At the opening event of Letters to the Mayor: Rotterdam on 12 January 2018, Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb invited the 46 architects who wrote a letter to condense their ideas into five key questions for local government. As a first step towards reflecting on the body of texts, three critical thinkers, each with a different relation to the city of Rotterdam and the field of architecture, were invited to write a reflection on these 46 letters, including Malique Mohamud.
On the conveyor belt at my neighbourhood supermarket, a remarkable thing is happening. The groceries moving hypnotically toward the till are revealing much about a demographic and socioeconomic shift taking place in the area. New faces with different eating habits walk different routes through the store.
Own-brand washing powder, four croissants for €1, 3kg of granulated sugar. The belt rolls on. Organic vegetables, dürüm wraps, Indonesian green curry.
As my neighbourhood changes, actions that might seem meaningless and routine at first glance, like the daily grocery shop, take on a sociopolitical charge. Urban development has come to Delfshaven. I’m one of those being forced to move. Emergency housing order in hand, I’m looking for a new home. Last week I went to view a renovated block of four flats that used to be a nursery. It was nothing special. The flat felt hastily designed, with little attention or creativity. Along with the cheap-feeling materials they’d used in the renovation, the highlight was the kitchen, situated right next to the Internet and TV connection, in a design that gives new meaning to the notion of the “smart kitchen”.
My posture gives away my disappointment. The housing consultant asks hesitantly what I think. I shrug.
In a society where the market rules and a city that’s given its name to a law allowing local governments to set income requirements for those wishing to move to poor neighbourhoods, beauty and comfort are reserved for those who can afford them. The rest of us have to make do with bad design. The belt rolls on.
If in the past the city functioned as an emancipation machine for many, today we are witnessing the opposite effect. Residents of working-class neighbourhoods risk becoming the stray rocks in the running shoes of professional earners as they jog unimpeded toward a cosmopolitan paradise, complete with Southeast Asian cuisine, conceptual art and guilt-free consumption.
The redesign and redevelopment of socioeconomically neglected areas is accompanied by a hidden but violent process of denial and marginalisation. Who gets to expect recognition, comfort and beauty in the city and its public spaces as givens? And whose lives are profiled and regulated in public spaces? The city’s biggest political party draws this distinction along ethnic lines. In his essay “The Built Environment and Carcerality", the social critic Egbert Martina situates these mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion in a historical context. With reference to the work of the psychiatrist and author Franz Fanon, Martina describes how the structures and institutions on which the modern world rests reproduce the racist ideology of the colonial past in the built environment. This reproduction, combined with architecture’s intrinsic capacity for coercion, even violence, results in a near-permanent state of incarceration for certain city dwellers.
The names of streets and bridges serve as the ultimate confirmation of this fact. We see it, too, in the choices of which figures from history are and aren’t immortalised in statues. Awareness of these decisions gives us tools for looking critically at the history of our cities and the sociopolitical implications of cultural diversity in them.
Many Rotterdammers from former Dutch colonies have never been part of the city’s blueprint. It’s only logical that the mid-20th-century wave of immigration, primarily to Western cities, continues to have cultural and political effects on how people interact with the built environment.
For instance, the communities from the African and Middle Eastern diasporas that settled here brought with them different dynamics and relationships between interior and exterior and between private and public. Outdoor space consistently plays a key role in the stories told by first-generation immigrants. Poets in the courtyards of Mogadishu, encounters on the rooftops of Algiers, family outings in the parks of Tehran consciously and unconsciously seep into the ways children of immigrants engage with outdoor space in culturally diverse cities.
Less romantically, most immigrants ended up in houses designed with western family structures in mind. In large parts of the world, it’s perfectly normal for grandmothers to live with their children and grandchildren, in contrast to the traditional Dutch nuclear-family household. The snowball effect of cramped housing and cultures in which people live their lives largely outdoors became visible in neighbourhoods.
Generations of Netherlanders with roots elsewhere grew up in a society in which people from all over the world lived in segregated neighbourhoods. These areas were structurally underfinanced, underserved, and overmonitored by police and CCTV. This bleak new concrete home gave rise to a street culture marked by pain and disregard but also resilience and perseverance.
This essay is a response to a series of open letters written by architects to the mayor of Rotterdam. I found reading the letters extremely illuminating. They revealed sentiments currently in play in Rotterdam’s architectural landscape. I learned of the worries, frustrations, dreams, ideals, and passionate ideas of architects who care about their city.
Most of the letter writers agree that Rotterdam needs more than just iconic projects that city marketers can use to lure tourists. I read a plea for well-designed schools and community centres. I learned of the need for a Rotterdam city architect – someone who, armed with a clear planning vision, would transcend individual parties’ interests and tackle the lack of cohesion in the urban fabric.
Studio LA’s Arna Mačkić’s contribution on the mortality of cities affected me on a personal level. We share a history of war in our countries of origin. Mačkić argues that the pain caused by the 1940 bombing of Rotterdam links its residents with the inhabitants of other ruined cities by hundreds of invisible threads. Being able to identify with others’ pain allows us to weave the present and the past here and elsewhere into the city’s story. Today, as society searches for stories and possibilities of communality, shared pain can have a healing effect. The politics of coming to terms with trauma, however, is – like citymaking – subject to limiting assumptions.
Increased social conflict was another recurring subject in the letters. Other than in Mačkić’s letter, however, hardly anything was said about what might lie at the root of this or what it might mean. That says a lot about the value of lived experience.
Public spaces designed on the basis of input from multiple voices can help us to see the sensitive aspects of our shared past and the possibilities for our shared future. An important question to ask is: how often are voices like Martina’s and Mačkić’s heard at the city’s drafting tables? Today in particular, architects, project developers, urban planners and policymakers can play a meaningful role by questioning themselves and their positions.
It’s a fact that I don’t see my own past and present reflected in the postcolonial capitalist society of the mainstream white Netherlands. This is likely one reason I was asked to write this essay. I therefore question the decision to invite only practising architects to send in letters. The complexity of a city where more than 170 nationalities are represented calls for more than just the insights of professionals whose lived experiences don’t reflect those of the city at large. But what exactly does that mean?
The cultural platform Metro54’s 2017 group exhibition BLUEPRINT: Whose Urban Appropriation Is This? offered a glimpse of street culture’s potential as a tool for urban development. Countercultures give a voice to the voiceless, responding to the need for identification, representation and self-actualisation. The complex relationship between the built environment and street culture yields insights that can be of inestimable value for the future of this city.
The multitude of residents who aren’t part of the city’s original blueprint harbour a futuristic potential – a capacity to convert a legacy of 400 years of colonialism into more than just economic gains for the upper classes. This potential lies within the social strata where policymakers and enforcers see only threat, decay and a need for policing. With the influx of creatives and other progressives, the neighbourhood’s rhythms and qualities are being overlooked. The new residents see the romance in the ragged edges calling out for refurbishment but ignore the neighbourhood’s identity.
There is a poetic justice in recognising that communities and cultures in “deprived areas” are more than just products peddled by city marketers, and not reducible to gimmicks like summer carnival, roti and loitering youths. Multicultural working-class neighbourhoods possess an intrinsic resilience and resourcefulness that convert the trauma of migration into an undeniable beauty. Slowly but surely, the neighbourhood is blooming with the aspirations and dreams of a generation whose hybrid identities render them capable of code switching between apparently unbridgeable worlds.
I see self-reliance giving rise to entrepreneurship. I see traditions and immaterial heritage providing the foundations for business ventures. I see informal learning communities reinventing the music industry, fashion, and even the media before our eyes, thanks to the democratisation of creative production and distribution. The people doing this are artists, designers, entrepreneurs, hustlers, curators, cultural anthropologists, media producers, and the list goes on.
The streets don’t wait for acknowledged by the dominant culture. People are escaping from the built environment and its ethnic profiling into a digital world. It’s funk on digital steroids. It’s DIY hacking of the urban DNA. If street culture and its poets are the bastard children of capitalist society, then they’re sampling its mentality and making an art out of making money.
For me, urban development remains a bitter yet hopeful reality, one in which I’m trying to find my way between unwanted moving boxes, political consciousness and sympathetic professionals from the monoculture. The big question is: how can we formulate a design brief for an inclusive city based in nondominant perspectives on urban development?
The black-uniformed security guard at my neighbourhood supermarket still watches over local consumption patterns with his stern gaze. But his light metal pin has lost some of its shine. Irregular working hours and rising living costs are affecting his experience of the city. It’s giving him the inner city blues. In other words, concrete znoon*.
The belt rolls on.
In their letter to the mayor, the ZUS architectural office argues for the value and fragility of the creative sector. As the artistic leader of Concrete Blossom, I emphasise the value of the cultural capital present in multicultural working-class neighbourhoods. As the Dutch multicultural society reaches maturity, the question is whether policymakers in Rotterdam recognise the value of that capital.
*Znoon is Moroccan-Dutch slang meaning “stress”.
Malique Mohamud is a writer, director, performer and programme maker who developed an interest in the relationship between urbanity and street culture in his youth, when he stole tapes by Wu-Tang, Tupac and Outkast from his brother’s room. The son of a Somali poet and a general, he champions and looks for meaning in cultural production through an Afro-diasporic lens. Autonomy, subversiveness and (skewed) power relations are recurring themes in his work. The word on the street is that he makes the best toasties north of the Maas and is still a little bit in love with Lauryn Hill. Through Concrete Blossom, the organisation he founded, this creative jack-of-all-trades is currently investigating how the transformative qualities of street culture can contribute to an inclusive society. (Sounds good, right? But let’s keep it real: Malique wrote this bio himself.)