Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
How the seven imaginary spans depicted on euro banknotes came to be built in a Rotterdam suburb.
They are among the world's most famous bridges, whose images hundreds of millions of Europeans keep close to their hearts — or perhaps in a handbag or jacket pocket. But to see them in person, you must journey to a modest housing development in the suburbs of Rotterdam.
That's where the Dutch designer Robin Stam has built the seven imaginary bridges depicted on the euro note, transforming the town of Spijkenisse into an outdoor museum of European architectural history.
It's certainly ironic that these bridges, designed by Austrian bank employee Robert Kalina in the mid-1990s, exist at all. They were selected as emblems for the euro notes precisely because they are not real. Each one is a generic archetype of a style in bridge design. (Though non-existence was a pillar of the competition — to avoid placing one Eurozone member's cultural patrimony over another's — Kalina was inspired by specific bridges, and used a computer to combine various real-world components so as to obscure their initial identities.)
It began as idle speculation on the part of Stam, a graphic designer by training. Looking at the bills in his pocket several years ago, he wondered about the story behind their design. It wasn't until he learned all about Kalina's seven fake bridges — Classical (€5), Romanesque (€10), Gothic (€20), Renaissance (€50), Baroque and Rococo (€100), iron and glass (€200), and modern (€500) — that he first toyed with the idea of actually building them, mentioning the concept to a friend on the Spijkenisse City Council.
As it happened, there was a middle-class housing project under construction on the outskirts of town, and this being the canal-crossed Netherlands, the new development required a handful of bridges. After some deliberation, the council decided to splurge for Stam's set of rainbow spans. At $1.3 million, Stam's are about 25 percent more expensive than "catalog bridges," but the council took a bet on publicity. "All the attention is more than worth it," the Spijkenisse alderman Gert-Jan ’t Hart, who spearheaded the project, said last year when Stam's bridges were under construction.
Stam has no background in architecture or engineering, so he worked with a team of experts to put the idea into action. Most of the bridges were built by pouring colored concrete into finely decorated wooden molds with relief patterns to give the impression of stone or brick. This gives them a surreal appearance, like pieces from a giant board game plopped down along the water. The two more modern bridges, from the €200 and €500 bills, were built out of steel.
At first, Stam says, many residents didn't get it. The first bridges built were the demure €10 and €50 (Stam refers to the bridges by the denomination of the source material), the former a red Romanesque span and the latter an orange Renaissance-style bridge (above). The idea, he says, was not to scare anyone. By the time the project's more ostentatious elements were added, neighbors were in on the joke, mostly. The final piece of the "Bridges of Europe" will officially open next month.
Blowing up the iconic, bite-sized bridges to life size had other consequences. The €100 span, for example, is festooned with statues. They look fine and appropriate in one's pocket, but on a real bridge they're abstract blobs.
Stam is not bullish about the development's potential as a tourist attraction. "It's just a suburban housing project, I don't think it's going to be a very touristic place," he says. And yet, the bridges will come with signs and preset photo-ops, to draw attention to the concept.
Some of them, after all, will be largely unfamiliar: only bankers and drug tycoons have regular acquaintance with €500 banknotes. The €200 bill is the least common of all. But those bridges, in bright purple and yellow, provide Het Land's most distinctive infrastructure.
Observant visitors will notice that there are in fact only six bridges at Het Land. Fittingly enough, austerity is to blame. The Pont-du-Gard-style bridge from the €5 note was forced to share a span with the €20's Gothic arches.
All images courtesy of Robin Stam.