There is a huge difference between the merely impressive and the expressive when it comes to modern cities. Rotterdam, once one of the glories in the European architectural crown, was bombed to dust in WWII and, given the poverty of post-war resources, was rebuilt in the following decades as a horrifyingly soulless, boxy blot of concrete on the face of the Netherlands. There is no comfort in knowing that the firestorm that destroyed the city was probably not planned as it happened but resulted from a perfect storm of another kind in miscommunications; the horrors of war are a long testimony to the potential for such devastation. In any even, it took Rotterdam ages to be revitalized into the place of energy and beauty that it is today. Why? What made it such a heart-stopping graveyard of a place when it had once been full of life and loveliness, and how could it ever come back to be something gracious and potent again?
There is no obvious single word that can express the massive destructive toll the bombing took on that city; annihilation is perhaps a close approximation, since it’s clear even from faded photos that the thoroughness of the attacks left very little evidence there had ever been a Rotterdam. I find it nearly impossible to imagine even when staring at proof. When my spouse and I visited the city for a conference even less than fifteen years ago it was still a sad shadow of its former glory, still dominated by 1950s-vintage blocks of affordable and utilitarian harshness that made me want to scream when I saw them in juxtaposition to the few tiny remnants of the beautiful architecture that had once filled the place.
The main reason that Rotterdam is beautiful once again, and that many other cities have, and some have never lost, such beauty is simple: architectural thought and distinction. Building what is cheapest and easiest to construct is a poor solution to lack of structure anywhere. Places that have never experienced the ravages of war, urban decay and other forms of damage and neglect in such extremes can retain the beauty and patina of urbane culture in their urban settings far more easily. Take Boston, Massachusetts, a city that has seen its share of ups and downs over time, but as one of the older cities in a young and generally untouched-by-war country, still has many of its older–even oldest–and most prized, elegant, distinctive buildings. Despite the expected problems of social unrest, economic up- and downturns, spots of urban blight and misdirected city planning that Boston has faced like any modern city, the knowledge that the architectural strengths it does have are worthy of protecting and preserving means that it was built as more than mere indoor space in the first place and that the character of the structures has as much value in shaping the city’s identity as do its great denizens.It should be obvious to those of us wishing to see all of the world housed and sheltered in humane and useful structures and towns and cities that simply throwing up whatever is cheapest and most readily available is hardly more useful, in the long term, than just plain, well, throwing up on people. If we want others to live educated, healthy and therefore productive and admirable lives, we can’t stuff them into trash bins of buildings that, even if they don’t collapse under their own flawed ugliness, will never encourage their occupants and users to flourish. If we don’t intend to fill others’ lives with the vomitous garbage we ourselves would reject and flee, we must find ways to make good, practical, appealing design a mandate and not an afterthought or an unaffordable dream.
That approach not only makes living and working in tolerable shelter possible but nurtures the human spirit and pushes us all to better ourselves, our cities and our world.