Dutch cities are known for many things, but grand plazas aren’t one of them. Whilst there are many older plazas in the inner cities of Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, one plaza in Rotterdam counters the typical image of the Dutch plaza: the old-city center point surrounded by mainly low or midrise buildings.
Schouwburgplein (Theatre Square) in downtown Rotterdam was built as a part of the realization of the 1985 Inner City Plan for that city, and is instead defined by the high-rises that surround it, giving it a distinct image that fits well within the city’s center. The square was appointed as a site for cultural and entertainment uses, and was designed by the Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8, led by its founder Adriaan Geuze.
Construction took place between 1991 and 1996, and while the square might appear rather barren, inhospitable and boring at first sight, it is in fact a remarkable urban podium which provides the citizens of Rotterdam with a place to manifest themselves.
It is a very flexible square in terms of programming as it can host a wide array of activities, both large and small. It is this very flexible nature, combined with the ease of programming it, that makes it perhaps the most well-designed square in the Netherlands.
Although the work of design firm West 8 is anchored in the pragmatic tradition of Dutch landscape architecture, they insisted that new times called for new approaches. Geuze designed the square with proactive individuals in mind. To him, urban dwellers were no longer ”pitiful victims of the city who need looking after and protecting in a gentle, green environment” (quote from Superdutch by Bart Lootsma). Rather, he views them as empowered individuals who pick locations that can best accommodate their chosen recreational activities. His active citizens don’t need respite from the concrete jungle; rather, they deserve a place they can change, tweak and program themselves in order to meet their own recreational needs.
The square was created as part of a larger effort of a culture-led regeneration of the city’s downtown. The 1985 Inner City Plan identified the ‘Museum Triangle’ as an area where cultural and recreational activities would be concentrated. Though not located directly within the boundaries of this triangle, the cultural and entertainment uses that Schouwburgplein hosts were programmed as part of the inner-city’s culture-led regeneration.
The square is very minimalist. Hardly any vegetation can be seen, and street furniture has been limited to a discontinuous row of benches on one side of the square. The square was conceived as an urban podium, and consists of a platform, which is slightly elevated from its surroundings. This platform is a lightweight metal structure, placed on the roof of an existing underground parking garage located below the square. At night, the platform is illuminated in blue and green lights from below.
Besides the emptiness that strikes the visitor, coming to this square is also a very humbling experience. There are high rises on every side of the square, with still more being built today. Since the square would become visually contained by the high-rises rising up around it over time, the decision was made not to emphasize the edges of the platform,apart from the slight difference in elevation.
The minimalism that characterizes the square is broken by installations that refer to the city’s reputation as a major harbor and industrial city. The ventilation for the parking garage resembles the chimneys seen in the city’s industrial areas. In turn, the hydraulic masts (with spotlights mounted onto them) refer to the many cranes that dotted the city’s port. They can also be operated by users of the square, by a coin-operated control system. Both installations are a reflection of the city’s identity as a port and industrial center.
Geuze’s ideas are echoed in the design of the square. It is tailored to the needs of his active citizens, and provides them with a place to express themselves. Given the openness of the square, it is well-suited to host public events. Electrical connections and mechanical anchoring points are embedded in the platform, facilitating large events, markets, festivities, and fairs.
The adjustable spotlight units mounted onto the cranes, provide users with the ability to adjust lighting to their needs and have been used to illuminate small nighttime soccer games or a rollerblading demonstrations. The long benches on the side of the square provide people with the opportunity to just sit and watch what is happening on the platform. The square is hugged by three theatres, and the proximity of cafes and an elongated open-air pedestrian mall adds to the vibrancy of the square, and ensures continued use throughout the evenings and weekends.
The original intention to design a square that encourages public assembly has proven itself over time. In the nearly 20 years in which the square has existed in its current form, it has been host to many small informal gatherings and larger festivities alike. In the winter, the square is used for ice-skating, people watching, and as walking route as the square is a major focal point of the inner city’s pedestrian zone. However, the square is also periodically underused during the winter season; its lack of shelter from the elements make it an inhospitable place during those short, stormy Dutch winter days. (It’s not the only square in The Netherlands which suffers from this condition.)
Schouwburgplein reaches its full potential during the summer months, when public events like the Latin carnival, dance music parades, the World Harbor Days, the International Film Festival, and other more informal gatherings take place here. The square proves the Placemaking principle that, if you provide people with a place they can adjust for their own use, they will. It also shows that a public space designed by a starchitect (or, rather, landscape architect) isn’t necessarily just used for people-starved architectural photographs, but actually brings a great deal of people together. It’s no surprise that Simone Shu-Yeng Chung described it as a “fine example of how an elevated square in the middle of the city operates as an interactive and flexible public ‘stage’ for both organised and ad-hoc activities.” It is indeed a true urban podium for the active citizen.