“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ says the White Queen to Alice.”
Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
The city […] is: “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself’.
David Harvey in The Right to the City
14 May 1940, during the invasion that led to the occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War, German bombs set the city center of Rotterdam ablaze. This horrific tragedy created a tabula rasa for post-war city-planners and engineers put in charge of rebuilding the city. The construction of the Kleinpolderplein –– or ‘Little Marsh Square’ –– highway intersection, planned from the early 1950s, finished 1973, became one of the crowning achievements of the reconstruction.
Nowadays, however, the flyovers have become a symbol of how modern urban planning dissected the city, creating withered spaces, social boundaries between neighborhoods and unhealthy urban environments. Traffic lights, narrow sidewalks and the imposition of vehicular high-lines are elements trapped in a passively accepted semantic field asserting the supremacy of the car. Also, when the highway was built, it marked the border of the city, but nowadays it is encrusted in the urban plane of a growing city. An upcoming decommissioning of the flyovers highlights how the modernist and technocratic dream of conquering the empty spaces in the city with the imposition of the car has failed: from their place in the mid 20th century, the planners of the intersection could not conceive of a city that would produce such extensive motor traffic, that the intersection by the year 2025 can no longer bear the weight of the cars and the air pollution it creates is no longer acceptable in the urban environment (and the global atmosphere).
The multi-layered history of the intersection means that it has the distinct ability to take on various forms of heritage. As some sort of concrete cathedral, the highway intersection bears witness to the emptiness in which it took form in the era of reconstruction and thereby it stands not only as a memorial to the destruction of WWII: the modernist assumptions of the car conquering the urban landscape that governed the thinking of mid-twentieth century planners simultaneously convey the heritage of their utopian dreams and their failure to capture the reality of the present-day future. The problem is that Kleinpolderplein was not easily perceived as such a memorial: the noise of traffic, the distance to the city center, the inaccessibility for pedestrians did not invite citizens to gather here and uncover the layers of history in active heritage processes.
To address the importance of spatiality in knowledge production, Thomas F. Gieryn coins the term “truth-spots” –– that is to say, truth can have many forms, but it always takes place and each place generates a certain set of criteria that determines one value of truth over the other.1 Stuck in the spatial imagination of the times, the urban planners in times of reconstructing the city wanted to forget the traumatic recent past and projected their spectacular utopian believes on the empty spot Kleinpolderplein was at that moment. Their beliefs, however, have become outdated now that the Kleinpolderplein was condemned to be demolished because of the construction of a new ring road.
Thus, the highway intersection does not any more fulfill the original criteria for the production of truth any longer –– and the question is now whether they have not changed altogether. If we are to make sense of the Kleinpolderplein as a carrier of memory and examine it as a cradle of new urban imaginaries, the notion of imagination is where our focus should lie. Paraphrasing Immanuel Kant, the Swedish geographer and multifaceted philosopher Gunnar Olsson defines imagination as the human faculty used to make the absent present. That means that it is both the faculty we use to call forth places that are not ‘here’, but also the faculty used to call forth places that are not ‘now’; to re-member perceptions of the past and expectations for the future, both of which are by definition never present. The artist collective Observatorium, commissioned to make an artwork under the flyovers, approached their project with widely different imaginaries of the past, present, and future than the engineers and city planners in the 1950s, and began to imagine the Kleinpolderplein as a place for culture by placing a museum gallery for sculptures from the city and a water square with pedestrian-oriented flyovers. Their local ad-hoc project initiative became the start of a long-term intent to be involved in the planning process, aimed at trespassing the modernist planning regimes, with a growing group of allies from different fields of knowledge –– amongst them Moniek Driesse, one of the authors of this piece. They all started to believe in the dream of transforming the highway intersection into a highway landscape park.
Leonie Sandercock notes that in order to trespass the modernist planning regime, planning practice needs to go through a transformation and practitioners should develop the ability to “imagine oneself in a different skin, a different story, a different place, and then desire this new self and place that one sees”. Further, she writes that planners and citizens2 need to “suspend [their] habits of being and come out in the open and engage in dialogue with strangers”.3 So when people in Rotterdam were invited to places they had never been before, at least not as pedestrians, it opened up new spaces for remembrance, resistance, and reflection. A one-day festival was organized to show what the flyovers of the Kleinpolderplein can be like when cars are no longer the dominant occupants of this space. The participants explored and observed the unexpected rich biodiversity along the shoulders of the highway, listened to future narrations as science fiction, and toasted to the concrete biotope, distilled skillfully into healing cocktails.
If the urban space is interpreted as an infrastructure of knowledge, where nodes of connection form spaces where truth is produced, then these structures become the boundaries that frame our imagination. The various creative interventions at the Kleinpolderplein intended to alter those infrastructures in order to allow new agencies to develop. The underlying landscape, the marsh, becomes the incarnation of a natural, dynamic landscape system, in opposition to the oppressive modernist planning regimes that try to conquer nature. Thus, following Gunnar Olsson’s dictum, this allows us to imagine not only a past before the bombing of the city, but also ahead in time in which cities give room to people, plants and animals to thrive for years into the future.