Between post-war reconstruction sculpture and artist initiative

Jelle Bouwhuis - Ruud Kuijer Welland Rotterdam - 2023

After World War ii, a dynamic development of sculptures in public space began in Rotterdam. This primarily involved memorial sculptures, such as the well-known De Verwoeste Stad (The Destroyed City) by Ossip Zadkine, a sculpture from 1953 that pays a poignant tribute to the city center of Rotterdam, which was destroyed by the wartime bombing. This period of memorial sculpture seamlessly transitioned into what we can now call reconstruction sculpture. Characteristic works include the 26-meter-high abstract con- struction by Naum Gabo from 1957 at the Bijenkorf department store on Coolsingel, and the brick relief by Henry Moore on the facade of the former Bouwcentrum (Building Center) on Weena, Wall Relief No. 1 from 1955. There were hardly any limits set to the physical size of their works as long as they fit the scale of the new, modern city that was emerging along the Maas River.

It is not only this scale that makes Ruud Kuijer’s sculpture Welland relevant nearly 70 years later. It is also the attitude of reconstruc- tion, characterized by the well-known saying ‘actions speak louder than words’ that is associated with Rotterdam as a city of large- scale industry, ports, and, of course, post-war construction frenzy. The sculpture, created by Kuijer from a discarded steel cage structure, is located on the southern bank of the river, where the Maas Tunnel dives underwater. Across the river, the Euromast is prominently present. The more than one-kilometer-long Maas Tunnel, completed during the German occupation, was a re- markable feat of pioneering engineering at the time. The Euro- mast immediately became a (initially) 107-meter-tall symbol of reconstruction upon its completion in 1960, towering above its surroundings, and it continues to be a defining landmark of Rotterdam, despite taller buildings elsewhere in the city.

It is this same scale and attitude that are characteristic of the
structure that was sunk as a protective cage on a wellhead of the Welland Gas Field in the North Sea in 1989, somewhere roughl between Norwich and Texel. Kuijer has reused approximately one-fifth of this structure for his sculpture, but its enormous pro- portions are nevertheless the first thing that catches the eye.
Stripped of its original function, it has become a monument of the post-war era when companies and states explored, and stilexplore, geographic areas worldwide on an industrial scale for their fossil fuels. Rotterdam is particularly fitting as the location for Kuijer’s monument because it is now Europe’s primary port for crude oil transit, refining, and petrochemical production, as well as the import and storage of liquefied gas. Since the war, all these activities and the accompanying industrial areas have become typical of Rotterdam, and it is difficult to imagine the city without these characteristic features of modernity, prosperity, and progress.

How did sculpture in public space fare during this era? After the period of domination of memorial monuments and reconstruction sculptures, Rotter- dam adopted a more policy-oriented approach to art in public space. While the port increasingly focused on petrochemicals, this art policy diversified. New residential areas received increasing attention, such as Hoogvliet, where Alexander Calder’s Le Tamanoir (The Anteater) appeared in 1965. The work is essen- tially an assemblage of steel plates, an ode to indus- trial manufacturing, albeit on a less monumental scale than Kuijer’s Welland. A more elegant variant is Philip King’s Quill (Goose Feather), placed in 1973 in Zuiderpark in Charlois. It is not so much notable for the steel used but for the industrial paint that King, new for that time, introduced with vibrant colors into public sculpture.

Good points of comparison for Kuijer’s sculptures are the artworks that were created in the past through the so-called percentage scheme, where a small part of a building’s construction cost is reserved for art. Striking results of this scheme in Rotterdam are the assembled steel sculptures by Auke de Vries along the Willemsbrug and at the Nieuwe Instituut, envi- ronmental artworks by Peter Struycken, such as those at the Erasmus Medical Center, and a 40 by 40 meter ensemble of geometric constructions by André Volten from 1976, located outside the city center. This example is situated on the premises of the water company Evides, on the Maas riverbank, four kilometers upstream from Charloisse Hoofd, right next to the Van Brienenoord Bridge (that opened in 1965). Volten also worked with industrial construc- tion material, in this case steel, to create large-scale spatial compositions based on simple geometric forms. In the 1970s, it was possible to have such an extensive area for an art application. However, due to increasing pressure on space in urban areas in the Netherlands, such environmental works are now at risk. This is especially true for Volten’s creations, like the one at Evides, and even more so for a series of sculptures he created in the past that used to charac- terize the Jaarbeurs Fairgrounds in Utrecht – they were removed from there a few years ago.

The decline of a period in public sculpture reflects the times we live in. Within the optimism of progress, ample space was created for industrial development as well as art, which contributed to prosperity, eman- cipation, and societal improvement. Nowadays, such visions have lost their appeal. Nevertheless, Kuijer’s artistic vision is rooted in this optimism. He is fasci- nated by it but presents a viewpoint that aligns with the current era. Welland is, after all, a deconstruction based on a decommissioned gas valve, symbolizing the (future) decarbonization of our society. Kuijer has reused and transformed this residue into a sculp- ture: recycling instead of creating a new work from raw materials like all the other artists mentioned in this essay did. In fact, Welland represents a reversal of the future vision held by the generation of sculp- tors before him.

The art policy has also disintegrated in that regard. Whereas artists previously had the freedom to enrich the urban environment with their work, nowadays, one must fight for that space and the resources that come with it. Kuijer excels in that regard and gives a new impetus to the monumental tradition of sculp- ture in our country. His concrete Waterwerken (Water Works) along the Amsterdam-Rijn Canal near Utrecht are the primary witnesses of this. Those sculptures would not have come to fruition without his own ini- tiative and unwavering determination to realize his work not only in the studio but specifically in public locations.

Indeed, times have changed.