Building Bridges as the Eurozone Buckles
Three years ago, graphic designer Robin Stam was at his favorite pizzeria in Rotterdam, waiting to pay after finishing his meal. Fingering the euro bank notes in his wallet, Stam focused on the depictions of bridges on the reverse side of the money.
Each euro note, introduced across 12 European countries on January 1 2002, has a purposely inoffensive aesthetic. Panoramas, designed to be simultaneously anywhere but nowhere in particular, are foregrounded by a fictitious bridge rendered in different styles, depending on the denomination of the cash. This gave Stam an idea. “The bridges were noted for being fictional — that was the whole point. I thought it was a funny idea to build the bridges as a tourist attraction.” A decade of careful preparation to make bank notes which didn’t remind people of anywhere was about to be undone by a guy paying for pizza.
Traditionally, money celebrates its country of origin in a riot of patriotism — think of the heroes of each country’s history which adorn most notes. But the euro note design from Robert Kalina of the Austrian National Bank was chosen because it could not possibly alienate anyone if the place depicted didn’t really exist (a European Monetary Institute report notes that the money was designed specifically to avoid “national or gender bias,” and to be “impartial”). So any of the European members who signed up to the monetary union couldn’t cry foul that they were being overlooked. The bridges also symbolized unity and stability (two characteristics in relatively short supply lately throughout the Eurozone).
Seven euro notes were issued in all: €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200 and €500. Each note was assigned a style of architecture under which its bridge would be designed. There was classical, Romanesque, gothic, Renaissance, baroque and rococo, the age of iron and glass, and 20th-century architecture. Kalina’s design beat out the work of 28 others because the judges said at the time that “it clearly represents European money.”
After his pizzeria epiphany, Stam sketched out the bridges in their garish pastel colors over the next few days, but “I didn’t have any experience building anything,” he explains. “I’m a graphic designer.” Luckily he did know Gert-Jan’t Hart, a councilor at Spijkenisse, a suburb 30 minutes outside of Rotterdam. “I had a chat with him and told him about the bridges idea.” At that point it was still nothing more than a joke. But Hart took him seriously, and he was very enthusiastic about the idea.
Spijkenisse’s council had recently passed plans for a housing project on an island. People would need access to their homes over the water. “It was perfect for the euro bridges. And it made the whole idea complete for me,” says Stam — “the bridges portrayed on the bank notes of Europe, actually being built around a new housing project in one of the biggest suburbs of Rotterdam?” He couldn’t quite believe it.
But it happened. After initial meetings, Stam found himself opposite a team of urban developers at Spijkenisse. The Bridges of Europe, Stam’s jocular idea, was becoming a reality, with €1 million of local council money backing it. The first bridges — a Romanesque in brick red and a dirty-brown Renaissance, copied precisely from the €10 and €50 notes respectively — were opened in October 2011 by local politicians. As each new bridge has been built and put in place, local, national, and international media have descended on Spijkenisse; the Bridges of Europe project has even been the subject of a quiz show question in the Netherlands.
Each bridge takes a few months to build. A team of engineers and architects work with Stam, now art director for the Bridges of Europe project. The concrete fascias are made at a factory owned by Waco Lingen, a Dutch construction company, while the steel structures are welded and wrought in a workshop at Haasnoot Bruggen, near the west coast of the Netherlands.
The €200-note bridge — a spindly pedestrian bridge in the Art Nouveau style — was loaded onto a ship and transported via the North Sea and inland waterways to Spijkenisse, where it will be formally unveiled on October 17. The day after, leaders of the European Union’s 27 nations will meet in Brussels, where amongst other topics they will discuss the future of the single currency, brought to its knees by the interdependence between strong and weak economies such as Germany and Greece.
“It’s a total coincidence, what’s happened with the Eurozone currency”, admits Stam. While much of Europe is struggling under an economic slowdown, Stam’s madcap idea to make the nonexistent bridges real has given him a small windfall big enough to start his own design company.
Two bridge-sized holes will remain in Spijkenisse after October 17 — big enough for the €100 and €500 designs to be installed in 2013. Then Robin Stam’s offbeat idea to confound Robert Kalina will be complete. The residents of Spijkenisse may (sooner rather than later) end up crossing the river to their homes on a memorial to a failed currency only a decade old. The Eurozone currency was meant to build bridges across Europe. Robin Stam is building literal bridges in the Netherlands as the currency’s metaphorical bridges break apart.
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