Harbours of Western Europe: economic shifts and trans-industrial visions

Gabriel Gee.


After the end of the Second World War, traditional European economic sectors inherited from the 19th century industrial revolutions came into decline. The development of an increasingly global economy led to a restructuring of Western economies where service-based activities and the financial sector progressively replaced struggling manufacturing and heavy industries. The European harbours which had grown during the industrial period were confronted with the continuing competition from Japan as well as other emerging global competitors in Asia such as South Korea. Most European port cities were faced with a downsizing of their ship-building and commerce activities. Some such as Aberdeen could benefit from new resources (petrol).Some which were ideally positioned on maritime routes, such as Rotterdam and Le Havre, could engage infrastructural change in order to adapt themselves to the new requirements of the industry (containers in particular). Yet many were faced with radical transformation. In the United-Kingdom, Liverpool, Belfast and Newcastle for instance were deeply affected by the industrial shift, and largely witnessed the demise of their ship-industry. The decline of these once powerful harbours was facilitated by the policies of the British government in the 1980s which declined assistance to these struggling industrial sectors. Other European harbours which have been confronted with a similar change of fortune due to economic and political factors include Gdansk and Marseille, Hamburg and La Spezia.
The aim of this enquiry into the harbours of Western Europe is to consider the relation between the economic changes affecting cities which had once thrived on maritime commerce and industry, and the cultural and aesthetic response to these changes. First, how are the urban textures which had grown out of specific economic drives reshaped by changing architectural and geographical functions? More importantly, how do the inhabitants contribute to the understanding of this process, to what extent are they able to influence its course? This question implies looking at both local, regional and national political forces and their role in the reshaping of port cities, but also the spaces where citizens manage to rearticulate a role for transformed and disused loci. Third then, and at the crossroad of this research, how are industrial mutations represented and seized by cultural activists? For instance in Liverpool, an organisation such as Metal has supported a range of projects tackling the issue of shrinking urban spaces, where Locus + in Newcastle has a major record of supporting projects dealing with the river and its changing fortune. It is the collision between aesthetic and cultural thought with industrial history in Western European harbours that this project intends to look at from a comparative perspective. It aims to do so in order to provide a historical analysis as well as constructive reflections on how aesthetics can develop alternative understandings and development in our contemporary urban environments.