Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Rotterdam (on living in cities)

Few people, I am sure, would describe Rotterdam as a city that is beautiful or picturesque. Interesting, yes, for its cultural scene and as an example of post-war rebuilding, but nice to look at – no, not really …

Unlike other Dutch cities such as, say, Utrecht, which could be an English cathedral city, on arrival the centre of Rotterdam appears unusually grey and faceless, and has the unrelenting, crammed-in bustle of a big city. It’s dominated by the architecture of corporate power in tower blocks muscling towards the sky. Rotterdam is one of the world’s largest ports, yet the canals and houseboats for which the Netherlands are usually known are less prominent in the layout of the city here. What is prominent are the large rivers that cross the city, particularly the wide Maas, which separates the northern side from the generally poorer southern side, accessible through an art deco tunnel. Like Manchester, there is a marked north-south divide, with many residents of the north seeing no reason to visit (or actively avoiding) the south. Unlike Manchester it is the south of Rotterdam that is perceived as being more run-down, crime-ridden and lacking in investment, although it also offers opportunities for cheaper living and creative spaces. The Dutch people I chatted to (all two of them) mentioned racism, and bureaucracy. They also complained about the high cost of renting and the expense of eating out.

Spend some time in Rotterdam, though, and some sorts of charms reveal themselves. It is the city’s striking multiculturalism, from the people on the streets to the profusion of cuisines evident in its cafes and ethnic grocery stores, which saves it from blandness. Unlike the current fashion for overpriced ‘street food’ in the UK – gourmet snacks sold at restaurant prices – this is street food in the true sense. In central Rotterdam, the air is filled with the smell of doughnuts, batter and Surinamese pastries, with snacks sold from inconspicuous carts. Surinamese cuisine is BIG here. Hailing from the former Dutch colony of Suriname in Central America, it’s very meaty, yet also has much to offer vegetarians, in the form of bread, lentils, spices and vegetables. Imagine a savoury-sweet cross between the spices of Indian cooking and Chinese flavours, textures, stickiness and crunchiness, that also somehow tastes like something you’ve never experienced before.

Rotterdam’s architecture and planning also feels genuinely mixed use, in the way that we can only dream of in many new developments in most English cities. The modernist central shopping area is rather attractive: in the centre, it seems normal to live above shops and the noise of children playing floats down from roof-top playgrounds. In contrast with our English city centres, which remain for the most part places to be passed through, brief stopping places for young, affluent, childless professionals on their trajectory out towards the suburbs or countryside, schools, churches, doctors and other amenities slot seamlessly into the commercial cityscape.

There’s also a sense of fun and inventiveness, perhaps because the city knows it’s not beautiful, and isn’t trying. The best example of this is in the cluster of cube houses, one of which is now a museum with disorientatingly sloping walls and the rest of which include residential dwellings, a hostel and even a laser quest experience.
Public art is abundant, from the big-name pop art and explanatory information boards of the centre to more commemorative and illustrative sculptures which blend into the landscaping in the housing developments of the suburbs. You could be forgiven for failing to notice it, but it contributes to an overall sense of pleasantness.
There may be little in the way of obvious parks or greenery, particularly in the central areas, but the inner residential district of Nieuwe Westen is picturesque, pretty even, a place where you get a sense of the Rotterdam that existed before the city was almost flattened by bombing during the war. Tall, bay fronted, early twentieth century apartment buildings line rows of gently sweeping tree-lined streets, separated by canals populated with swans and geese and crossed by small bridges. It’s idyllic by anybody’s standards. Although each doorway emerges from the pavement into almost impossibly vertiginous, rickety wooden stairs – which you can’t imagine attempting to navigate with a pushchair, let alone a wheelchair, decreased mobility or drunkenness – the paving slabs outside are punctuated with permanent, designed-in, numbered grids for playing hopscotch, and on-street play equipment. Living in such close proximity to your neighbours, noise travels easily from flat to flat. Luxuries such as baths, freezers and even ovens appear to be rare here, and kitchens are on the small side, but it’s compensated for by rooms that are full of light and space.
Also attractive is the city’s municipal brick modernism, particularly in the renovated, sand-coloured Spangen estate, an early example of deck access housing complete with decorative detail and in-built flower boxes. Built around manicured lawns, its centrepiece is a communal washhouse, now converted into contemporary art gallery A Tale of a Tub. It’s also heartening to swim in the warm waters of a restored 1930s pool, the airy Oostelijk Zwembad, where light filters through the glass bricks of an elegantly arched roof.

Reach out towards the edges of the city, and you discover that Rotterdam’s apparent lack of private or public garden space is compensated for, to some degree, by patchworks of holiday plots in areas set aside for weekend visiting. The network of neat, orderly sheds on the banks of canals constitute a city in miniature, a microcosm of Dutch society. Irrigated by waterways, each allotment-esque patch features a home-from-home, a retreat, with space for growing, relaxing or escaping. Something for the weekend. Somewhere for the weekend.

There’s a sense of freedom, too. Notable is the ease with which it’s possible to get around the city, with cars separated from bikes in their separate lanes. Cyclists have priority at roundabouts, and in the main both sides observe the rules of the road. There's still congestion, there's still speeding, cars which jump red lights and fail to stop at pedestrian crossings, but in general there's more politeness. With cycling such a part of life – everyone does it – anyone in Lycra or specialist clothing stands out. Cycling is a different thing here. In Rotterdam, cycling is not about speed, but for getting around. Rather than crouching over the handlebars of a racing bike, ready to be on the defensive, cycling is usually done sitting up and is an altogether more sedate affair: Dutch bikes are wide-framed, heavy, clunky. It’s also striking that children of all ages cross the city by themselves, wandering the streets in pairs or in groups, from an early age. I followed a young boy on a stunt bike, singing to himself and cycling with his arms outstretched, waving like an airplane. He blithely cycled around a motorway roundabout like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Rotterdam strikes me as a city for living in, in a way that makes you feel slightly wistful on your return to the UK. For me, the jewel in Rotterdam’s crown is undoubtedly its large street market, held several times a week and spilling out onto the streets surrounding a glitzy new market building by MDRDV. Whereas the indoor market, surrounded by apartments that face out from giant, lurid images of fruit into a curved atrium, sells artisan produce to those with money to burn, outside you can browse for necessities such as batteries, knock-down toothpaste and fresh produce at the same time as antiques and new shoes, flea-market style.
This article is based on notes I wrote more than a year ago. I can't claim to know the city intimately, so this content may be wildly off-mark; my last visit to Rotterdam was in April 2015, but it's only now that I have felt well enough to form them into the article I was meaning to write for so long. Although my long-term partner at the time, Daniel Fogarty, moved to Rotterdam to study for a two-year MA at Piet Zwart Institute, it wasn't ever really a consideration that I would move too. I visited him there a couple of times, but whenever I returned to Manchester from Rotterdam it was a huge relief, as ultimately Manchester is where I belong, and where my life is (and, to be honest, it was a relief to be back on my road bike, racing down the A6 side-by-side with the traffic). Other than Dan, there was nothing for me, really, in Rotterdam, but I sometimes wonder whether I could have lived there, and there are certain elements of Rotterdam (particularly the street market) that I certainly wish could be replicated in Manchester.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Listen online: All FM Friday Drivetime interview

I was invited to talk about my Pictures for Schools research and upcoming talk for the Manchester Centre for Regional History at Manchester Metropolitan University on Fiona Ledgard’s Friday Drivetime show on south Manchester radio station All FM.

During our discussion Fiona asked me to read a short extract from an article I have written about Pictures for Schools for the new issue of the modernist magazine of twentieth century architecture and design, which is themed ‘Forgotten’. In the article, I chose to focus on Pictures for Schools as a forgotten idea and ideal.

I also picked some songs for the show, some of them tenuously related to art and artists, including Meilyr Jones, the Velvet Underground, WE, Pins, LoneLady, Sauna Youth, David Bowie and Sacred Paws.

Listen to the show online:
For more information about the modernist, and to purchase the magazine, visit

Monday, 14 March 2016

Manchester Left Writers reading at Verbose, Monday March 28

Manchester Left Writers will be reading Precarious Passages as guests at this month's Verbose live literature night at Fallow Cafe in Fallowfield on Monday March 28.

The event starts at 7.30pm and is free. For more information visit

Facebook event