What does it mean to look at petroleumscapes as historic sites?
Petroleum has been shaping our environment as an elixir of life in the way we consume and move through the world for over 150 years. This is happening in various aspects of our lives, for example, in architecture, landscapes, the general infrastructure, furniture, popular culture, media, food, personal relationships, and our mental health. The mindsets and lifestyle we have grown up with were framed by petroleum. But today, our western society has come to a point where we consume so fast-paced and neglect developing areas by exploiting them, that we made climate change unstoppable. The global economy has to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 the latest, otherwise the consequences would be so threatening to our life on this planet that we cannot even consider the possibility of failure (Figueres, 2019). Therefore, we have to choose carefully what message regarding our relationship to fossil fuels we want to pass on to future generations in a post-petroleum world.
The first oil was pumped in Philadelphia in 1859 and reached The Netherlands as early as in 1862 (Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities, n.d.). With the use of kerosene to light lamps, the first industry through Pakhuismeesteren arose in Rotterdam and mainly focused on the transport and storage of oil. The petroleum trade experienced a rapid growth in the late 19th century and several major companies settled in the port. Part of them was De Kooninklijke, one of the predecessors of Royal Dutch Shell, that made the sub-municipality Pernis in 1902 the first petroleum harbor in the area of Rotterdam and turned it into a production site for benzene to fuel cars. In the post-war period the port around Rotterdam grew rapidly due to its geographical advantage and seaport infrastructure and became a sufficient labor market for the plastic production (Hein, 2016).
Oil became the heart of our globalization and the city of Rotterdam and its neighborhoods are part of the metropolitan area Randstad. One of these neighborhoods is the sub-municipality Pernis. Pernis itself was once a fishing-village next to the port of Rotterdam, now primarily inhabited by an elderly population. Being different from other rural areas it does not suffer from disconnectedness, low-employment numbers, and the lack of digital infrastructure (Cotte, A., Maggi, E. & Zimmermann M., 2019). It has a direct public transport connection to the city center of Rotterdam and is remarkable for its green spaces next to an enormous industrial landscape, dominated by the refineries of Royal Dutch Shell. The Randstad cannot be understood as a single city or an agglomeration around a single city, rather as a conglomerate of large and midsize cities and its sub-municipalities. It includes the area around the cities Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Den Haag and Utrecht, and, with the Port of Rotterdam and the Airport Schipol in Amsterdam, is the fourth-largest economy in Europe, after London, Paris and the Rhine-Ruhr (Randstad Region, 2017).
The Royal Dutch Shell in Pernis owns approximately twice the size of territory than the actual village Pernis itself. Most of the company’s refineries are not visible for the general public. Some of the notable pipelines that have been the main carriers of oil since 1970 form an underground infrastructure. Only the rails and highways next to the refinery buildings are shared with general users (Hein, 2016). These components from so-called “petroleumscapes” and are often associated with futuristic design. In the last decades the design of petroleumscapes was so hyped that world players in the fossil fuel industry even hired architects to create public buildings such as gas stations to fashionable arrangements to promote them in maps and transmit a feeling of freedom to the public by the use of cars. The heroism and positivity of petroleumscapes is captured in advertisements, postcards, tourist guides, movies and even children are confronted with the fuel industry in Lego toys and books (Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities, n.d.).
Today we are heavily affected by the negative impact of oil in our society. Climate change is irrepressible and the fact that the global economy has to eliminate methane emissions and withdraw from direct or indirect demand against climate change regulations is not a dream nor ideology, but a necessity. Consequences of not reaching the goal are so threatening to next generations that we cannot even consider the possibility of failure. Yet the fossil fuel industry endeavors to spend 50$ billion to extract new reserves of oil and gas. Once, the petroleum industry guaranteed an illimitation of employment, but today one of its negative stigmas for the future comprehends unattractive career choices for many young people (Figueres, 2019).
If we consider looking into a positive future, the question is how we should deal with petroleumscapes once oil is replaced by green energies. Headquarters, gas stations and the local industry are easy to remove from our landscapes, but the enormous petroleumscapes in The Netherland’s Randstad can be regarded as difficult industrial heritage. It is not easy to decide what to do with those areas because the soil is often so dirty that it needs a complete clean-up. A refinery in Philadelphia has been running since 1870 because it would be so utterly difficult to reorganize it that the government just keeps oil from Dakota flowing in (Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities, n.d.). Prof.dr.ing. Carola Hein is focusing, together with her students at the TU Delft, on redesigning alternative landscapes for the port of Rotterdam and its neighborhoods such as Pernis. According to her, technologies for cleaning up the soil of refineries have already been developed. Nevertheless, those technologies are inconceivably expensive, and the question is what kind of territory it makes sense to invest in regarding those clean-ups. For small refineries like in the heart of Amsterdam it is reasonable to fund those removals but the land at the port of Pernis is too big to seriously think of an investment (Hein, 2020). So what would be the possibilities to build on top of it?
Cities such as Rotterdam have the urge to expand social housing to rural areas. Architects and design-teams such as Pinkcloud.dk already focused on developing efficient ideas to transform abandoned oil silos in housing options in Detroit, Michigan. This could also be an option for petroleumscapes in The Netherlands if realized similarly. By utilizing those empty silos as the main element of the social housing design, waste and embodied energy are dramatically reduced, thereby conserving both - cost and time. An oil silo has the capacity of 900m2 and three apartments would comfortably fit in there. In addition, silos are inherently waterproof due to their shape, heat dissipation is promoted and through efficient insulation a comfortable temperature can be maintained. Another point worth considering is the fact that the shape is naturally aerodynamic and reduces wind loading, thus making the social houses safer in case of hurricanes and earthquakes (Pinkcloud.dk, n.d.). Still, it is questionable if the port of Rotterdam is the ideal spot for creating social housing options because in case of a rising sea level, it would be considerably more challenging to build apartments on top for the safety of potential inhabitants.
Furthermore, the port itself also needs territory to switch to renewable energies and according to Hein, there has to be space available to build two energy systems next to each other. The port of Rotterdam can be also seen as a transit harbor to Germany and Belgium, therefore transferring this harbor to another location will not be happening in the near future. Oil is linked to a lot of power, and it is also contentious if green energy will ever have the same power as oil in regard of its influence on our lifestyle and consumerism. On the one hand, renewable energy sources are placed on top of petroleumscapes such as electric lines that transport energy to our houses. On the other hand, people who want to invest in renewable energies grew up in the oil era. The question is open which other developments will still arise in regard of green energy (Hein, 2020).
Concerning the future, we have to decide on which pictures we want to paint of the petroleum age. If we want to preserve petroleumscapes as monuments, we have to consider that a debate around this difficult industrial heritage will come up. The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer has triggered demonstrations and protests against racism and police brutality all over the world and also reached The Netherlands with reference to the controversial status of national heritage that came as result of the Golden Age. Through the Black Lives Matters movement “hidden” critical information about The Netherland’s past including slavery, colonization and racism have been made public more than ever through so-called “Memory Activism” and triggers debates on how we shall deal with these kind of monuments (Buis,L., Wijnants R, 2020). Also, petroleumscapes have a colonialist past because the success of Dutch fossil fuel companies was a result of exploitation in areas like North Sumatra, having been territory of the Dutch East Indies once. In 1880 Dutch colonialists started to find oil in the jungle, and later in the 1940’s oil fields turned into battlefields between the Japanese, Dutch, Allied and Indonesian forces. In a post-petroleum world, we have to be particularly careful on how petroleumscapes as monuments in regard of this factor are perceived (De Vries, n.d.).
The audiovisual project “Heavy Waters” tries to reflect on the mentioned topics carefully, and does not provide solutions about the controversial debate of how one should look at petroleumscapes as historic sites in the future, rather than forcing our society to question how much oil exploited co-important nations to create an easier life for our western society. It deals with the issue of what kind of stories we want to tell future generations about petroleum. Within the project the spectator experiences a tour with a ski-gondola over the petroleumscape of Pernis. The metaphorical symbol of the gondola was not taken completely out of context because the exploiting system of the fuel industry does not only impact our resources of non-renewable energies, but also the climate in significant economic areas that involve winter tourism. Small amounts of petroleum are crucial for our society as, for example, in medical treatment. Still, future generations will have to live with the consequences of the free-spirit relationship to oil we are having today.
In conclusion, our resources on petroleum will not last forever, and the sooner we understand the history of our capitalizing behavior, the better we can create a positive future for our descendants. The heavy water oil has influenced the way our economy succeeds and how we design the world around us. It shares a story that is linked to the dark side of heroism in regard on hidden secrets of colonialization and revolt, and the endless opportunities we as a western society therefore have. All these factors leave a debate on what it means to look at petroleumscapes as a historic sites in the future, and how can we learn to deal with the difficult explanation that comes with it, open.
Buis,L., Wijnants R. “How to deal with controversial statues?”. Utrecht University, 18 June 2020. https://www.uu.nl/en/background/how-to-deal-with-controversial-statues
Cotte, A., Maggi, E. & Zimmermann M. „Culture Crops – Cultural Practices in Non-Urban Territories”. Culture Action Europe. Beyond the Obvious 2019 conference. 2019.
De Vries, Ben. “The Battle for oil in the Dutch East Indies: Pladjoe, The Pearl in the Crown of the Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij (Shell), in the turmoil of the 1940s”. Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, Page 1, accessed 16 November 2020.
Figueres, Christiana. “For Our Future, the Oil and Gas Industry Must Go Green”. The New York Times, 23 September 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/23/opinion/climate-change-fossil-fuels.html
Hein, Carola. “Analyzing the Palimpsestic Petroleumscape of Rotterdam”. Global Urban History, 28 September 2016. https://globalurbanhistory.com/2016/09/28/analyzing-the-palimpsestic-petroleumscape-of-rotterdam/
Hein, Carola. Personal Interview. 17 November 2020
“Oil Silo Home”. PinkCloud.dk. https://www.pinkcloud.dk/portfolio/oil-silo-home/
Randstad Monitor 2017. Randstadt Region, 2017.
“What to do with the heritage of the petroleum era?”. Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities, 13 May 2017. https://www.leiden-delft-erasmus.nl/en/news/what-to-do-with-the-heritage-of-the-petroleum-era
Concept Development, Graphic Design & Writing: Denise Hirtenfelder
Sound: Alexander Zeitlin
Animation: Anna Lorenz
Special Thanks to: Carola Hein, Jakob Damhösl