“Sculptures in Public Spaces” by Dikkie Scipio

We take it for granted in Rotterdam, walking around in a city that is one of the greatest sculpture gardens in the world. How amazing it is to be able to stumble upon, lean against or sit on art – sometimes by world-famous artists – that gives our public space more meaning. How amazing it is to have the privilege to welcome or the right to object to the placement of new artworks – works that some cities can only dream of. We seem almost unaware of it.    

Siebe Thissen is now providing us with a compendium, an excellent overview placing the art in its social and historical context, and allowing us to see the full wealth of art in Rotterdam’s public spaces. Leafing through this book fills me with pride. I see it as the ‘grand finale’ of an era, now that our ideas on public space are changing rapidly.


While public space used to be defined as space that wasn’t privately owned and was delineated by building facades and entrances, and where on occasion the space might have been entrusted to artists when conceded by the generosity of a builder/owner, today the line between public and private is slowly blurring. A new generation has emerged that no longer aims for possession, not on account of political ideals but because they do not see the point of ownership. It’s the backpack generation, those who were brought to school in the morning and told that their father, neighbour or grandad’s third wife would pick them up after school. It’s the generation that grew up with prosperity and the certainty of everything always being available, though not always from a single source or through ownership. It’s the generation that sees sharing as natural and is not impressed by ownership. The line between public and private is disappearing. The emergence and popularity of Uber, Airbnb and Green Wheels are the consequences. Even Porsche currently has a sharing programme!

So all this also has a significant effect on perceptions regarding the idea of public space. When the concept of ownership no longer clearly distinguishes the separation of public and private spaces, where exactly does public space begin and end? Or does it even end? The establishment of the first POPS, Privately Owned Public Spaces, are indeed already a reality. Insofar as I know, no artworks have yet been installed in these new public spaces that have shown any kind of different response to the space, but it is inevitable that there will be one.

Another exponent of this new sharing is the sharing of knowledge. Information used to be under private custody and traded, but now we are used to a networking and knowledge-sharing society in which it seems that having access to information is free. What we have overlooked, however, is that this is intellectual knowledge, not the know-how and experience that one physically builds by doing. It is the doing that is necessary to master a craft.

Now one of the things that make art in public spaces so special is how well they are made. They have to be, because whether they are free-standing or part of a building, they must have a suitable physiognomy and the right feel, as well as being robust enough to withstand the affections of the public and our climate. Also, the sculptures are often of such a scale that if they were not suitably constructed, they might topple or collapse under their own weight. Creating these works demands therefore not only outstanding artistry, but also a high level of technical craftsmanship. Much can be said about the meaning of the artworks, yet the skill with which these works have been made has long been taken for granted.

Just how unjust this is, becomes apparent when we recognise the serious shortage of real, skilled specialists. True tradesmen are few and far between; there are few craftsmen today who have managed to master, for example, glassblowing, the working and casting of metals, leatherworking, the many forms and applications of stonework, brickwork and concrete, and fabric, lace and pattern production. The list of ‘endangered’ trades seems infinite.

It’s a serious situation because to excel at a particular skill may require many years, even decades, of practice and patience. The urgency is clear from the fact that several multinationals have instigated programmes to recruit real craftsmen. Often older people and sometimes even the very elderly are being hired so as not to lose the knowledge once acquired and to share their expertise with younger people who can learn and pass on the value of the skill – skills that are often necessary to make excellent art.

I am grateful that Siebe’s book has lots of photographs of artists at work. It illustrates the importance of craftsmanship. It has often been artists, in fact, that have ensured that knowledge has not been lost. Let’s take serious note of this, for without craftsmanship there is no art in public spaces.

The timing of this book couldn’t be better. It contributes to awareness of the quality we should be surrounding ourselves with and, moreover, hopefully inspires a respect for the expertise necessary to achieve this. It also reveals to us our attitudes to public space, where the visual arts show us it is truly the discipline that opens our eyes to all the different ways of looking at the world – the ultimate public space.  The world is changing at a rapid pace and we are here to experience it. How exciting is that?

One mould

The history and the actual planning and development of the Dutch urban landscape is all about water management.


It implies the entire control or balance of the water versus land situation and therefore also includes water as a part of the infrastructure of the country. Aspects as transport, sewage, drainage, storage are constantly measured in balance with reclamation and safety from flooding.

In the Netherlands the production of land or vice versa the flooding of land was and is used as a military, political and economical tool.


Any city in the Netherlands is somehow related to the water or partially developed on reclaimed land.

For Dutch this situation is as normal as breathing. Put a shovel in the ground and the hole will fill itself with water immediately. The permanent relation with the water throughout the history has also asked many sacrifices and has settled in the DNA of our culture. The expression ’poldermodel’ literally refers to the habit of dealing with societal issues by compromising and finding consensus among stakeholders.

One sometimes wonders why people wanted to live here? But it was exactly the smart exploitation of the complex relation to the water that lead in the 16th and 17th century to the ‘first modern economy’ in the world with a very dense network of small cities. Building these cities implied making or reinforcing the land, keeping it in place and making foundations in the water.


Supreme Court of the Netherlands_KAAN Architecten @ Dominique Pnahuysen 2


There is little stable and dry land available so not only buildings are constructed but so are the streets and the canals. The section canal, street and house are inherently related and intertwined. The houses are built out of the same bricks as the docks, streets and bridges and have similar foundations.

Public, collective and private interests are constantly negotiated in these complex constructions.


Globalization today causes large percentages of the world population to settle down in densely populated, sometimes dangerous deltas all over the world making land-reclamation techniques and proper water-management techniques extremely important. However also the conceptual impact and the political and cultural consequences will become tangible. Construction implies also construction of land and infrastructure and the complex public-private relations as a result.

In the sustainable urban territory the relation to water goes far beyond the technical aspects of land reclamation.

Borneo_KAAN Architecten @ Luuk Kramer

Sustainable High-Rise in Dutch cities

What is sustainable? And, could high-rise be sustainable at all?

Defining categories of sustainability identifies positive attributes in types of buildings, it is a relative system, there is no absolute value. We ask ourselves if high-rise is a type reflecting our dream of the metropolis or is there an economic necessity.

The choice whether to use high-rise for densification or not, depends on the existing urban tissue and a city’s cultural climate ready to absorb high-rise. In The Netherlands we have the luxury of building something for every need, we increase floor space to make cities emptier. As long as we do not develop proper high-rise knowledge and a broad culture of developing building and using high-rise we will not be able to address any real densification issues.

(text by Kees Kaan that has been published in the Book H. Meyer and D. Zandbelt, High-Rise and the Sustainable City Techne Press, 2012)

Download the PDF of the full text.

Architecture in the Netherlands

The current architectural debate is characterised by the threat of a split between proponents of change and renewal as the motive and motor of progress and the advocates of the tried and tested, and therefore timeless, skills and qualities in architecture.

But is it not the case that progress is found precisely in the equal recognition of change and constancy? In the equivalence of research and knowledge?

Time puts everything in its place. After all, the idea from which the object emanated, was just the cause and, at the end of the day a building is nothing but a tool facilitating human activity.

(text by Kees Kaan appeared in “Enigmatic Code of The Netherlands, Cities, Architecture and Design through an Architect’s Vision”; 2012; pp 03-07)

Download the PDF of the full text.

The Choice

The essence in making a choice is found in the source from which the choice is made. Making choices as an architect means developing a vision and making decisions based on that vision, understanding and taking responsibility for the entire design with all its implications. It is a decision out of which actions follow.

The fundamental points of departure in Architecture should not be found in the aim for a certain style or to follow the latest fashion, but in the wish and ability to act freely and to make the most of opportunities and make choices without prejudice, based on concrete facts that form the foundation of a project.

Attempts to deliberately express change in architecture are therefore unnecessary. Architects are part of the times they live in and thus buildings automatically will reflect the spirit of the age.

(text by Kees Kaan)

The-Choice-book GIF