Whether in Rotterdam or Blackburn, looking at the world from a different perspective is always good. I live in the Netherlands’ second city and the aspirational Lancashire town, and they have a surprising amount in common – not least, forward-looking architectural ambitions in the mid-20th century.
Rotterdam is a very different dutch city. It is nicknamed ‘Manhatten en the Mass’. A lot of the cute Dutch bridges and Gable-ended houses were destroyed by German bombers on 31st March 1943. Rotterdam was already a forward-looking city so decided to build back new rather than try and recreate what had been. If you want that, Delft is only a 45-minute cycle ride from the centre of Rotterdam. Since the bombardment, Rotterdam has been championing contemporary architecture and can now boast some of the world’s most renowned architectural practices such as MVRDV and OMA.
Contemporary Rotterdam has space built-in at ground level, room to breathe. In a very flat country, where the landscape is often dominated by a gazillion acres of sky, it is also a city where you never tire of looking up. This is where you’ll find the tallest buildings in the Netherlands. De Zalmhaven, just completed, tops the lot at 215m.
Looking up is great – what about looking down? This year Rotterdam has hosted a Rooftop walk experience in the heart of the city centre – admittedly this didn’t involve the highest buildings which are mostly built next to the river, but it was still a long way up. For €3.50 you got to ascend a flight of orange stairs onto the World Trade Centre Rotterdam, then cross a 60m long and 30m high scaffolding bridge over Coolsingel to the roof of De Bijenkorf department store. The city looked magnificent from up there with some surprises. I hadn’t realised how green Coolsingel was from ground level or how clearly it linked up to the Erasmus Bridge.
Blackburn wasn’t handed a complete rebuilding challenge by the Luftwaffe but its mid-twentieth-century leaders also had an architectural vision of a contemporary and forward-looking town. The shopping centre was one of the first of its kind in the UK. The 14-storey Town Hall Tower dominates the skyline. There was a plan in the late sixties to create a high-level walkway linking the King George’s concert hall, the relocated Library, a new building on Town Hall Street, opposite the library, the old town hall and the new Town Hall tower block. Much of it was realised. The bridge between the two Town Hall buildings still exists. The link was made between King Georges’ Hall and the Libray though this was removed a few years ago. In the Library, The Street, a wide thoroughfare at the first-floor level remains as an isolated remnant of a great vision. I think that there is still a model of the whole scheme in the museum store. Local Government reorganisation in 1974 put a stop to it all with the Library falling under the jurisdiction of the newly formed County Council. Although much was built, it was soon forgotten without the whole vision being realised.
I would love to see a Blackburn take on Rotterdam’s Rooftop walk, recognising the vision of those town leaders in the 1960s, perhaps as part of the National Festival of Making or independently, as a temporary attraction in its own right. It would keep the scaffolders busy for weeks and British Health and Safety officers would have kittens but it is certainly doable.