Alumni spotlight: Aida Bubic ‘Working for Rotterdam is a dream’

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Aida Bubic is an IHS alumna and an expert with decades of experience in architecture and urban planning. She has been working as an urban planner within the Municipality of Rotterdam for over 24 years – a long and successful period, during which she completed countless projects that helped shape up the city into the vibrant urban hub of today.

27 years ago, she came to the Netherlands for a five-month IHS programme on urban planning and inner-city renewal. As time went by, an emerging war in her home country, former Yugoslavia, changed her plans and eventually her life path.

‘I didn't know I was accepted’

“I came here in 1992, at the beginning of a war in my home country, so it was a little bit confusing. Even to get here was a bit difficult, because the phone connections were broken, so they couldn’t reach me to tell me I was accepted. It was by chance that a friend of mine was in Belgrade for work and she asked at the Dutch Embassy. They told her I was accepted, they just couldn’t reach me, which was really exciting to find out.

So then I came here! When I got to Rotterdam, the first thing I saw was the Delftse Poort building and I thought ‘this is pure beauty!’ It was just built around then and it was wonderful.”

Aida came to study the ICHPB - International Course on Housing, Planning and Building (nowadays called Sustainable Urban Development), in a time that IHS was located in the Round Building. It had been founded 34 years earlier in the same iconic building, as the Bouwcentrum International Education. This was an international training branch of the urban development centre that supported the reconstruction of Rotterdam, post-World War II.

Aida looks back with a lot of warmth at her time in the “IHS family”, as many people call it.

Aida Bubic

“I found very nice, warm staff. For me, it was like John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ come true. We had to adjust to very different sorts of English, but after a few days we picked it up and then we became really part of the IHS family. It was amazing, people had very different backgrounds. I came with my own background as an architect and urban planner in Yugoslavia for 12 years. I was the only European student! For me, it was wonderful because I had to adjust, it widened my perspective.”

Coming with an architecture and town planning angle, Aida expected to learn something about inner-city renewal. She was surprised that most colleagues were not architects, nor town planners but they had been working in different fields like job creation, economics, psychology, social work.

“They all brought a different dimension to the table, something I didn’t understand initially. In the end, it all came together like a big puzzle. We all came from different countries and backgrounds, with different problems and we brought different world views. While I came from a city that was very proud of their sewage systems, someone else came with the issue of pit latrines and we had to understand each other’s contexts.”

The hardest part about the course was working on the thesis. Because of the emerging war, Aida now came from a city that had become a warzone and her final project addressed urban renewal in an area that faced destruction threats. Her teachers decided that she would have to redo the assignment on a different topic, which was hard and heart-breaking.

“My inner city was threatened to be destroyednot to exist anymore, so my paper wasn’t relevant anymore either. I had to quit and do a new paper in a month. The staff were very understanding – they told me it’s ok if I didn’t complete it because I had all reasons to not manage, but I hadn’t come to IHS to not manage, so I did my best and I succeeded.”

Leaving was very hard, as Aida had very fond memories of IHS. “Almost everybody experiences it as a family while they are there.”

‘I was hoping the war back home was all just a big mistake and that I could go back after my five months at IHS’

“Unfortunately, the war escalated so badly, that I couldn’t go back. That became something else that I had to decide - that I like it here and I’d like to stay. It was a very difficult situation after the course because I didn’t want to stay in the Netherlands as a refugee, so I had to fight to get a living and working permit. It was really tough. Too tough, actually, but I did it.”

Aida got a job at Kraaijvanger Urbis, a respectable architecture bureau which made many iconic buildings in Rotterdam. She felt at home there, working in an international team and doing both urbanism and architecture projects. She was also offered a job at OMA, which was again an international, prestigious office, but working for a municipality was what she really wanted.

“If you work for an architecture bureau, you work for a project that has to bring revenue and satisfaction to the client, whereas what we learned was that to make the world more beautiful means something else and it’s a process. What matters is how you put things together in a way that makes it better for many, not only for the beneficiaries of an architectural project.”

After applying to multiple openings in municipalities, Aida got called back even from Amsterdam, but it just wasn’t Rotterdam and she was in love with Rotterdam. Eventually, she got a job for the municipality of Rotterdam, where she remained working for the next 24 years.

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‘From the very first time I saw Rotterdam, I was very fond of it. It’s an amazing, fascinating city!’

“For me, working for the municipality of Rotterdam was a dream. When I came to this city, I really fell in love with it. Maybe it was because of my own history because my life changed. I lost my nationality, my identity, my country, everything. And I was here, and I felt accepted, or…I compared myself somewhere deep inside with Rotterdam, a place which was also destroyed and came back as a phoenix, even more beautiful, so I thought…maybe I can do the same.“

Working for the municipality is a challenge, but also very fulfilling, according to Aida. Her arrival overlapped with a period of developments in ’95, when several renewal projects were taking place in Delfshaven. She guided many projects in that area for about fourteen years. Aida’s first project was the Mevlana Mosque. What seemed difficult to others, like navigating cultural differences, was simple to her because of her background. She came from the Eastern part of Yugoslavia that had been under Turkish occupation, so she found the intercultural part of the project rather easy to handle.

“Renewal projects were very complex and unknown, which is what I liked. In my career, I always searched for new things. I did quite a few pilot projects with various focus areas – citizen participation, environmental models testing, introducing beautification of a city in a zoning plan – and they all succeeded."

Among the many projects that are close to Aida’s heart, she mentions the Volmarijnstraat in Middeland, a street that preserved its historical flair due to Aida’s efforts and clever solutions. She introduced the rule of building windows line at the same level on the first floor, which helped to adjust the look of new buildings to match the old ones, while still giving the developers freedom. “If you walked on the street, you couldn’t immediately say what is new and what is old.” - recalls Aida.

“Those years really stayed with me. It was around then that everything was going up in the city in terms of constructions. Delftse Poort was already there, but the train came over Blaak, on top of the ground. Koopgoot was also being built, the Erasmus bridge was being built, Hotel NY was not even a hotel (the developer bought it for 1 guilder and it was ready in 1993). It was amazing! The developments were great.”

Many more projects followed –the Kralingse Zoom garage, Prins Alexander, Spaanse Polder and the industrial area of Rotterdam in Overschie. Things changed a lot. In Aida’s memories, this period is very intense, tiring, with a lot of work for a very small team. Now the entire department has over 200 people and her workload from a few years ago is split between four people. At the moment, she is working on very different projects, in a part of Prins Alexander – Prinsenland, as well as Kralingseveer, Rozenburg and Pernis.

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‘I really do the job that I love, I cannot imagine anything better. Maybe only if I work for Manhattan!’

If one asks Aida about her job, her eyes light up immediately. Her enthusiasm and dedication to this career after decades of work are nothing short of amazing.

“What I like the most about my career in Rotterdam is that I really do the job that I love, it’s very fulfilling. I cannot imagine anything better. Maybe only if I work for Manhattan! However, I cannot imagine living in any other city in the Netherlands. I had the opportunity to go work somewhere else, but nothing can replace my love and devotion for Rotterdam, so I’m very happy to be a part of it and to help it grow.”

The work one does as an urban planner can be very different, according to Aida. It can be a study, a vision, a masterplan, pre-conditions for building, project guidance, making a zoning plan, assessing and responding to initiatives of other developers and many more things. “It’s a lot, it’s a very nice job and I’m in Rotterdam, which is amazing.”

The city develops so fast, that even if one leaves for half a year, there is always something new to find at the return. Even though she works for the municipality, Aida still gets surprised, which is also peculiar for her husband, who expects her to know all the developments like clockwork. “But it’s impossible to keep up with everything happening in Rotterdam” – adds Aida.

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‘As South-Eastern Europeans we’re educated to be modest. In the Netherlands, you have to put yourself out there.’

When asked about tips for those who want to have a career in urban planning in the Netherlands, Aida stresses the importance of learning to speak Dutch.

“I had to make huge efforts to not show that I was still learning. You cannot be in the same meeting and ask three times what that word means. I didn’t have an opportunity at the time when I was new to take a good course, because good daily courses were expensive and I also had to work daily, to sustain myself. When you’re at the beginning here, you have to develop the ability to understand the context if you cannot grasp every word.”

Coming from a very different part of Europe, Aida remembers also the cultural clash. “As South-Eastern Europeans, we’re educated to be modest. You cannot say you’re good, you have to wait for someone to discover you and praise you. Now, in the Netherlands you have to put yourself out there, you have to try to be visible. Modesty is not a value you should hold on to. When searching for a job, you have to point out what you’re good at, why one should hire you over somebody else.”

In addition to that, in Aida’s opinion, it is important to think who you are, what you want to achieve and especially what brings you pleasure in your work, as you spend a third of your time there. Aida smiles, as she goes on sharing what drives her at work: “For me, that pleasure is doing things successfully when others say ‘It’s impossible’. I love doing impossible things.“