WHO’S UGLY NOW?2022 - ongoing

The project is currently in the funding application phase and is seeking partners for possible collaborations.

Who’s Ugly Now? is an explorative visual essay over the city of Rotterdam. It investigates on one side the evolution of its surface: buildings and squares that make the urban context. On the other, its sub-surface: the underground culture, nested into anti-squat buildings, such as artists ateliers and workshops.

Through photography, the research aims to create a portrait of Rotterdam where unusual narratives provide new reading keys to the following questions: as a modern yet underground and experimental city, can Rotterdam show new ways to integrate existing, informal built environments with new developments? Can a city evolve and progress without loosing those traits that distinguish it from other cities?

From Architectenweb:

“Who’s ugly now?” Seems to ask the harbour city, while it slowly reveals itself in a new dress. But who’s ugly now, might reply the same city, after showing its true nature, freed from the banality of the surface.

Rotterdam is changing at a fast pace. Here and there new buildings appear from what yesterday was still a construction site, while others disappear to make room for something new again. High towers create new landmarks in the city with no center, changing balances and references. Its underground nature mixes with new developments in an absorbing combination that since defines the city of architectural experimentation.

In fact, Rotterdam has always been an interesting rather than beautiful city, if a friend would ask me to describe it. Rather then its architecture, I would speak about its quality as a container of individuals and the way they interact and come together through it: a loose environment filled with the unexpected that often leaves the visitor happily confused. It is a city where it is hard to predict what comes next and things not always look the way they are. People and places do not need to coincide.                                                                                                                During the Pandemic, the halt given to gathering activities put Rotterdam to a hard test: with little to do, its streets looked emptier then in other cities. Now that we are hopefully on our way out of the emergency, Rotterdam seems to struggle finding its previous rhythm, while new developments keep changing its aspect on the surface.

As a photographer, but even more as citizen, I wanted to go beyond passive witnessing and document this transition. “Who’s ugly now?” is an ongoing visual investigation about what is new as well as what is being removed. On one side, it shows the newly built projects and their relation with the existing urban context: towers as the Zalmhaven and Cooltoren stand out for their hight and volume, potentially suggesting a new scale for the city. On the other hand, on a deeper layer, there are those spaces that are the most hidden, away from everyone’s eyes: anti - squat buildings, ateliers, creative hubs that are disseminated all around Rotterdam and actively contributes to its underground culture, subtly but inevitably feeding the city’s urban and social context. Now, some of these areas face demolition, while others are at the center of discussion to be somehow preserved.

It would be easy to read this purely as a research over Rotterdam’s ongoing gentrification process. On the contrary, as the incipit of the article suggests, the question remains open. Instead, the project wants to subtly confront the planned and the un-planned, the designed and non-designed, as found in Rotterdam’s current situation. The subjects of the research could be devised into two “worlds”: the “designed city” and the “spontaneous city”; the first being the new developments, the latter being its hidden, “chaotic” layers. In a country where planning and design is central, there is a tendency to control chaos; but the lack of chaos can translate into a lack of spontaneity. An integration of the new and the old, the formal and the informal should be possible, and change offers the occasion to question the business as usual.

Newly built projects are confronted with spontaneous, actively used left-over spaces, one side potentially revealing both qualities and defects of the other and viceversa.

The surreal quality of the images aims to trigger the imagination to go beyond the objective representation of the medium of photography.

The portraits of the space users ultimately stress the human aspect, a reminder that cities are made by its inhabitants.

The outcome of this project should therefore offer a detailed yet evocative visual map of the current status-quo, a portrait of Rotterdam’s different layers, from which to discuss new ways to imagine and make the city.

The project is at its early research phase and will be carried on during the current year.

“It is never really about what is in the picture. Instead, it is an invitation for reinterpretation…what role does one play in it.”

Johannes Schwartz

         © Riccardo De Vecchi 2023