Chronicle of a Divorce

by Emiliano Gandolfi

It’s all a matter of measurements. 20 feet by 8 feet by 8 ½ feet, an overall volume of 1,360 square feet– these are the measurements that changed ports around the world. After the war in Korea, when the American army started experimenting with the first metal shipping containers, we were only a short step away from an outright revolution in transportation and global commerce. In 1956 Malcolm McLean, a small businessman from Maxton, North Carolina, was the first to understand the practical value in commercial terms of transporting loads directly along with their container: a stroke of intuition that was to gain him the nickname of "the father of containerization". But it was not until October 1970, when after two years of elaborations the standard dimensions were finally defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The containers themselves took on the name of this organization: ISO shipping containers, and from that moment on, ships, trains, lorries and stations, ports and freight stations, across the world were adapted to suit this system and this system alone.

The revolution was in some ways unexpected. In the 50s, when an economist from Harvard University, Benjamin Chinitz, predicted that the use of shipping containers would have facilitated New York in terms of the possibility of transporting goods produced at lower costs to the southern States, he did not take into account that the same technology would have also made it much cheaper to import products from abroad . With the spread of the shipping container and the relative fall in shipping costs, the economy for the first time ever became genuinely global. The gradual liberalization of the markets made it possible to import goods from any part of the planet and so produce goods in countries where labour costs were notably lower.

Today, crossing the port of Rotterdam is almost a mystic experience. More than 40 km of Transtainers, Gantry, Grappler Lift, Reach Stackers and other devices for loading and unloading ships are permanently in motion, seemingly without anyone there to control them. Hills of coal dust, mountains of coloured shipping containers, whole landscapes of crude oil silos, linked together by thousands of kilometres of pipes, cables, bridges, lights, form the framework of the biggest port in Europe, one of the biggest in the world. An image quite different from that which it was supposed to be during its post-war reconstruction years, when tens of thousands of people were tirelessly at work loading and unloading goods, but also occupying the new neighbourhoods nearby, hastily built to meet the constant demands for labour.

In the years of the great migration from the countryside to the city, the port of Rotterdam was the real heart of the city. Unlike Amsterdam, historically richer and more concerned with stocking goods and waiting for their trade value to rise, Rotterdam was the city of large-scale distribution, the port of Europe, a city of transport management and production, with the biggest shipyards and home to the first great refineries, those of the Royal Dutch Shell, and then the others: Mobil, BP and Texaco. The port was a frenetic hustle and bustle of boats, people and goods; the tales of delicious tropical fruits taken from the boxes opened on the quayside, the constant changing of the skyline with the movements of the transatlantic ships and the charm of the prostitutes of the Chinese quarter, are now nothing more than distant memories of nostalgic old dockers. A past almost impossible to imagine in the clinically engineered processes of the modern port: the image from The Port Front, the class struggles, or the most fascinating and fanciful imagery à la ‘Querelle de Brest’ have little by little given way to the industrialization of the transport system and the crisis of large-scale industry.

In this process the city has even grown to include the southern shores of the river Nieuwe Maas, before swallowing up a number of small towns near the sea: Rhoon-Poortugaal, Pernis, Hoogvliet, Spijkenisse, Brielle, Oostvoorne, Hoek van Holland, Maassluis and Vlaardingen, in its search for new neighbourhoods for its workers. After that, even the port started to spill out into the sea, but not satisfied, it started to build a first and then a second extension into the water: firstly Maasvlakte and currently under construction the new wharf of Maasvlakte2, the latest open-sea construction. Throughout the sixties and seventies, Rotterdam was one of the key European migration destinations, and following the migratory waves from the ex-Dutch colonies – Surinam, the Antilles – they started to arrive from Turkey, Morocco and Capo Verde. These were often to be dramatic times in the evolution of the city. A society that was at last emancipated internally, that had managed to leave behind it the sharpest contrasts with the inhabitants who had arrived from the countryside and from the south of the country, found itself having to accommodate workers from alien cultures, who over the years were to reach 45% of the total population of the city. In their typical Dutch style, four-floor modernist houses each with small flats for small families, the neighbourhoods around the port were to house large Maghrebi or Caribbean families. With the development of large-scale distribution, the ex-port neighbourhoods were deprived of the real reason for their being there. The port is still there, but entrenched behind high gates, the river hidden by the mountains of coloured shipping containers.

The city then underwent a series of profound changes. It took over the closest docks from the port and shifted its entire administrative centre onto the south bank, in the hope of rejoining those two halves so long separated by the port activities. The riverbank has now become home to luxury residential towers, for only the construction firms managed to beg a few metres of precious space from the powerful Port Authority, the company that manages the port areas. Little by little, the port becomes a kind of abstract mechanical spectacle, entirely detached from the life of the city, with only an apparent role as possible tourist attraction. Thousands of visitors, fascinated by the total absence of man-sized elements in the port structures, by the metaphysical aesthetics, by the sublime beauty of the machinery, began to crowd out the boat trips around the port every year. Progressively, Rotterdam became divorced from its port, a small living area at the end of more than 40 km of transporter machinery, cranes and bays carved out to make way for even more undocking surfaces. In order to gain visibility, the Port Authority has even come up with the idea of investing in its own image, and in 2007 it commissioned six architects of international fame to study how the port may be rendered more attractive . This is clearly paradoxical, especially if one considers that the tourist attraction of the port lies in its not having been designed at all, if not for purely utilitarian purposes. A city and its double: the old driving motor has become so cumbersome as to have almost acquired a life of its own, a heart beating outside its body.

While the city works incessantly on its post-transplant construction process, raising an ever higher and more metropolitan skyline along the shores of the Maas, the neighbourhoods that once housed the dockworkers are facing a slow and difficult process of normalization and economic stabilization. Little shops are opened here and there in order to meet the needs of a market in foreign wares, but there remains a strong risk of the progressive marginalization of entire neighbourhoods of the city, once separated by the river and today by cultural and economic distance. A number of projects, like Rotterdam Vakmanstad (Rotterdam SkillCity) by Dennis Kaspori and Jeanne van Heeswijk, represent an attempt to invest in cultural and social programmes to be carried forward alongside the projects of urban renewal. The spread of ‘creative crafts’ aimed at inhabitants from other cultures and the creation of new business opportunities seem in contrast with the exclusive power of the global market .

While the ISO shipping container was probably one of the causes of the divorce of the port of Rotterdam from the city itself, the future has new challenges in store. The port’s surprising capacity for transformation and adaptation to the laws of the market has left the city behind to come to terms with its dormitory neighbourhoods built for its ex-workers and with thousands of people who once worked in those docks and who today have to find themselves another perspective for the future. Like in every separation, the children – in this case the citizens of Rotterdam – have to go through a difficult adjustment period. But the heritage of the port is in itself quite extraordinary: Rotterdam is one of the most multi-ethnic cities in Europe, a modern metropolis by vocation and a unique test bed of cohabitation. In the past, Dutch culture has shown its great ability in dealing with the challenges of modernity with great pragmatism, and today it must again look inside itself and accept the idea of carrying out a genuinely inclusive urban project. This time the most precious merchandise will not arrive on a ship sailing across foreign seas, but it will have to be worked out with patience and determination inside the belly of the city itself.

Marc Levinson, The Box, How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (2006, Princeton Univ. Press.).

Haven van de Toekomst,, visited on 30 November 2008. Particularly worthy of note is the article by Wouter Vanstiphout, Lipstick on a Gorilla.

For further information, Rotterdam Vakmanstad:;;