The problem in Rotterdam unlike many cities, is not a scarcity of water, but an excess. Dealing with this has of course always been a Dutch speciality and Anneke Bokern visits a new public square that makes a virtue out of too much water.
Besides cheese, pot, and tulips, the Netherlands are mostly known for having an excess of water – and for finding solutions to deal with this. In fact, this focus of interest has changed over the last 1,000 years or so, from fighting against the sea to fighting against both rising sea levels and heavy rain: due to climate change, precipitation in the country increased by 25 per cent between 1910 and 2009. So what to do with all this water in a densely populated country, which can hardly keep its feet dry without great technical effort?
One answer is provided by the Water Square project in Rotterdam, designed by De Urbanisten. Rotterdam is particularly affected by increasing rainfall, because the city doesn't have a system of canals like Amsterdam, and has a large percentage of sealed surface area which lies partly below sea level. So water comes from all sides in Rotterdam: from the sea, the river, the ground and the sky. Canals and canalisation can't cope with the mass of water anymore, so in some areas basements and streets are regularly inundated.
At the same time, though, Rotterdam has a whole lot of leftover urban public space in need of an upgrade. Benthemplein used to be such a space. The square lies close to the Central Station, hidden between some large-scale high school buildings designed by Dutch architect Hugh Maaskant in the 60s. Most famous among fans of post-war modernism is the Akraton highrise, an eye-catching stack of gym halls on the southeast corner of the square. Until recently, Benthemplein was only furnished with a few sad plant pots and two rows of trees. Because it was in desperate need of a makeover and is mainly used by the teenage students from the surrounding schools, De Urbanisten chose Benthemplein for the very first realisation of an idea which they had developed seven years ago: why hide expensive, but inevitable rain water storage underground? Can't it double as a design element and become part of public space?
The municipality liked the idea and gave De Urbanisten the go ahead for a pilot project. As a start, the architects organised workshops with representatives of the municipality, teachers, students and other neighbours and stakeholders, during which the functional areas of the square were defined and the design concept was developed. It consists of three concrete basins, painted in various shades of blue in a pattern vaguely resembling the isobars on weather maps. Open stainless-steel zigzag gutters and slim light strips are integrated into the ground of the square. In dry weather, each basin has a different function: one features a little island which serves as a “dancing stage”, the other has slanting walls and can be used as a skatebowl. The largest basin is a football and basketball field with grandstand. Short cloudbursts only fill the two smaller basins with rainwater run-off from the surrounding roofs and an adjoining parking lot. But when it rains for a longer time, further run-off from one of the main school roofs and from further afield, floods the largest “sports field” basin. The water is filtered before entering the square, where it flows out of sculptural waterspouts and runs towards the basins along the gutters, taking many deliberate detours across the square to increase its visibility. In the sports field basin, it gushes from a slit in the wall, which is hidden behind a big steel plate (preventing kids from stuffing rubbish into it). When the rain stops, the water is retained in the basins for 48 hours, before being drained directly into the ground or pumped into nearby Noordsingel canal.
Benthemplein is a prime example of how to make a virtue out of necessity in a very Dutch way. The formerly neglected square has been upgraded while at the same time the tedious task of water management has been turned into a fun element in the design of the public space. The result isn't acosy, pretty square, of course. It's a rough and gritty and doesn't reveal its richness at first sight. Just like Rotterdam.
– Anneke Bokern is an architecture journalist. Living in the Netherlands since 2000, she writes on Dutch architecture, art, and design for German and international publications.
Animation of the Water Square project. ( © Studio Analoog)