The City As Interface, Martijn de Waal

Review: Martijn de Waal, The City as Interface: How New Media Are Changing the City, nai010 Publishers: Rotterdam, 2014, full text here (NB: note that the website is paginated).

Last week I took my AirBook to Café Betty Beer to work on my important avant-garde novel while enjoying an echte Rotterdamse lunch. The day was warm, and I sat on the cafe’s terrace, beside the Schouwburgplein. (… )The Schouwburgplein, the Binnenrotte, the Museumpark, even the comparatively cozy Noorderplein, resemble the beaches of Normandy, mapped and strategized for this or that festival to land, erect its equipment, and do business, before tearing down to depart without leaving a trace. For this function, Rotterdam’s public squares are superbly designed.
—Matthew Stadler, Echt Rotterdams eten

The slight confusion between a cosy lunch café and the vastness of Schouwburgplein that this anecdote by writer Matthew Stadler evokes, might serve as a contemporary illustration of the conflictive history of this Rotterdam square as a public space. Urban theorist Martijn de Waal takes Schouwburgplein as his central subject in the trade version of his PhD dissertation, The City as Interface: How New Media Are Changing the City. While Stadler chooses not to focus on what the square lacks in terms of function-oriented design by ordering a jenever, De Waal’s text argues more intensely that we probably should think about the function of spaces. Especially since these are the places where people from different parts of the city gather, meet and eye each other, discuss football, movies and theatre, or even politics. In short, the question becomes: What is the function of the square as public domain, given it has been pondered and idealised now for centuries? And further, how relevant are the periodic, theoretical romanticisations that De Waal brings up from those born in eighteenth-century London coffeehouses to Walter Benjamin’s flaneur to Hannah Arendt’s and Jürgen Habermas’s ideal of a rational, neutral, public sphere?