Why Rotterdam’s Theater Square Represents a Turning Point for Urban Design
Art history rarely recognizes a masterpiece in its time. And neither does urban design and landscape architecture. So it’s time to pay homage to a groundbreaking urban square that changed the way designers approach urban sites.
Situated in the heart of Rotterdam, Schouwburgplein, or Theater Square was built in what was formerly a large blank space without character. Surrounded by nondescript lowrise towers that were built after the Nazi destruction, Schouwburgplein is built on top of underground parking. Designed by the landscape architecture firm West 8, the square is an interactive urban space, flexible and adaptive to the user’s needs.
In the tradition of Italy’s medieval squares, the design for Schouwburgplein emphasizes the importance of void, creating a panorama which opens to the skyline. The entire concept of the design revolves around the idea of adaptability. Lead designer Adriaan Geuze prefers the “emptiness” to overprogrammed urban spaces and argues that urban dwellers are capable of creating their own meaning in environments.
Good design has alway prompted contempt from institutions dedicated to neo-traditional. The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces has added Schouwburgplein to its Hall of Shame, claiming that “this is a perfect example of how a design statement cannot be a great square.” The site goes on to say the square is often underused during certain times of day, a clear indication of its failure. PPS unfairly blames the design of the square for problems of the fragmented and under-utilized urban context. Of course, the PPS has always been a bit critical of anything built after the Victorian era.
History remembers projects that mark a turning point. The design of Theater Square represents a shift from the square as fixed object to the square as dynamic field; from a site of representation and power to a site of democracy and openness; from overprogrammed public space to an enabling territory. The shift in thinking represented in this design is already percolating through universities and cutting edge design firms.