1-2 Master plan Lijnbaan courts 2006
3 Study by Crimson

That’s our story. In January 2007 the municipality of Rotterdam will probably ratify a master plan that will drastically change the Lijnbaan: most of the space taken up by the open courts will be filled with large shops. They will be topped by a ‘green roof’ for the residents of a whole arsenal of towers to be built against, on or next to the existing blocks of flats. The project has been drawn up for the owners, the Department of Town Planning and the City of Rotterdam Development Corporation, by Claus en Kaan, an office that possesses exactly the right sensibility and design quality for the Lijnbaan. Nonetheless, the current master plan is very problematic and doesn’t merit implementation. The Lijnbaan ensemble will lose its most important qualities and all that will remain are the ruins of oases that have been lost to development. What the master plan now calls the addition of ‘layers of history’ will in reality result, both spatially and functionally, in a difficult configuration of buildings. The Lijnbaan area will be a strange and incomprehensible hybrid between two urban models. The modernist concept of the Lijnbaan composition will retrospectively be forced into the straitjacket of a traditional urban concept of unbroken blocks, building lines and small squares.

The master plan is of course based on design decisions, but the plan is also a faithful reflection of urban politics and the position of architecture and urban design, just as the Lijnbaan itself was when built. It’s worthwhile reconstructing the process that led to this master plan, which is such a ridiculous contrast to the process that preceded it in the 1950s. Here’s what happened: 

The Lijnbaan flats are owned by investment groups; after 50 years the flats have been written off and so the investors either want to sell them or replace them with new development. They approach the municipality. The City Development Corporation has to make money for the political leaders, and urban designers have to help. The conservation bureau forms part of the department of town planning and can hardly be expected to offer independent advice. So it appoints an external and thus insignificant advisor. The municipality is keen to meet the wishes of the investors; the investors demand improved public space; the municipality lacks funds for that but by filling the Lijnbaan courts money can be generated, the amount of public space can be reduced, and the demands of investors can be met.

The biggest problem in Rotterdam – that’s what this process clearly shows – is that the municipality and the municipal departments are unable to take the initiative in any area when it comes to shaping the city, setting priorities, channelling investment funds, or setting demands for investors. What we see here is a purely instinctive submission to the forces of the market no matter how banal, small-scale and one-dimensional these may be. We see how a once adventurous and authoritative agency like the Department of Town Planning and Housing is now totally stripped down and restricted. The department is subservient and retrospectively devises a master plan that pleases investors, even if this contradicts earlier municipal policy: for example that the city centre is a valuable post-war reconstruction area, and that cultural history should play an active role in urban development. Tampering with the Lijnbaan, which will inflict irreparable damage on the most important post-war monument in Rotterdam, not only displays the city’s total lack of interest in its own heritage but also highlights a structural problem concerning the city’s administration: Rotterdam has become a city that has lost its self-awareness, that just blindly acts without thinking, and that is deeply suspicious of cultivated as opposed to cultural arguments.

For us historians it’s fitting that the Lijnbaan will soon become an awkward spatial configuration that stems from a whole series of self-inflicted financial, functional and spatial problems, because this is such a clearly didactic reflection of what this city has lost in 50 years. But it is certainly a bitter start to Rotterdam’s Year of Architecture 2007.

top: Lijnbaan court (photo Maarten Laupman)
bottom: Lijnbaan ensemble

When it opened, a whole city was reborn, a city whose centre had been a gaping void for eight years after the wartime bombing. Crush barriers had to be erected to channel the hundreds of thousands of visitors who came to the inauguration. Few building complexes brought so many architectural talents together, possessed such symbolic power upon completion, exerted so much influence all around the world, and formed such a self-evident and everyday aspect of the surrounding for millions of people for so long.

... And it should continue to do so if we’ve any say in the matter. In 2004 Crimson was asked to carry out a cultural-historical study of the Lijnbaan and indicate which parts could realistically be preserved. The owners of some of the buildings had asked if they could demolish and rebuild, and the city authorities were obliged to carry out a cultural-historical study. Enter Crimson Architectural Historians, an office that the Department of Planning and Housing no doubt expected to be anything but ‘conservative’ and that would not be hindered by the roll-up-the-sleeves attitude that typifies the Rotterdam way of doing things.

Historical, symbolic, intellectual or otherwise cultural arguments for demolishing or constructing are quickly dismissed as irrelevant or even irritating in a city like Rotterdam. So we tried as hard as possible to uncover the cultural-historical value of the Lijnbaan today, in the midst of the dirty reality of Rotterdam city centre. And all the time we told ourselves not to view things through the lens of the bombardment and the heroic period of reconstruction. So what then remains of the Lijnbaan?

A lot: the flats designed by Maaskant still offer hundreds of Rotterdammers of all ages and sorts an experience of modernity that resounds with wired glass, marble and gleaming brickwork: city views, quayside cranes and petrochemicals in the distance, down below the city spectacle on one side and the throngs of shoppers on the other, while on yet another side there is the total anomaly of a park full of trees, grass and birds. Has the urban vision of Van Traa and Maaskant has been realised anywhere else in a better, sharper or more ordinary way?

Squinting our eyes a little more we looked at the Lijnbaan as an urban play of solids and voids: a one-kilometre-long line, which cuts a swathe through the city centre, flanked by a strip of low-rise development beneath a series of tall blocks arranged in a rhythm that was so rigid and compelling that it extended outside the Lijnbaan: from the Hilton Hotel to the Station Postal Office. Now that high-rise development is filling the centre of Rotterdam, the utterly unique urban typology of the Lijnbaan ensemble can provide legibility and clarity.

But the Lijnbaan is now 50 years old and suffering from wear and tear. The shops have done way with their Van Gool system of wood, glass and free-standing vitrines and replaced it with increasingly shiny and bigger advertisements for T-Mobile, Free Record Shop and Kruidvat. The legendary awnings that linked everything together are now a series of old, new, broken and missing fragments. The Lijnbaan courts are still green but bare because the shrubbery has been pruned to the bone for safety reasons and because of the efforts of one of the worst parks departments in the developed world. The blocks look superb but need maintenance and the ground floor is a sorry sight. The entrances have been moved – again for safety reasons – to the service streets, and so huge steel fences have taken the place of the monumental entrances to what were once such fashionable flats.

So we weren’t long in coming to conclusions, and they weren’t all that original or radical. The Lijnbaan works as an urban ensemble of solids and voids and it can only improve. Only the so-called Maaskant blocks merit the status of architectural monument. These are still in original and good condition; maintain them and be a little freer with the architecture of the shops. Provide some form of evening programme on the side of the shops and devise a strategy for the aesthetics of the shopfronts.

Nothing needs to be demolished; additional volume can be added but only on condition that it disrupts the existing envelope as little as possible. Invest in small pavilions, and erect a fence around the parks like they do in French cities where there is a park concierge who opens and closes the gates. Restore the entrances to their original positions; look after the flats, carry out the maintenance work needed; and allow small programme elements (cafés with seating outside, shops) to replace the ground-floor storage units. In short: a whole series of small-scale and careful interventions can turn the Lijnbaan courts into oases of calm in the city. Take a seat on a bench in the Joost Bankertplaats, look up at the changing skyline and feel like you’re in the eye of an urban hurricane.