approached the post office. The city appeared to shrink around me. The ‘palace of public telecommunications’, battered yet monumental, was marred by the ungainly eruption of a wheelchair ramp. After squeezing myself through the swinging doors I entered the enormous space of the main hall. But my view of it was obstructed by the postal kiosk: a Wendy house-like structure living like a parasite at the centre of the extinct dinosaur that the post office had become. In an instant I was rudely disabused of the metropolitan feeling I had fostered only moments before on the pavement. Was I in Emmen? How could this building be treated in such an idiotic and loveless manner with its pathetic little kiosk selling postcards and erasers?
But it gets worse. At the back was a display case containing a vast scale model of the post office building lovingly constructed by an ex-employee of the PTT, a certain Mr Willems I believe. It spoke of enormous patience, an old-fashioned dedication to and love of the building and the company. A notice informed me that the man had devoted 4,658 hours to its making. It was a matt plastic notice with a typewriter font, the kind that hung in every hospital, social centre and post office thirty or forty years ago. The model was a remnant of a vanished world, a painful and haunted past.
This point on the Coolsingel was the furthest removed from the dream of its transformation into a metropolitan avenue. Not only because of the display case with its grimy glass and the neglected model or the foolish kiosk at the centre of the monumental building. The treatment of the building and the site is enormously ham-fisted. All that characterises the Coolsingel is condensed here in an absolute low point: a pathetic pettiness, a provincial lack of taste and an atmosphere of poverty and dereliction. What was missing was the vital link between the building’s past, the street in which it stands and the future.

Enraptured with my newfound point of reference, I ventured outside. Perhaps I would now be able to assess the Coolsingel and determine whether its situations, buildings and urban design were a reflection of or indeed a departure from this low point in the post office. The first thing I saw struck me as easy to categorise in this respect. The City Hall was undoubtedly a fine monument to Rotterdam’s self-assurance and expansiveness at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was simultaneously a modern centre of power and a point of celebration for the masses. A true hotspot: a strong element within the avenue.
But the ski hut of a McDonald’s on the opposite pavement possessed the same small-mindedness and shabbiness as the kiosk in the Post Office. I imagined what a MacDonald’s could contribute to such an avenue. I pictured a tall and impressive structure – a contemporary palazzo – designed by young Rotterdam architects. Hi-tech spiral staircases, cleverly concealed lighting, a spectacular domed ceiling, dining booths suspended from an atrium (to mention just a few ideas). A fast-food restaurant that in its ‘look’ and ‘feel’ would be so enmeshed with Rotterdam’s reputation as a city of architectural innovation that it would become a tourist attraction in its own right. What city can make such a claim: a McDonald’s to be proud of? New York has its Apple store on 5th Avenue: a glass cube that attracts tourists as an architectural jewel as much as a shopping experience. But with a brand such as Apple, that is a piece of cake. A MacDonald’s in Rotterdam with a comparable allure would be a far more ambitious project. But it seems to me that it is not an impossible task.

My family has lived in Rotterdam for several generations and so as a child I frequently visited the Coolsingel. That must have been in the 1960s and my memories are reawakened now as I look at the fountain on the Hofplein, the Hilton hotel, the De Bijenkorf department store, the HBU building, the Word Trade Center and the ABN-Amro building opposite. Beautiful, modern, splendid; a coolly intelligent form of wealth and style, and above all international in outlook. Those are the adjectives that correspond to my youthful admiration of what these buildings evoked. They chimed with my enthusiasm for the Trans Europ Express trains, space travel, the Thunderbirds, James Bond and the Atomium in Brussels.
The buildings and sites on the Coolsingel dating from that period do indeed lend it a certain allure. But it is a modest and historical elegance that it incapable of dominating the entirety of the Coolsingel. Indeed, the Hilton, de Bijenkorf and the World Trade Center have a certain vulnerability viewed against the backdrop of the street’s modern skyscrapers. They are beautiful old children.
Their role in the ‘avenue effect’ can survive only if their elegance is not sabotaged by plastic grass, glutton-huts and gaming arcades. The classic modernist pearls on the Coolsingel need to be ‘framed’ by their surroundings so that attention is directed at their special qualities. The old, fragile allure should be protected by liberating it. These monuments are best framed by a strip of noiseless space, a buffer of emptiness.

Passing by the discount shops and the underground shopping centre, the idea of an avenue with allure takes on a laughable quality. What can compete with the flood of shoppers, the roaring trade, the noise and the lights, the popular shop signs, the power of the lowest common denominator, the self-perpetuating mass consumption? This is the atmosphere that an eventual ‘Coolsingel as avenue’ must literally traverse.
On the other hand, this is the reality and one that is perhaps not incompatible with a metropolitan avenue. The task is to set it off with something robust and sovereign. I decide to make a list of the necessary ingredients. As I go in search of somewhere to drink a cup of coffee, I muse: on an avenue you expect at least one superior restaurant, with a Michelin star. And there should be at least one theatre, preferably a large one, or two smaller ones might also suffice. You would certainly expect at least one shop (two or three would be better) with such desirable clothes and accessories that they would attract a clientele of famous people. The same goes for other stores selling luxury items and status symbols: antiques, watches, gold and jewellery, art and exclusive cars. You expect the most powerful advertising, press and photo agencies to have their offices on such an avenue, if only as a symbolic presence. You expect at least one former statesman, famous ex-athlete or singer, anti-establishment writer or world-class artist to live there. And, of course, the nouveaux riches who wish to buy an apartment alongside such people. Yet I cannot find not a single trace of such businesses, people and establishments as I walk along the Coolsingel.

As I stroll from the Erasmus Bridge to the Hofplein and back again, my thoughts turn to the growing gap between rich and poor, far more evident here than in the city centres of Amsterdam or Antwerp. There you can forget for an hour or so that the city consists of more than beautifully refurbished old houses, shopping centres, brasseries, terraces and streets with cute boutiques. Not on the Coolsingel.

Precisely because of the discrepancy between the spatiality and the sort of shops to be found here, the contrast between the wide prospect and the sad snack bars, I am constantly reminded of the existence, not so far away, of extensive neighbourhoods full of people for whom the world of luxury shopping and the desire for a Dutch Champs Elysées is painfully distant.
Drinking my coffee I read an interview in De Maasbode with an old woman from Charlois who complains that Rotterdam’s city centre has no buzz. And she knows the reason why. It is too expensive. She doesn’t know a single person who has been to the new Luxor theatre, simply because sixty euros is too much for a ticket. Make the tickets half that price, she pleads, then the buzz will return to the city.
A fascinating piece. What intrigues me about it is the notion that a buzz cannot be created among wealthy people alone. It is only when they are mixed with the less well-off – those who occupy another world, another neighbourhood – that the urban experience takes on something of the verve that people expect from a large city.
I am reminded of what I have read in Jan Oudenaarde’s article about the history of the Coolsingel. About how the notorious seaman’s slums around the Zandstraat and Roode Zand had been demolished to make way for the City Hall. The maze of streets and alleys with brothels, boarding houses and bars had to be cleared away, just as the Coolsingel canal itself was drained and the Molen de Hoop was torn down, in order to take the first steps towards creating an avenue. Reading about the Coolsingel’s dynamic history between 1900 and 1939, my thoughts turn to the poverty, the economic crisis, the day labourers in the harbour and the rural poor from Brabant, Zeeland and Flanders who came here to seek their fortunes. It was as if the bustle, the elegance and the drive for renewal I read in the stories about the Atlanta hotel, the Tuschinksi empire, the Cineac, the Pschorr Danspaleis and the thriving theatres, was linked to the dynamic between rich and poor: a dynamic that created the Coolsingel’s flourishing nightlife.
Manolo Blahnik, the designer of luxury shoes, has said that he did not open his boutique in Moscow with the expectation of selling many shoes there. His shops do not exist only to sell his exorbitantly priced shoes, but also to allow those who cannot afford them the opportunity to study them closely. According to Blahnik ‘You do not need money to appreciate and enjoy elegance, perfection, an eye for detail and craftsmanship’. This is the shop as ‘palace of dreams’, which arouses desire and eventually inspires imitation.
The avenue is an urban stage for the presentation of luxury, wealth and fashionable elegance, but in such spacious surroundings that a public void is created, which is filled by an aspirant public. And what does that public do? It is preoccupied with mimicking the appearance of that luxury, wealth and elegance, not through the purchase of mass-produced reproductions, but through a metropolitan form of public theatre. Sometimes literally by (albeit momentarily) living that lifestyle through shopping and nightlife, but usually just through exposing itself to that lifestyle in order to replicate it with limited means.
Put on your best clothes and parade yourself, participating – momentarily and virtually – in the dream of that which can only be found in the metropolis: luxury, beauty, elegance, fashionable style. The cafés, restaurants and terraces are the tribunes where the actors and the public come together: in the shops and on the terraces, but also in the theatre foyers, the galleries, the concert venues and on the dance floor. A dream image of the ‘high life’ in the form of a 2-kilometre long avenue that has landed in your own city. An avenue traditionally derives its buzz from the encounters it creates between the aspirant ‘have-nots’ and the rich and famous.

The contemporary avenue is rather different to its historical counterpart. The cities have grown, the suburbs are further from the centre both psychologically and as a result of traffic problems. Today the avenue must compete with the impressive out-of-town shopping centres, but above all with the fact that now more people have enough time and money to travel, go shopping, skiing, windsurfing, to rebuild and renovate their homes and to enjoy gardening. Those who in the 1930s had a few spare shillings and a free afternoon and evening, put on their Sunday best, spruced themselves up and went out for a cocktail, to watch a play and go dancing. That was luxury and leisure time. Today the avenue as a place for spending your money and free time must compete with an enormous industry.
The avenue has also lost some of its function as a mirage of a life of luxury and elegance. Today people connect with the luxury, style and elegance of the rich and famous through other means. They access the dream through television, the internet, games, music and DVDs in their own homes rather than exclusively in the public realm of squares, avenues, theatres and cinemas.

As I stood waiting for the lights to change at the Churchillplein I looked up at the Maritime Museum. Rising into the sky behind the drab and ugly building were the cranes and boat masts of the history exhibited within the museum, their forms and flags giving the site colour and atmosphere. On a screen on the side of the building the museum attempted to connect its activities – its exhibitions, events and guided tours – with what was occupying the people on the street: the local news, the state of education, the weather, travel offers.
The urban passers-by were addressed as though they were watching television or surfing the web. The street with its shops and museum was transformed into a TV channel. And as well meaning and sympathetic as this spectacle may have been, it left me with the impression that this model was closer to that of the shopping mall than that of the avenue. The cool, routine attention of the channel hopper is the very opposite of the thrill and excitement evoked by the avenue. Walking through a shopping mall, where over-familiar logos and slogans attempt to seduce the masses, is an urban form of channel hopping. An avenue is something rather different – a hotspot – a site where you can see chic and exclusive shops and where remarkable and unexpected things happen; where you can rub shoulders with the rich and famous. Not as an image, but as a reality.
It is an undeniable fact that the contemporary urbanite’s experience of the city is inextricably entwined with his or her use of the media. Any consideration of the Coolsingel as a contemporary avenue must certainly begin with the model of the hotspot and must steer clear of the channel-hopping experience of the street, but it should be possible to incorporate a clever connection with the mediatised character of urban life.
And then my thoughts turn again to the most lifeless place I had found on the Coolsingel: the hall of the post office. In my mind I clear out the immense building, re-house the postal service in bright new premises between a clothes shop and a mobile phone outlet, and renovate and sandblast the old colossus. A discrete, clever and tastefully designed wheelchair ramp on the side of the building returns the main facade to its old splendour. I designate the old post office as the headquarters of the avenue in the making.

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