Hilde Sennema and Paul van de Laar
This year, the Eurovision song contest takes place in the port city of Rotterdam. Hundreds of millions of viewers - in Europe and around the globe - will tune in to watch the event, which is broadcast from Rotterdam’s multifunctional event center Rotterdam Ahoy. Besides the distinctive maritime name - Ahoy is an international sailor’s greeting - the origin of this hall is well connected to Rotterdam's past and identity as a port city. It illustrates a government culture in which elites believed they were able to shape Rotterdam’s future. The original Ahoy’ was a manifestation full of optimism, meant to show the world that Rotterdam was fit for a new future after the destruction of the Second World War. Rotterdam’s eagerness to organize the Eurovision Song Contest had similar roots: the festival promotes Rotterdam's image as the coolest city in Europe. Yet, the benefits for citizens are doubtful. While Ahoy is counting down to the largest event it has ever organized, Hilde Sennema and Paul van de Laar and recount its multifaceted history.
The Ahoy event center is inextricably linked to the reconstruction of Rotterdam’s port and industry after the Second World War. Rotterdam suffered heavily: on the 14th of May 1940, the city center was annihilated by the German Luftwaffe. In the following war years, allied forces repeatedly bombed port installations in the harbor, destroying miles of quays and utilities, and killing civilians in the adjacent neighborhoods. An elite consisting of business men from the port, industry and the Chamber of Commerce worked closely together with government officials, focusing on a modernist plan for the city center. The actual repair, however, started off with a rapid rebuilding of port utilities. In 1950, the reconstruction of the port was considered done. The elite network behind this rapid reconstruction (fig. 1) paired the physical building with strong narratives of social and cultural formation. These narratives consisted of future oriented values: by not dwelling on the past and considering hard work as the key to wealth, Rotterdam would be the engine for national prosperity.
To symbolize and celebrate this reconstruction, members of the same network were involved in organizing the large exhibition Rotterdam Ahoy’ in 1950. Several exhibitions had been held already in the 1930s to promote Rotterdam’s trade and shipping, and in 1947 and 1948, the reconstruction network organized exhibitions that envisioned the reconstruction plans for the city center. After a while, however, these exhibitions ceased to attract local visitors. The organizing elite needed to step up their game, and they did so with a whole new exhibition terrain west of the city center, along the river Nieuwe Maas: the Ahoy’ exhibition in 1950.
Ahoy’ oozed progress and anticipation. Even the apostrophe after the word had meaning. The exhibition brochure quotes organizer Jac. Kleiboer: “Ahoy without anything doesn’t say a thing. (...) Ahoy’ is a challenge”. Visitors could notice this spirit in the design of the pavilions as well. Kleiboer appointed functionalist architects Van den Broek & Bakema as supervisors, who in turn invited young, avantgarde architects such as Aldo van Eyck and Herman Haan, and artists such as Wally Elenbaas and Karel Appel. Besides the focus on progress and rebuilding, however, there was some room for remembering. One of the most popular pavilions was “Oud Rotterdam”, and pre-war Rotterdam was presented as a fairground attraction under the revealing name “De Vrolijcke Hoeck” (the cheerful corner).
One of the highlights of the exhibition was the presentation of a model of a statue by the French sculptor Ossip Zadkine: “De Verwoeste Stad” (the destroyed city), a figure crying towards the skies with its chest torn apart. The statue was placed against a background of an aerial photo showing the center of pre-war Rotterdam. The ripped-out heart of Zadkine’s sculpture had been the imperfect city center of the past. The new reconstruction plan donated a new beating city heart to Rotterdam, replacing the old one.
These examples of Rotterdam’s past, however, were exceptions to the rule: Ahoy’ celebrated Rotterdam’s resilient culture and the port of the future. The past was staged as entertainment, not as something to be cherished or taken seriously. The memories of pre-war Rotterdam were reduced to nostalgic entertainment, an isolated part of the exhibition. A fake village, as a backdrop, allowing the pre-war generation to relive their pre-war city as an attraction in the Park, a counterpoint to the modern port city of Rotterdam that would create jobs and welfare for future generations.
This narrative of progress was dominant until the late 1960s, when growing citizen unrest about the port-centered policies enforced a shift in governance. In his PhD thesis Life in the Midst of Superlatives: Exhibitions in Postwar Rotterdam and Hamburg, 1946-1973, historian Ruud Huyskamp analyzes why this narrative could be dominant for so long. He finds that the close-knit regime of government officials (such as mayor P.J. Oud) and business leaders (such as Chamber of Commerce president K.P. van der Mandele) used the exhibitions as “tools of legitimation” for the regime and their policies: “the exhibitions were active performances of postwar national recovery, imbuing that process with purpose” (Huyskamp 2017, 1-7). Attracting over 100.000 visitors, the values were presented as the post-war mindset, and emphasized the role of Rotterdam for the national economy, thus instilling pride in the hard-hit citizens of Rotterdam.
The exhibition terrain continued to have an important place in Rotterdam until 1969, when Ahoy’ moved into an even bigger and more modern event center on the south bank of the river. Ahoy (nowadays written without the apostrophe) continued to organize exhibitions, festivals and concerts, attracting stars like Tina Turner and Michael Jackson. In 2019, Rotterdam competed with Maastricht to host the Eurovision Song Contest after the Netherlands had won the event. With a marketing campaign building on the new narrative of Rotterdam as a “cool” city (see for example its ranking on place 5 in the 2015 Lonely Planet top 10 cities rating, or in CNN’s “13 reasons why Rotterdam may be Europe's new capital of cool” from 2017), the city slowly embraced its status as tourist destination and hipster paradise. With this new status, criticism arose about issues as gentrification and growing inequality within the city, aptly formulated in the book Help, we worden populair (Help, we’re becoming popular) published by the online journalism platform ‘Vers Beton’.
The rationale of the modern, cool city with a maritime labor ethos, was nevertheless a reason for the Dutch broadcasting organisation to choose Ahoy as “the most suitable location” for the event, and the city of Rotterdam for its “special story and unmistakable decisiveness", said responsible producer Sietse Bakker.
Video revealing Rotterdam as organizer of the 2020 (2021) Eurovision Song Contest, from the Eurovision Youtube Channel.
Yet, there is another, less obvious reason that makes Rotterdam Ahoy suitable as organizer for Eurovision: Ahoy and Eurovision share a parallel storyline. In the year the Ahoy’ exhibition was held, 1950, 23 European broadcasting nations founded the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The word “Eurovision” was coined in 1952, baptizing the first international song contest in 1956. Apart from the 2020 hiatus due to Corona, the EBC broadcasted the event annually, emphasizing European values as transnationalism, inclusivity and peace, but at the same time providing a stage for geopolitical discussions and identity formation. Scholars from various disciplines have started to take these themes seriously over the last few decades, for example the role Eurovision has played in the rebuilding of post-war Europe (Vuletic 2019) and in nation- and identity building in post-Soviet states (Jordan 2014).
The history of Ahoy and of Eurovision are therefore strongly connected to post-war identity building, power and empowerment. From the top-down elites in the 1950s seeking legitimacy for their grandiose projects, to the ongoing quest of individuals and disenfranchised groups seeking power and representation, whether it is about a nation transitioning from autocracy to democracy, or a neighborhood changing shabby to hip and expensive. While grand events like Ahoy’ 1950 Eurovision are important in articulating unifying values and narratives, the plans or policies that follow can never be truly sustainable if they only consist of one story.
This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team. It reflects the evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Asma Mehan and Ingrid Mulder.
Bas, Robert. 2015. “Rotterdam op vijf in steden top 10”, NOS Nieuws, https://nos.nl/artikel/2065386-rotterdam-op-vijf-in-steden-top-10-van-lonely-planet,
Forster, Stuart. 2017. “13 reasons why Rotterdam may be Europe's new capital of cool.” CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/rotterdam-netherlands-europe-cool-city/index.html
Huyskamp, Ruud. 2017. “Life in the Midst of Superlatives: Exhibitions in Postwar Rotterdam and Hamburg, 1946-1973.” University of Toronto. https://hdl.handle.net/1807/98785.
Jordan, Paul Thomas. 2014. The Modern Fairy Tale: Nation Branding, National Identity and the Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia. Politics and Society in the Baltic Sea Region 2. Tartu: University of Tartu Press.
Liukku, Eeva and Sereh Mandias (eds). 2016. Help, we zijn populair. Rotterdam stad in verandering. Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers.
“Opbouw van Eurovisie Songfestival gestart, grootste productie voor Ahoy ooit”, NOS Nieuws, April 11, 2021.
R'dam Ahoy' juni-aug. 1950, blz. 12
Songfestival naar Rotterdam: “Stad met bijzonder verhaal en Ahoy”, NOS Nieuws, August 30, 2019.
Vuletic, Dean. 2019. Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Banner image: Rotterdam Branding Toolkit, photo by StudioVollaersZwart.