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Gepubliceerd op 23-05-2016

Urban Transformation Conference: ‘The Future is a Vital City – Vital Postwar Cities’

On my way to the ‘Urban Transformation Conference 2016’, I noticed upon leaving Rotterdam Central Station a huge stairs, built against the iconic ‘Groot Handelsgebouw’ (Wholesale building). A building representing the Rotterdam spirit of business and one of the first new buildings after the devastations of the war. The scaffolding system, an idea by architects MVRDV (world famous architect Winy Maas), forms part of the celebration to 75 years of rebuilding the city after the Second World War bombardment in 1940, the Reconstruction period as this period is called in Rotterdam. I could not resist climbing the 180 steps and on top the breath taking view of Rotterdam offered a true experience of the central theme of the conference I had set off to: Vital Postwar Cities. 

The Urban Transformation Conference 2016 is an official side event during the Dutch presidency of the European Union with a focus on the future of cities in general. The program consisted of six sub themes under the central theme ‘Vital Cities’. I participated in one of the subthemes where the objective was to consider what we could learn from European Cities that have endured war destruction like Rotterdam, Hamburg and Dresden. These often traumatic experiences have had a major impact on urban life. One of the questions to be discussed was: what can we learn from tragic events like the Second World War bombing of Rotterdam and the subsequent reconstruction of the city?

Post-War Reconstruction and memory culture

Leading theme in the presentations by scientists from different countries and disciplines was memory culture of the post war period and as a result not all presentations were as relevant with regard to the aspect of the central theme ‘Vital Cities’. In my opinion the Dutch historian Susan Hogervorst presented the reconstruction of Rotterdam as an example of a truly vital city. She recognized three dominant positive narratives in post bombardment memory culture. The first narrative was developed between 1947 and 1980. The focus in that period was on reconstruction and strenghtening the meaning of the past and not so much on commemoration of the traumatic loss of more than 800 lives and the destruction of the city. 

As Rotterdam journalist Rein Blijstra wrote in 1952: “It will be beautiful. Rotterdam will be a beautiful city” (Het Vrije Volk 13-11-1952).  The city appeared to be truly ‘vital’ during that period. People looked forward and not backward as appeared from the fact that yearly there was in this period a commemoration of the start of the reconstruction in 1946 on May 18, the so called Reconstruction Day, instead of a commemoration of the bombardment on May 14. Reconstruction was the ideology of the city.

The second narrative in Rotterdam’s Second World War memory culture was developed between 1980 and 2000 with a focus on international peace and reconciliation. One of the highlights was the visit of Willy Brandt at a commemoration ceremony of the bombardment. The focus, in line with general trends in Second World War memory culture, turned to the experiences of eye witnesses and victims of the bombardment. The third and last narrative is still ‘under construction’ (2000 – today) and may be characterized by ‘nostalgia and pride’ with a focus on explanation of why the city is like it looks today. One of the most remarkable memorial markers in this respect is the so called ‘fire boundary’ which was constructed in May 2006. At that time the City Council decided to physically mark the periphery of the bombardment of 1940 and the devastating fires which followed thereafter. As a “lieu de mémoire” the boundary makes clear why Rotterdam now has a modern and vital city center as I could personally conclude from my pilgrimage up the staircase in honor of the Reconstruction period.

Solidarity and memory culture

In an essay written as part of the commemoration on May 14  in 2014, the former Dutch politician and journalist Naïma Azough made a plea to include in commemoration and memory of the 1940 Rotterdam bombardment, stories and memories from migrant cultures, the new inhabitants of Rotterdam.I would like to conclude and agree in line with Azough as this will enhance feelings of solidarity in a truly vital city.

Laurie M.C. Faro
Tilburg University

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