Centraal Station

In november 2013 gaf schrijver en essayist Matthew Stadler de Benno Premsela lezing in de Portugese Synagoge in Amsterdam. Nu werkt hij een periode in Rotterdam en observeert hij op scherpzinnige wijze de maasstad. Vandaag deel 3: Centraal Station.

I see in the newspaper that Rotterdam's city singer, Arie van der Krogt, has named the new train station ‘Kiekeboe’. To be fair, Arie was working under some severe constraints, the first being his chosen medium of poetry. He had arrived at the bonus fifth line of his third quatrain and needed a word that rhymed with ‘gedoe’. The only way out for Arie was the unfortunate moniker, ‘Kiekeboe’. Naming should be left to prose writers. Clearly the ball is in my court now, and I have decided to name Het Groothandelsgebouw ‘Bob’. My reasons are two-fold.
First, the most obvious: it's ‘name’ as such. I translate Groothandelsgebouw as ‘Big Office Building’, or BOB. The acronym makes obvious sense. Had Arie been writing prose, he would have seen that ‘The Train Station’ (my translation of Rotterdam Centraal) suggests the acronym TTS, and we would all be pointing foreign travelers in the direction of ‘Titties’, rather than the improbable ‘Kiekeboe’.
Second, more subtly, Bob is exactly who/what Het Groothandelsgebouw resembles, in all its frank, sturdy efficiency. Frankness: No building better expresses its origin (the wake of WW II, to answer a need for office space to restart the city), its efficiencies (poured and cast concrete, all the way down to the window frames, at a time when wood was scarce and time was short), and its incredible ambitions (a car can drive to the door of nearly half the offices in this at-the-time astonishingly vast building; Bob's daring and success make current-day complaints about De Rotterdam being ‘too big’ sound symptomatic of a fatal loss of hope). All of this, in an elegant, transparent form that anyone can understand. Bob speaks plainly.
Sturdiness: Bob is as clean, clear, and contemporary today as sixty years ago. It's remarkable to see how much more dated its younger neighbors look: the Millennium Tower (looking like a discard from the set of the first Batman movie); the squat aluminum cubes of Weena Plaza; Calypso (can the present moment look dated? Apparently so); or, the uninspired torte called the Weena Point (which appears to have been designed expressly to be demolished). Bob, in his clean white shirt and plain tie, looks as ready and alert—as ‘with it’—as on opening day. Knowing Bob, he'll look that way for a long time. (The Nationale Nederlanden building is fine.)
Finally, its efficiencies: constrained by post-war conditions, Hugh Maaskant designed a masterpiece of functionality at a scale that both declared and inspired huge optimism, without rhetorical excess, without waste, and with complete confidence in the adequacy of existing conditions. Bob continues to express the core values of this wonderfully productive city—an almost giddy indifference to the narrow limits of either sentimentalists (too fond of history) or futurists (too frightened by the present to enjoy living in it).

Bob is the practical, fair, and inspiring father all of us should have had, the real heart of Rotterdam And this is where the new Centraal Station displays its genius. Bob is a big building. It needs space to breathe. But nothing the city built within 2 km of Bob ever bothered to defer, to look back and regard Bob, to recognize the primacy of that building in this city. Instead, architects preened upward, building as high as their budgets would allow. But the new Centraal Station offers a deferential bow to Bob, miraculously reconfiguring the hodgepodge game show of hubris that comprises the city's architectural core into a gathering of oversized children at the feet of their sturdy, patient father.
The new Centraal Station isn't a building so much as it is a set of traffic signals. The swooping roof itself directs people toward the trains, like a great vacuum attachment, while also deferring to Bob and framing the bus and tram stations. The form expresses its function directly enough to read as plain or straightforward. Rather than fight the city's scattershot artificiality, the new station speaks in the same cartoonish, gestural language. Its directives are clear and broad, pointing to what is important while separating the fast from the slow, the big from the small, the heavy from the light. Like a good party host, the new Centraal makes the city center's awkward collection of self-involved buildings appear to address one another, with Bob right where he belongs, seated in the middle of it all.
Centraal's deferential bow is perfectly proportioned, exhibiting a gigantism that allows it to reach the noisy, tall kids, and a gentleness that lets Bob's quiet voice be heard. It is a brilliant piece of design—simply Nike's trade-marked swoosh, turned upside-down. (It will be interesting to see if Nike's lawyers find some way to sue; you know Starbucks would have.) Perhaps this offers another insight into Arie's error: he seems to have misread the Nike swoosh as a sort of lazy eye, lifting it's heavy metal lid from sleep; ‘Kiekeboe’ is the Dutch equivalent of ‘peekaboo’.
But I needn't persuade you of anything. As with all names, time will tell. I doubt we'll be hearing much about ‘Kiekeboe’. ‘Centraal’ will continue to be the melodious two-syllables spoken by anyone who wants to find the train station. And good Rotterdammers will smile and point them in the direction of Bob, sitting right there in full view, where it belongs.