Plot twist monuments

Consider the city an urban organism that develops through time, with a visible surface that scars; with limbs that are added and amputated; demolitions, renovations and adaptations that leave clear markings on its skin. These visible effects of time on a city’s palimpsest or, more concretely, the accumulation of historic structures from various past periods can be considered a city’s urban patina. This layering of historic structures is the manner in which the past is preserved in historical sites; it functions according to Freud as a city’s memory1. What if, as a result of some trauma, a city’s patina is eradicated? Does a patina-annihilating trauma always precede an urge to repatinate the urban fabric?

Delftse Poort, Rotterdam

This article was first published in Archiprint journal for architecture, issue #11, November 1st 2017.

In the past it has been argued often that a building’s greatest glory lies in its age. One of the most beautifully worded arguments was penned down by John Ruskin who, despite his ever-present Mediterranean-directed tunnel vision, considered even the work of North-European spiders to be ornamental to architecture.2 It is without this cumulative glory of buildings that stood the test of time that a city may feel empty, rid of beauty or essence. Can a city still be considered glorious, lacking the very buildings that once reflected or even provided its visual spectacle? Probably, but certainly it requires more effort to find and appreciate said glory. It is therefore my understanding that loss of physical history in a city immediately precedes an urge to regain some of that former brilliance, perhaps even as a civic duty to the city.

How does one repatinate a city anyway – through reconstruction of lost monuments? In her paper on sham ruins, Lauren Kaplan quickly points out the problem with exact reconstructions: they often paint a distorted picture of history.3 Take for example the Berliner Stadtschloss, whose reconstruction will eventually obscure the truth that the Prussian object had actually been nullified by war and replaced by the GDR’s Palast der Republik, leading to future generations failing to realize that what they see is in fact not the 15th century structure. Or, take the reconstruction of a giant medieval tower in the center of Nijmegen, which is likely to forever hold a conflicted reputation, as its primary reason for destruction in 1797 was it being a symbol for totalitarian oppression – quite possibly not something one would want to resurrect. These distorted narratives result in a conflict between the aforementioned urge to reconstruct and the intuitive aversion to buildings that are untruthful – buildings that tell untrue stories.

In 1995, artist Cor Kraat was invited to, after fifty years, reconstruct the Delftse Poort near Rotterdam’s Hofplein. Rotterdam lost most of its patina in 1940 through World War II, like many cities in Europe. Many redevelopment schemes later, cities resurrected from ruins still struggle with their respective postwar heritage. German cities have often rebuilt entire city centers the exact way they appeared before, perhaps in denial of the factual bombings themselves.4 The Nieuwe Delftse Poort, however, is not an exact reconstruction, yet it is symbolic in two ways. It tells the story of Rotterdam as a wealthy merchant city through the building that it represents, while the materials show that this is not the original: the original has been eradicated by a traumatic experience. In the continuous environment of modern high-rise buildings, the Nieuwe Delftse Poort hints to a past that is no more. Yet, the very fact that it exists suggests that the trauma that caused this past to collapse has been overcome.

The Benjamin Franklin Ghost houses by Robert Venturi, 1976

Interestingly, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown attempted a similar gesture when reconstructing Benjamin Franklin’s house in Philadelphia. Venturi simply outlined the original volumes with abstract tubular steel; afterwards they were dubbed “ghost houses”. Could they, together with Kraat’s Nieuwe Delftse Poort, mark a distinct type of monument? A monument to the trauma that caused a city’s patina to be fractured, a monument to a plot twist in the city’s narrative. A plot twist monument.

The plot twist monument appears on locations where the city’s patina has been scarred or is incoherent and accordingly shows two narratives. First the original narrative; it tells of the historical development of the city. Second a traumatic narrative, one that tells of paradigm shifts, totalitarian intrusion, falsification of history, a bomb: a city being undermined. A plot twist in the city’s historical narrative that eventually resulted in a monumental Jekyll and Hyde. Yet it also shows the fact that something has been rebuilt, the trauma has passed and negative forces were eliminated; it may be somewhat heroic.

What are the characteristics of this type of reconstruction? They seem to be hyper-contemporary interpretations of historic structures, hinting to the outlines of the original building using counter-intuitive materials, such as a steel skeleton to suggest a neoclassicist building. The material is always the main indication of it not being an original.

Perhaps plot twist monuments are the inverse of what Hannema defined as instant patina. Where instant patina shows a narrative where there is none, plot twist monuments mark narratives that are present yet invisible. Instant patina is a modern building trying to look old; plot twist monuments are old buildings forced to look modern. Instant patina welcomes additional patina to its prepatinated surfaces. Plot twist monuments cannot bear any further patination for it would add to an already written narrative. Instant patina invites contingencies. Plot twist monuments are finished products. In that sense, as opposed to exact reconstruction of lost monuments, constructing a plot twist monument is not about repatinating a city at all, it is merely about quite literally outlining history.

Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of its hyper-contemporary appearance, it becomes difficult to relate the Nieuwe Delftse Poort to the feeling of the old city and, more importantly, the feeling of civic pride that postwar citizens and builders took in the reconstruction of their city center. Maybe it fails for being too abstract; it becomes one of plenty modern constructions in the area and reluctantly blends into the glass-plated and steel-framed background of its own environment… In fact, it might be easier to grasp the immediate postwar attitude by looking at the small church right behind the Nieuwe Delftse Poort, constructed in 1950: a modest gesture of a devastated city trying to bring people together amid its vast wasteland awaiting full redevelopment.

1. Freud uses Rome to exemplify this, where all remains of historic periods are found “dovetailed into the jumble of the great metropolis”.1 He continues to compare the city to the human mind and concludes that the city is a priori unsuited for this comparison as it is constantly plagued by traumas such as demolitions and replacements of buildings. The city considered as a mind would be chronically burdened with memory-loss, and is therefore a traumatic landscape. Freud, S. (1961). Civilization and its discontents. New York: W.W. Norton & Com­pany Inc.

2. The incidental decorations of architectural surface most dear to Ruskin are those provided by nature herself over long periods of time, often dearer to him than the architecture itself. “[…] The picturesque or extraneous sublimity of architecture, an exponent of age, is that in which the greatest glory of a building consists, and therefore […] may be considered taking rank among pureand essential characters; so essential to my mind, that I think a building cannot be considered in its prime until four or five centuries have passed over it.” Kristine Ottesen Garrigan, Ruskin on Architecture : His Thought and Influence (1973), pp47-48

3. Lauren Kaplan, Exotic Follies : Sanderson Miller’s Mock Ruins, FRAME: a journal of visual and material culture, Issue one, Spring 2011, pp54-68

4. In Max Pensky’s paper, this denial is brilliantly illustrated by Hannah Arendt’s experiences in postwar Germany: “When she returned to Germany in 1950, Hannah Arendt witnessed a peculiar behavior amongst the German citizens, coping with their shattered cities a half  decade after the war’s end. Picking their way through these peculiar urban areas where ruins and inhabited buildings coexisted together with a great number of constructions that were an odd combination of both, the inhabitants, Arendt noticed, had taken to sending one another postcards of churches and market squares, public buildings and bridges that no longer existed, as though the cards and their images of an intact city could rectify or supplant the reality of the landscape that they had to occupy.” Pensky, Max. 2011. “Three kinds of ruin: Heidegger, Benjamin, Sebald”. Poligrafi. 16 (61/62): 65-89.

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