'Tor und Stele' makes Rotterdam's dream visible

by Sandra Smets 28.06.2023
photo Otto Snoek

Before the war, the area around the Haagseveer was still a headache, an area that needed to be redeveloped. But the bombing of May 14, 1940 wiped everything out and this part of the center would remain bare and windy for a long time, while step by step, building by building, a new city was fitted in between the remains of the old building. And art played a major role in this, as a tool for shaping and understanding that city. The monumental also plays such a role Tor und Stele near the Haagseveer, from 1994. Together with the Doelstraat as a corridor, this work of art was designed, between two high new rows of facades, by the famous German artist Günther Förg. The Doelstraat is like a stage for this work of art and vice versa, this two-part work of art is itself a corridor that leads people from one point to the other.

Such a grand interplay between image and street is less strange when you consider that this also happened in the 19th century for the kind of objects that Förg refers to: his Tor is a gate like a triumphal arch, are Steel like a classic tombstone with which squares were traditionally decorated. So two classic urban symbols, but he designed this when triumphal arches had been out of fashion for generations. Moreover, Förg was not a classical artist, but a minimal artist who worked with abstract geometric shapes. He therefore approached the city differently: he was concerned with the public space and the emptiness that had arisen in Rotterdam. These two sturdy shapes are presented here as an abstract composition, one smooth of natural stone and thus as matter-of-fact as the adjacent late 20th-century architecture, the other of bronze and modelled: with traces of the manufacturing process. With this architectural work of art he unites construction and visual arts. That also suits Rotterdam, which always dreamed of being a metropolis. This dream becomes visible here in the Doelstraat.

Rotterdam has been regarded as a modern city since before the war, and that image grew during the post-war reconstruction. This work of art fits in with that: metropolitan power symbols, but modern. In scale, material, shape, the whole is conceived in relation to the architecture and vice versa. It also forms a visual axis from the Coolsingel to the artwork New Delftse Poort, and thus connects the old and the new center, the front and back, and defines that space into a place. The Doelstraat will have a start and end point, something that is now placemaking would be mentioned. Artwork and corridor are so inextricably linked that the artwork cannot be moved, and the surrounding space cannot be skimped on. The corridor must remain completely intact for this work to function.

Power symbols 
At the same time, Rotterdam is too ordinary a city for stately symbols such as stelae and triumphal arches. You can already see that by how squares in Rotterdam never just get a fountain in the middle (except on Hofplein). You can also see that feeling in how Förg designed this grandeur with a certain irony: the arch is not reminiscent of any triumphal procession, and the stele mainly looks sculpted. And yes, the corridor was designed for this artwork, but as a side street, next to the Coolsingel. A city like Paris or Berlin would never place a symbol of power such as a triumphal arch in a street off the main road. So Rotterdam does. A street where military parades would never fit, and where power consists of an ordinary police station.

Tor und Stele is a landmark as Rotterdam does not have many. It is a work of art of allure, it was carefully selected in 1990 by an art committee from five sketch designs by internationally renowned artists. There are only three works of art by Förg in public space worldwide: Tor und Stele is one of them. A fourth work by him, also in Rotterdam, has been demolished by the RET. The magnificent Tor und Stele is included in the collection of Sculpture International Rotterdam for a reason, among names such as Moore, Zadkine, Gabo and DeKoning. And the fact that the city around it has now been filled in, in 2023, makes this work even stronger: the fills the space completely with meanings, associations, humor and memories. It recalls what it was like, how there was a need for filling, for art, for a new city, and nourishes those dreams.

Sandra Smets is an art historian and journalist.

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