Lewis Hine and a tale of two cities

This week finds me in Rotterdam covering the Mendix World conference. (See this Storify collection of my posts here.) Mendix has software that makes enterprise app deployment easier and several hundred of its customers have gathered here. I haven’t ever been to Rotterdam but find it immediately appealing, the mix of old and new architecture, the plethora of bike paths, the similar access to water, parks and museums that I loved when I visited Amsterdam years ago.

An exhibit of photographer Lewis Hine at the Dutch FotoMuseum caught my attention, and reminded me of when I researched Hine for an undergraduate art class. Hine lived in the first part of the 20th Century and photographed child and adult workers, including iconic images of the construction of the Empire State Building and immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. The collection includes many of my favorite images that I have seen at various archives of Hines’ work in Rochester and Washington DC when I was a student back in the day.

Rotterdam is also the home of the architect Rem Koolhaus, someone who’s work I have long admired (the Seattle public library above is one example). Koolhaus is still active, and he had designed a modern mixed-use complex called De Rotterdam that is rising around the museum on Rotterdam’s Left Bank. Ironically, the museum and complex stands near where Holland America’s large passenger ships embarked for their voyages long ago, and where they have their corporate offices now. As the museum writes in a wonderful guide to their exhibit, “Thousands of emigrants from Eastern Europe had their last view of their home continent from the Wilhelminakade before setting sail for New York…. How busy it must have been on that pier.”

These journeys between Rotterdam and New York then is the connection, a tale of two cities, as it were. The museum has another exhibit of modern photographs by Ruud Sies showing the construction workers on the new skyscraper going up in Rotterdam, with obvious references to Hine’s Empire State work of aerial acrobatics, balancing on steel beams hanging in mid-air.

While most of us recall the opening lines that Dickens wrote in his “Tale of Two Cities,” (best of times etc.), this is another great line from that novel: “A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret.” Or as Hine has said, “Cities do not build themselves, machines cannot make machines.” At least not yet.


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