Sunday, 9 December 2012

Rotterdam: The city without a heart

The couple at the tourist office ask very politely where the Old City is. The one that looks like Amsterdam, filled with the picturesque waterways, the elegant centuries old buildings and proud canal houses?

The lady at the front desk blinks once or twice and then pulls out a map, pointing out the Town Hall and old Church.

“There’s not much left” she tells them. “It was all destroyed during World War Two”.

No city in the Netherlands suffered as much as Rotterdam did during World War Two. In May 1940 the Germans bombed the city: 80,000 were made homeless, 900 were killed. The city was leveled. 

Reminders of the devastation of this one event are everywhere. One of the city’s best-known sculptures is Ossip Zadkine’s The City Devastated, located by the Maritime Museum at the entry to the harbour. It depicts a man twisted in agony, his palms thrust upwards, his face toward the sky, and his heart missing from his chest. It’s powerful, evocative and heavy, and an absolute must see for any visitor. 

At night, a series of white and red lights glow in the pavement. If you’re treading along a trail of these, you’re following the fireline, the places where the bombs dropped. It’s only when you’ve covered most of the city on foot or by bike that you realise the extent and ferocity of which the bombs were unleashed. The city was saturated in bombs.  

Today, Rotterdam is world-renowned for it’s risky, envelope-pushing architecture. It’s respected the world over for it’s eclectic, modern skyline and is home to the Netherlands Architecture Institute.

But it’s hard to look at how the city has physically reshaped itself, with it’s shiny yellow cube houses built to resemble industrial trees, it’s bizarre lust for ultra modern, futuristic architecture and experimental design, and not see it for what it really is: a desperate attempt to search for a new identity after the devastation of war.   

Rotterdam is still known as the city without a heart. 

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