Rebuilding Rotterdam

27 Jun 2011 by ScottCarey7

Ambitious new developments are changing the urban landscape of the Netherlands' second city, finds Liat Clark.

Passing on the train through the Dutch countryside, the land between Amsterdam and Rotterdam is a stark expanse of green fields, traditional housing and a windmill or two thrown in for good measure. There is nothing much to speak of when the train draws into Rotterdam Central, or when you grab a cab outside, having made your way through the surrounding neon-yellow construction site.

But then, driving out of the station, the gaze is unexpectedly drawn skyward to a high-rise cityscape so different from the Netherlands of postcards. First is the dual-towered, 150-metre-high Delftse Poort, lit up at night by a glittering mass of solar-powered LEDs. Then, heading south on Coolsingel, the soaring Beurs World Trade Centre is quickly replaced by canals before the vivid aluminium façade of the Red Apple apartment block appears on Wijnhaven Island, just across the river from Maastoren, the Netherlands’ tallest skyscraper, at 165 metres. Erasmus Bridge links the two sides, its towering pylon like a huge white finger pointing to the heavens, cables like giant guitar strings bringing it back to earth.

Rotterdam’s lofty aspirations are clear. “Because of the war, a lot of Europe looks backward,” says Kim Heinen, spokeswoman for Rotterdam Marketing (rotterdam.info). “Poland rebuilt the Jewish ghetto exactly as it was, but Rotterdam faced the future and took it as an opportunity.”

Following the German bombing of May 14, 1940, when 260 hectares of history were floored in an instant, the city faced the task of entirely rebuilding – and reinventing – itself.

“The bombardment was a big trauma,” says Eeva Liukku, a tour guide for Rotterdam-based Archiguides (rotterdam-archiguides.nl). “We lost all our physical history. Lots of people don’t have an emotional feeling when they see skyscrapers but young people here cannot relate to old Rotterdam and feel this is a vibrant, dynamic city.”

After the war, modernism was embraced and examples of the “Nieuwe Bouwen” functionalist style, such as the block-coloured Sonneveld House, have been proudly preserved. Quite fittingly, the house stands opposite the newly renovated Netherlands Architecture Institute (en.nai.nl), reopening this July and archiving the sketches, models and personal correspondence of more than 500 Dutch architects from 1850 to 1980.

Being able to start from scratch also meant the city could innovate – introducing pedestrianised shopping streets, for example, before many other European cities.

There was a need to erect cheap office space quickly after the war, something Liukku refers to as “the mistakes” of Rotterdam’s architectural past. “Quite a few are already gone – we don’t mind. There is a saying: ‘In Amsterdam they like to talk a lot and in Rotterdam we just pull up our sleeves and work.’ We’re a labour city.”

This attitude towards design combined with an abundance of space meant experimentation was par for the course – and still is. Every year, architecture graduates flood to Rotterdam from universities in Delft and Eindhoven because it is known as a city open to ideas and change – the Architecture Institute of Rotterdam was set up to provide a forum for urban planning debates. As a result, iconic structures such as Piet Blom’s 1970s tilted Cube Houses, adjacent to the Blaak metro, are about to have their status as the city’s defining landmarks challenged by a series of new developments.

This is due in no small part to the demand for more office and convention space. Once home to the busiest port in the world, Rotterdam’s harbour is still one of the largest in Europe, responsible for much of the city’s income – last year its operations generated €551 million. However, financial services now make up nearly a quarter of Rotterdam’s economy, with Deloitte, ING and Shell all having bases here. Erasmus University, meanwhile, attracts international medical conventions. This year, 700 delegates attended the International Society for Cellular Therapy conference, held at the centrally located, 3,000-capacity De Doelen Congress Centre, and the city recently won a bid worth €1.4 million to host the European Society for Dermatological Research in 2015.

The influx of business – made easier by the high-speed rail line launched in 2009 from Brussels and Paris to Rotterdam – has meant the city must boost its capacity. South of the river, the construction of De Rotterdam (Vertical City) is well under way. The 150-metre-tall mixed-use complex will be made up of three adjoining glass towers designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) – headed by local architect Rem Koolhaas and responsible for London’s White City redevelopment.

At 160,000 sqm, the asymmetrical building, due to open in 2013, will be one of the country’s largest, with 68,000 sqm of office space and extensive conference facilities, 1,000 sqm of which will be housed in a new four-star, 266-room NH Hoteles property.

The OMA is also designing the new city hall, Stadskantoor, a series of modular offices and apartments staggered away from street view like a modernist, irregular pyramid on Coolsingel. And Markthal, an impressive covered market created by architects Provast, will replace the old market in Laurenskwartier and house 246 apartments within its curved, LED-covered arches.

The Central district is being regenerated to link the harbour and station better. Here you’ll find 38,500 sqm of office space in the renovated Central Post building, the 407-apartment block De Calypso (opening at the end of next year), and the renovated 120-metre-high First Tower, which will have international companies vying for its centrally located 110,000 sqm of office space when it opens next year. It incorporates sustainable materials and will be powered by “green” energy, in keeping with the Rotterdam Climate Initiative’s plan to halve CO2 emissions by 2025.

With the terminal for Ranstadrail’s frequent Rotterdam-Hague line now at Central station and the introduction of the high-speed line bringing commuters from further afield, 75 million travellers a year are expected by 2025. The station is therefore being entirely redesigned, with 30,000 sqm of glass installed to keep heating costs down, 3,000 solar panels and a new entrance. It is due to be ready by 2014.

So the cityscape will change dramatically in the coming years, which will hopefully undo some of Rotterdam’s past mistakes. Rutger van der Graaf, who has been running Archiguides for the past ten years, believes the city’s “just do it” attitude has resulted in incoherent urban living. “There is no centre – everybody is doing their own thing and not talking to each other. Industry is not all in one place, which is exciting, but it also makes it hard to be really successful because it’s so segmented.”

He cites the new Museumpark as a prime example of the disconnect between urban planning and urban living. The underground car park has been paved over to create sought-after green space, but there are no public facilities so it is rarely used. Van der Graaf suggests such decisions may also be responsible for the dearth of city dwellers. With a population of only 600,000, Rotterdam’s reputation as a working city means many professionals prefer to flee to the suburbs come 6pm.

The city is taking new measures to help change this. North of Central station, the government has acquired housing and sells it cheaply to residents willing to renovate it within a year and live there for at least two. The idea is to encourage people to invest in a community, particularly in areas considered undesirable, and it’s clear from the odd boutique and the queues outside kitsch bakery Lof der Zoetheid (lofderzoetheid.com) that the idea is catching on.

Further south, at old shipyard Lloydkwartier, is media centre Schiecentrale, a former power plant that underwent a €42 million conversion in 2008 and houses 156 live/work units. Van der Graaf calls the area “the real Rotterdam” – more rough and ready but filled with interesting projects such as the Shipping and Transport College, with its quirky periscope design, and Lloydpier, a housing development that will provide 700 homes. Meanwhile, Vertical City will transform Wilhelminapier, where the iconic New York hotel, new Luxor theatre, and bars and restaurants already line the harbour.

Rotterdam can sometimes be a difficult city to comprehend but it is one worth exploring for its incredible feats in architecture. Van der Graaf thinks Rotterdam is striving for an impossible task, to compete with London or New York. But having high hopes is what gave Rotterdam its character and, compared with Amsterdam – which has had several centuries to perfect its style – it is still defining itself. “The fact is,” Liukku says, “we are still building our city.”


Easyjet (easyjet.com) flies from across the UK to Amsterdam Schiphol, from where it is a 25-minute rail journey to Rotterdam. On arrival, for the best price on rail fares, buy tickets from the yellow kiosks in stations. Tickets for Thalys or Fyra trains are available online at ns.nl.

Visit holland.com for more information on the city.

Design hotels

Cruise hotel

The SS Rotterdam, once the Holland-America Line’s flagship vessel, was transformed into a 254-room hotel last year. Located near Rijnhaven, it is a living archive of 1950s design, with the ship’s original furniture, light fixtures and artworks all restored. The rooms can be a little hard to find amid the maze of hallways and are basic, but do come with minibars, flatscreen TVs and free wired internet. There is a modern breakfast room, formal dining at the Club room and Lido, and 30 meeting spaces, the largest of which seats 550 people.

3e Katendrechtse Hoofd 25; tel +31 102 973 090; cruisehotel.nl

Rooms from €109

New York hotel

Located on the tip of Wilhelminapier, the former HQ of the Holland-America Line was built in 1883 in art nouveau style and reopened as a 72-room hotel in 1993. The newly refurbished rooms have luxury bedding, Nespresso machines, safes, flatscreen TVs and free wifi. Some feature vintage luggage transformed into chests of drawers, while others have an industrial feel. There are seven meeting rooms, with the largest accommodating 100. The main restaurant seats 400 and has a seafood bar.

Koninginnenhoofd 1; tel +31 104 390 555; hotelnewyork.nl

Rooms from €104

Inntel Rotterdam

This four-star was in 1989, with a tower added in 2006 and a new five-star, 213-room extension due to open in 2013. The hotel’s aquatic theme is visible in the turquoise décor and the Water bar, modelled on a sea container. There are 263 rooms and 13 have saunas, while others have “sunshowers”, spa or steam baths. All have minibars, free wifi and flatscreen TVs. There are 17 event spaces, a pool, gym, spa and restaurant.

Leuvehaven 80; tel +31 104 134 139; inntelhotelsrotterdamcentre.nl

Rooms from €120

Suite hotel Pincoffs

The former harbour customs house in the Kop van Zuid area was converted into this beautiful boutique property in 2008. The Green Key-rated hotel (see page 36 for more on eco ratings) uses LED lights and organic food, while the 17 rooms have minibars, free wifi, safes, Bulgari toiletries and iPod docks. The bar serves a light menu and there are three small meeting rooms.

Stieltjesstraat 34; tel +31 102 974 500; hotelpincoffs.nl

Rooms from €131

Visit businesstraveller.com/tried-and-tested for reviews of the Cruise, New York and Pincoffs hotels.

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