The Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam is, I believe, one of the most important commissions I have done to date. I was still a very young architect at the time, and this was a very high profile public project that received a great deal of attention.
The client wanted me to design an icon. A highly intensive new image for the city. But this was quite difficult to do, because I wanted to combine the history of Rotterdam, the robustness of the harbour and the different qualities north and south of the city that could be brought together by one bridge. But these different aspects, while important, turned out not to be the most important result of this project.
What I discovered from the Erasmus Bridge is that it is the human response to architecture that can change the quality of a bridge. This highlighted for me that first and foremost architecture is about, and for, people. For a long time architecture was largely about image-making, being provocative or politically engaged. But, architecture is not about trying to create iconic images, it is about how a structure can communicate with its users. Often this can be on a very personal level. In our industry, there is a lot of attention given to how a project is immediately received by journalists, design blogs, peers, and by the online community. But, after so many years, the public quality is so much more important.
Above is a photo of a sailor who lives in Rotterdam. He told us that every time his ship comes back from time spent at sea, he sees the Erasmus Bridge and knows that he is home. The bridge is a part of his life. For him, above all else, this bridge symbolises home – and that’s the reason he chose to have it tattooed on his body. This act exemplifies for me the potential effect architecture can have on people, but it also reminded me of this ‘invisible’ side of what we do. Architecture has an enormous effect on people.
What is most gratifying about the Erasmus Bridge is that it is so thoroughly embraced by the people of the city. Through this, I discovered that it wasn't the image or the iconographic element that I could give this bridge that mattered the most in the end, it was the people who have taken it over.
Find out more about the Erasmus Bridge, and Health in Architecture in my Tedx Talk "On Health" given last year in Erasmus University, Rotterdam.