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Stedelijk Restruimiten A20, Muizengaatje

Location: Bergweg, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Artists: Hans Snoek, Q. S. Serafijn, Jeroen van Westen

Project Co-ordinator: Maarten van Wesemael


Artists Hans Snoek, Q. S. Serafijn, Jeroen van Westen working with project co-ordinator: Maarten van Wesemael developed a vision for the site known as Het Muizengaatje in Rotterdam , essentially a neglected passageway under a motorway and railway. They formulated the following starting points:

  • Culture (motorway) and nature do not exclude each other, but can re-enforce each other
  • Readability: the public space has to be designed such that it is both visible and accessible to the public
  • Collaboration between professional disciplines
  • Caring in stead of disregard

The project would develop as an example of good practice in the management of problematic left over spaces within the urban framework of Rotterdam , within an urban management context referred to as "Intensive Space Management".


The title of this project both identifies the location of the work and refers to its colloquial name. It translates as 'Urban Leftover Space A20', referring to the route number of the motorway flyover and the sterilised space underneath, and "Mouse Hole" , the colloquial name for the narrow passage created by the Bergweg (Mountain Road), as it passes under the A20 and the adjacent railway line, connecting two residential neighbourhoods in the north of Rotterdam. Adjacent to the road and stretching for several yards under the raised motorway, is a small reservoir, which acts as an overflow for the rainwater sewage system of the motorway. Inevitably these 7000 square meters of mostly stagnant water also became a dumping ground for waste and unwanted furniture. Efforts by the city's engineers and landscaping teams to upgrade and "hide" this facility had failed to produce an adequate balance between "form and function" and the desolate and unfriendly feel of the area discouraged its use by pedestrians as a link between the two communities separated by the viaduct. The area also did not have a positive impact on the small bus station on the opposite side of the Bergweg.

In 1997, the City approached the Centrum voor Beeldende Kunsten (CBK Rotterdam), the municipally sponsored development agency for the Visual Arts. This incorporates a commissioning service for projects in the public realm, which at the time operated under the directorship of Hans Abelman. He was asked to develop a proposal for the commissioning of an artist, to add an aesthetic dimension to the project that could hide or distract from the new pumping station and functional landscaping planned. The suggestion was that "perhaps some college students could paint the fly over supports". Abelman saw a greater potential for the project and appointed Maarten van Wesemael as project co-ordinator. Van Wesemael (now Public Art co-ordinator of the province of Noord Holland) had a specific interest in projects with an urban environmental objective and developed a brief to artists, which focussed on the resolution of the whole space, including the problematic issue of the rainwater reservoir, and not just the addition of an aesthetic dimension. He proposed a shortlist including the artists Jeroen van Westen, Q. S. Serafijn and Hans Snoek. The artists, mindful of the complex and unique nature of this project, proposed to work as a team, rather than compete for this project, and develop a concept with the city engineers and landscape architects.

Het Muizengaatje (The Mouse Hole)

The artists worked closely with other professionals, such as Jelle Reumer, Director of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, Michelle Provost, an Architectural Historian with specific interest in the development of the transport infrastructure of Rotterdam, several ecologists and a toxicologist for the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, to develop and propose a design approach which reveals rather than hides the various functions of the space.

Following the initial development discussions, several parties expressed an interest to collaborate with the architects to take the detailed design process forward. These included Alterra, the research institute of the University of Wageningen as well as the City's Transportation and Construction departments. The resultant design celebrates the cathedral like appearance of the space and brings its qualities to the fore. Uplighters set off the columns supporting the flyover in various colours, while other lights reflect on the surface of the retained water. A large pump circulates the water through a series of reed beds, providing a natural filtration system around a neatly shaped dike connecting the pillars of the flyover. The plants for this were selected by Plantresearch International, a department of the University in Wageningen, which continues to monitor their well being and effectiveness. The housing for the pump is slightly raised, stands out from the central dike and carries the text "in liefde bloeyende" (flowering - or flourishing - through love). This motto from the late medieval Guild of Literati in the Netherlands, suggests the transformation that can be achieved when acceptance, care and love are the motivation for change in dealing with problematic issues and not the desire to hide or obscure.

The transformation effected by the artists' intervention not only created a new aesthetic, it also made clear the function of this piece of urban infrastructure, and proposed an effective and innovative approach to its resolution. By making the urban landscape "readable" in this way, the understanding and thereby acceptance of this space by those inhabiting and functioning within its surroundings, will guard it against unnecessary deterioration and encourage a positive use. No longer is the space an outcast in the public realm and potentially hostile, but has become an effective part in its function as well as attractive in its appearance.

The space itself cannot be accessed by the public and is surrounded by the standard type of railing required by regulations governing infrastructure provisions in the public realm. Although initially this seems problematic, in fact it highlights the care that has been taken in resolving the space enclosed and protects it as if it concerns something precious and valuable, and therefore does not detract significantly from the positive impression the space now makes. The project was completed in 2001.

Bussenplein (Bus Terminus)

The project had two significant further outcomes; the artist team were commissioned to resolve the design of the adjacent bus station. Their proposals included redefining the space to create a proper square, clarifying the various functions and information points of the bus station to enable the public to use it with ease, improving lighting and encouraging local trade. The artists' advice was implemented and the redesign was completed in 2003.

Stedelijk Restruimten (Urban Left Over Spaces)

The project for Muizengaatje was submitted, with the assistance of the environmental management consultants Alterra, for a grant under the Stimuleringsprogramma Intensief Ruimtegebruik (Stimulation Programme for Intensive Land Use), to further apply the principles of the approach in this projects, to investigate solutions to the full 10km zone of sterile space along the A20 motorway dissecting Rotterdam.

This award amounted to 250,000 guilders (around £80,000 at the time) and allowed the artist to undertake detailed research into Stedelijke Restruimten through mapping and an analysis of their formal and informal uses. This resulted in proposals for ways through which these spaces could be brought back into the formal urban framework. The conclusion of the research, presented through a detailed website, an exhibition and a series of public events, proposed the full scale removal of this section of motorway, to allow the redevelopment of a linear green zone, stretching to the heart of the city. This would be achieved in part through the formalising of some of the current uses, but also through new and sustainable residential and commercial development. The significantly increased land value this would generate would provide a more than sufficient financial return to fund alternative provisions for traffic circulation, or encourage other means of transport. This approach could serve as a model for reconsidering land uses in a denser urban context, improving the city's ecology as well as its transport infrastructure.

This plan was considered by Rotterdam's City Council for some time, although ultimately not adopted as policy. Nevertheless it is very likely to have shifted the approach by the city to its unresolved or problematic spaces and the role of the artists as "cultural entrepreneurs". The value and importance of their research into the social, special and ecological functioning of the urban context, to improving the urban environment was given public recognition by the Ontwikkelings Bedrijf Rotterdam (Development Company Rotterdam), comparable to a UDC in Britain. In their evaluation report of the project they recognised that the artists' independence of economic or political interests allows them to avoid rigid professional concepts and offers a "free port" for new ideas and the exploration of seemingly contradictory and controversial approaches.

Key Issues

One of the key issues that came to the fore in this project was initially the acceptance of the artists as leading in the resolution of not just the design, but also the ecological and engineering approach for the site. Initially the expectation of the artists' role was to merely contribute a decorative intervention. Abelman and van Wesenmael, as cultural advisors (curators, if you like) opened the door to a different approach and secured for the artists a status equal to other professionals engaged on the scheme. This allowed the artists to deliver not only a solution that considered much more than the mere physical appearance of the site, they used the project to explore the functioning of key aspects of the physical and social structure of the city of Rotterdam and propose much further reaching interventions. The successful completion of the underpass and Bus Terminal design, provided the trust and respect that was required for the artist team to be awarded a further grant and for their conclusions to be seriously considered.


Artist's website:

The Green Metropolises research programme, carried out by Alterra, commissioned by the Dutch ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Foodquality (LNV): (see under Research [old])

Project partners

Ontwikkelings Bedrijf Rotterdam (OBR) (Development Company Rotterdam)

Centrum Beeldende Kunst Rotterdam (CBK); Hans Abelman

Plantresearch Wageningen (Department of the University in Wageningen)

Alterra Wageningen

Other parties involved in consultation and advice include amongst others:

Nox Architecten Rotterdam

Deelgemeenten (Urban Districts) along the A20; Noord, Kralingen-Crooswijk, Hillegersberg-Schiebroek

Rijks Water Staat (RWS) (national water management agency)

NS Vastgoed (property arm of national railways)

NS Infrarail (equivalent of Network Rail)

Bond van Volkstuinen (union of allotment holders)

© Copyright Wiard Sterk, 2006.