The lost pearl (2015) - Madeleine Berkhemer, photo: Otto Snoek


In 2022, art historian Susanne Altmann spent two months in Rotterdam. She was one of the guests in the context of the artist exchange that the cities of Dresden and Rotterdam have been having for more than ten years. Goethe-Institut Rotterdam (which will unfortunately be closed in 2024) and CBK Rotterdam ensure that participants are accommodated in both cities. Altmann immersed himself in the architecture and art in the public space of Rotterdam. She described her Rotterdam impressions for the magazine DCA (Dresden Contemporary Art) in mid-2023. CBK Rotterdam had the beautiful text translated by Peter Jamin. 

by Susanne Altmann

Which of you would take a walk on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the Prager Street while a football semi-final of national importance is in progress? Not me, that's for sure. But in Rotterdam, the undersigned has boldly set out under the guise of cultural-historical interest. What connects Dresden with this sturdy port city is not the Alberthafen, it is the cityscape-defining fate of two large-scale war-ravaged metropolises. This led to a – at that time – in 1988, still during the GDR era borderline technical rather abstract – city twinning. In the Netherlands, a distinction is made between purely partner cities and selected sister cities. That sounds much more connected, and Dresden is one of them. Although the political causes of the large-scale destruction between 1940 and 1945 are very different and are characterized by a historical imbalance of blame on the German side, the way in which the destruction was dealt with was earlier very similar. Large urban areas had to be recivilized and provided with infrastructure. 
However, Rotterdam had a certain 'advantage' in all this misery – it had to fulfill far fewer historical obligations than the Saxon capital with its many outward signs of a so-called 'art city'. Dresden is still struggling with the restoration of architecture and heritage in accordance with their monument status, however expensive and sometimes overly nostalgic that may be may be. Rotterdam, on the other hand, dared to take flight immediately after the end of the war and regarded its city center as a tabula rasa. The construction of the first car-free pedestrian promenade, the Lijnbaan, started here in 1949. A year earlier, the Dutchman Mart Stam (1899-1986), communist and outspoken representative of functionalist modernism, moved to Dresden, where he initiated the merger of the local art academy with the University for Work art. From the climate in the Sovietoccupation zone, he had actually expected maximum artistic freedom, but the innovative architect and designer was wrong about this. In 1952, after an unsuccessful detour, Stam returned as rector of the Kunsthochschule berlin-Weissensee, disillusioned and fed up with debates about formalism, returned to his homeland. If only he had stayed, you would sigh somewhat pedantic from today's perspective. 

Because in the meantime, the course had been set for new post-war construction, especially in Rotterdam. In 1953, the Lijnbaan was opened, which still fulfills its function of being – according to Goethe – something like “the true (consumer) heaven of the people”. In terms of the associated crowds on a summer Sunday, it is a real challenge for architecture enthusiasts. Not only the crowds, but also the feeling that every second building is a branch of one solidfashion- or fast food chain is overshadowed by the joy of a building combination that – although composed of tight cubes – had a human scale from the start. More than twenty years ago, when I finally wanted to see the famous shopping area that, as is known, had served as inspiration for the Prager Street, I was amazed at how little monumental this street was set up. The almost inhospitable megalomania of the later sister promenade in Dresden, which runs in a straight line through the at the end of the s 60 still very dilapidated old town, seemed to many residents an act of socialist arbitrariness. Although today – at least I hope so – we understand the good intentions behind it and the Palace of Culture have returned to our hearts as the democratic crown on this period of rule, the radical intervention was extremely painful for many residents at the time, almost like a second trauma after the bombing. But what did they imagine? A boulevard full of bank branches and chic cafés? Otto Dix had already taken this to the absurd in 1920 with his bitingly sarcastic painting Prager Street (Stuttgart Art Museum). In a Soviet-communist workers' paradise that would not have been an option anyway. 

Of course, the phantom pain, the suffering of losing Fritz Löfflers Today, 'Old Dresden' still determines the polemic and routine of conservative, self-appointed protectors of the cityscape. In Rotterdam there was clearly no time – nor any architectural reason – to lick these kinds of wounds. With big steps and all kinds of aesthetic stumbles, the second largest city in the Netherlands gave itself a new look. Lotte Stam playedBeese (1903-1988), a Bauhaus student and the first wife of Mart Stam, a style-defininge role. She was committed to social housing and held a managerial position at the Urban Development and Reconstruction Agency until 1968. While people in Dresden were pitifully deliberating about gutter height, high-rise buildings sprang up in Rotterdam, apparently unregulated and to the great delight of so-called star architects to this day. Detached buildings with a tendency towards the sculptural were no exception. As soon as you leave the cozy gutter height of the Lijnbaan, glass walls tiltlooming forward, gigantic passageways open up, cube-shaped residential complexes defy gravity, bright yellow tube bundles wind their way down from the roof of a step pyramid, station canopies float through the environment like UFOs and defend brutalist forts their position. This is what it looks like at our sister's home: fascinatingly diverse. It soon becomes clear that the search for a harmonious cityscape in any way is completely pointless here and that tasteOrders can turn 180 degrees at every street corner. 

And if you neck pain gets tired of all that staring, then you can turn to public art. In this area too, city design is characterized by ambition, quantity and, above all, open-mindedness. It is almost impossible to step foot outside your door without coming across at least a sculpture or installation in your field of view. The well-known art historian Walter Grasskamp defined the city as a 'narrative space', but was probably thinking more about the heritage of the 19th century and the associated oabundance of monuments – historical stories of power, learning and piety. In that sense, Rotterdam is indeed a narrative space, such as the undersigned has never experienced before in any large or small city in the world. Abstract next to figurative, mournful next to humor, political message next to kitsch, large next to small. We still remember the phenomenon of the 'drop sculpture' (i.e. works of art that seemed to have been dropped somewhere without context) that has increasingly come under fire since the 90sr came from a generation of artists and theorists attached to discourse. This debate must have passed Rotterdam unnoticed, and the result is, to say the least, super fun. Four weeks ago, the totally realistic statue of a sturdy young woman of African descent was placed in front of Central Station - within sight of a casino, above which floats a strange, oversized golden tulip goddess. The new installation, Moments contained of Engelsman Thomas J. Price can easily compete with this high-flying lady as she bijna is four meters high and asserts its position with postcolonial nonchalance. 

If you stroll a few minutes deeper into the center, a kind of sculpture park stretches along the water of the Westersingel. Below it is located, standing proudly in the air and not to be overlooked a phallic symbol? Far from it, it is a braided strand of hair (The braid, 2020) as “a feminine sensual symbol… that rises ambitiously towards the sky as if just by standing upright it expresses its own statement of self-worth and resistance” – according to maker Kalliopi Lemos. Classical sculptures of Fritz Wotruba, Henri Laurens en Auguste Rodin follow, as naturally as abruptly. 

Na Rodin's famous The man here marche (1907) the following outgrowth can already be spotted: Paul McCarthy's Santa Clauss (2001), which – contrary to what its innocent name might suggest – caused all kinds of commotion at the time. The dwarf Santa Claus, who is a real six meters tall, is holding a sex toy in his hand in the shape of, well, a pine tree, popularly known as 'butt plug' called. This much diversity and tolerance should be possible, says Sister Rotterdam - not knowing that in Sister Dresden the waves of indignation are already running high for much less piquantness. That's just how it goess there is no sea in front of your door. 

To relax, we recommend a detour to The park where Madeleine Berkhemer (1973-2019) has laid down her beautiful pearl necklace on a quiet meadow, plus a lost pearl, which rests in a shallow pool of water like an oyster (The lost pearl, 2015). The sensuality of this essentially minimalist ensemble only reveals itself gradually, and even more so when one knows the credo of the artist who died prematurely: “Without a sexual charge, art has no right to exist”. Even posthumous winks Berkhemer in the direction of Santa Claus and advocates a fearless artistic occupation of public space.  

I can hardly believe I would ever write this again, but I will. Yes, sisters (and, come on, brothers), Rotterdam is a truly enchanting lesson in urban looseness. 

Publication date: 23 / 10 / 2023