Though the lush life of Berlin is anything but boring, I am sure you know that urge to get out of the city, that enthralls one occasionally. We like to think that we’re surrounded by nothing but rows and rows of Brandenburg’s artificially planted pine trees, but we tend to forget that there’s something waiting beyond called “the rest of Europe”.
It was just when I felt the familiar wanderlust to go on a short city trip, that nhow Hotel Rotterdam invited me to discover the city at the Maas. I never visited the Netherland’s second largest city, and to be honest, all I knew about it was that it had a quite large harbor and a skyline that looks as exotic and alien as Frankfurt’s (i.e. non-European, because to me, Europe will always be the place where we still build tiny half-timber houses). I was about to change this perception on a short trip to discover Rotterdam. However, quite frankly said, I was torn between some tough and overwhelming contradictions arising from its architecture and overall city planning I could not resolve until today.
If one thing is for certain, then it’s that Rotterdam the architectural capital of the Netherlands. Both for rather good and for rather bad examples. One of the better looking examples was the building “De Rotterdam” that the hotel had just moved into – albeit only using a small fraction of the total area. Built by Rem Koolhaas and his architecture bureau and just opened in November 2013, it is not only huge but also quite stunning. It basically consists of three glass towers arranged on a shared socket building, each being dissected in half and having their upper parts rotated in different angles. It is now the largest building in Europe (by total area) and with 42 stories the tallest structure in the Netherlands, easily belittling everything that stands in its wide shadow.
But De Rotterdam and its neighbouring Erasmus bridge are not only visible from throughout the city, awkwardly watching the peoples’ every steps, the glass and concrete behemoth at the bank of the Maas is also mostly vacant. On a bright day, sunbeams travel through the entire building, drenching it in a calm and sedate light, but also revealing its still unfinished condition. It reminded me of a hollow bank tower in Reykjavík that was never used because the financial crisis struck – nowadays a cynical memorial to the events of 2008.
But this was one was different, De Rotterdam was supposed to be the pride of the city, the mega project the whole Netherlands eagerly awaited. It was planned in 1996, when the city government needed more offices and commissioned Rem Koolhaas to plan and construct a new high-rise building at the Maas. The middle tower was reserved for their 4000 employees, but apart from that and a few stories the hotel occupied in another tower, the building is mostly unrented and in some parts still under construction. The rest is already reserved for further offices and several apartments. In fact, when I visited the site last week, there was little to nothing happening apart from the hotel’s businesses. It was then when architect Ellen van Loons statement about her interior concept of the nhow struck me like a bitter euphemism, that the OMA managing partner had planned De Rotterdam as a “vertical city”. Her idea of a building that encompasses all aspects of urban life under one roof was nothing short of covering up the plain fact that the building contractor, Rotterdam’s city government, didn’t properly plan ahead and publicly ask for future tenant’s interest. Usually, such large projects require thorough demand analyses and lease agreements even before the foundation is layed.
This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t a publicly founded building project. I asked a lot of people about their and also the public opinion about De Rotterdam and was not surprised when many would say it was a great building – and it is: it conveys a great sense of calmness and spaciousness, especially where one can see it in a finished state –, that it would be an important addition to Rotterdam’s skyline. But only few would care about the financial, political, environmental and urban issues that are connected to it – at least now, since neither them nor I could judge about the future. I was neither surprised that the spokespeople of the city’s marketing department would dodge any questions I had about these matters, however, I was more surprised that only one in ten or fifteen locals I asked could tell me about the public opinion. And yes, you guessed it, it’s not as uncritical as some implied. There’s even a nickname for the building: “Revenge of Rem”, and some people actually offer tours to this and other buildings Rotterdamers (are supposed to) dislike. However strong this public opinion might be, it chimed in with my personal feeling that though De Rotterdam has some great qualities, it also looks like a tremendous concrete and glass boulder dropped and forgotten at the river side that feels strangely out of place because there are no similarly large buildings at its side that could complement its bold appearance. And those buildings that share the tiny, equally quiet promontory at the Maas, were strange as well: There was a Hotel New York situated where formerly Dutch emigrants would put out to sea and eventually America, its very own cliché American barber shop, also the New Orleans apartment tower and the Montevideo apartment and office building. Word has it that rental prices would constantly drop there. Apart from that, there were only warehouses – some refurbished and occupied, some still grimy and vacant. It was a great sight: The shiny and new Koolhaas master piece overlooking brick buildings still greeting cargo ships from Java, Celebes, Borneo and Sumatra.
But when they truthfully say that Rotterdam is the Netherland’s capital of architecture, then it’s not only about mega projects such as De Rotterdam. While plenty of skyscrapers are being built these days (and I never heard the word “high-rise” so often in such a short time span), its architectural history is a bit older, albeit a bit. While Amsterdam, Den Haag, Utrecht and other cities share a similar architectural style, Rotterdam was mostly destroyed in the Second World War and since rebuilt. You will neither find the familiar canals nor the heritage-protected brick villages, but many great residential buildings from the late 50s and early 60s. Some neighbourhoods look like a mid-century dream, but it’s up to everyone’s own opinion if that’s more of utopia or dystopia. Other areas consist only of fake, but still pretty Mannerist pre-war era style brick blocks.
But what stands out from everything else is the city center, where of course some high rises are situated, but also many buildings that are nothing short of architectural disasters. I have to say in advance, that I tend to be rather sensitive to spatial and architectural surroundings, so I guess it is just a personal opinion to say that I actually felt depressed and distraught by some of the buildings situated at the central market. I would still recommend to go to the area around Blaak station to see it with your own eyes, to understand why the so called pencil building exactly lives up to its name, to see Döner stands being adorned with weird, pointy conical roof that are twice as large as the actual building. You should also go there if you like to visit the soon-to-be-finished market hall, a forty meter high and twice as long tube overstretching a market plaza beneath, with apartments in its hull, but covered with huge and hideous stock images of several flowers, fruit and vegetables on its inside.
And then there’s that, just a stone’s throw away:
This area might have been too much for me to bear, but I have to give it to the Dutch that their architects enjoy a creative freedom that their colleagues from Berlin can only dream of. For the good or the bad, of course, the rest of the city has to live with that. But you can also see that some architects actually had visionary ideas. Rotterdam’s probably most famous buildings are the Kubuswoningen, the cubus houses, designed by Piet Holmen. These concrete versions of a cubistic forest are not exactly beautiful, but one can get the idea and socio-spatial vision Holmen had when he created an autonomous village, isolated from the rest of the surrounding city center. 38 of these houses and two larger cubes are arranged around shared alleyways and sunlit plazas, creating room for tree-top apartments and many small businesses.
Holmen had a small city in mind that would serve as a bridge from one end of Overblaak street to another, and also provide a secluded space where bakeries, groceries and cafés would cater to the locals. However, as it happens to many of such visionary projects, they deteriorate over time: Nobody picks their way through these plazas, the local shops consist only of several massage parlours, knick-knack stores and the omnipresent American nails manicure salons.
However, at least some Rotterdammers seemed to genuinely liked these type of buildings, the architectual mixture of high-rises, aesthetically bold structures, 50’s apartments and whatever was left from the last century. Especially the amount of skyscrapers – ranging from the oldest, still built in brick and stone, to the many that are under construction – seemed to be something many people were quite proud of. Yes, older building had to be demolished, but that was just as fine, as long as something happened. Rotterdam, the city that values change over heritage, that always wants to be something else.
They call it “Manhattan at the Maas”. The hotel does it, the city guides do it and the inhabitants do it as well. Manhattan at the Maas. Maashattan. Even I, who was just a visitor, could see that this was a ridiculous claim.
I asked the city’s marketing officials if this slogan was part of a campaign and they assured me they had nothing to with it, claimed this just happened by word of mouth. I was wary. These things do not just happen for any reason, there’s usually a public or private interest trying to shape a city image, just as “Be Berlin” and “Poor but sexy” were carefully created, just as “The city of light” and “Mainhattan” exist for a reason. Now, Rotterdam wanted to be Manhattan.
There are some high-rises, but only few and they are scattered in the city center and on the other side of the river. Rotterdam is a financial city, but only for petroleum, cargo and other naval businesses. There are some warehouses, there are even the same water reservoirs New York City is so famous far. But the image of Maashattan doesn’t add up, not at all.
Manhattan is a unique place with a long history, a densely populated island with a rich culture and bustling live, it is a melting pot and a cultural center for the western world. Rotterdam, on the other hand, had nothing of it. Nothing to this extent. Rotterdam has quirky architecture and Europe’s largest harbour, it is horizontal not vertical, it is calm and sedate and has a quite interesting influence of Moroccan and Arabian culture. And above all, it has water taxis. Pretty fast ones.
So it’s rather the opposite. But apart from this tremendous misconception, it is even more baffling that Rotterdam even needed such a comparison. Rotterdam is a place of its own, nowhere else to be found, but all one keeps hearing about it is that is just like the other place you already know about. Same, same, but different. Rotterdam tries to imitate rather than be something unique, it neither lives up to its image nor its potential: It could be this quirky place of cultural liberty, but it rather wants to have another Statue of Liberty.
But once again, when I asked locals what they think about this slogan, most of them agreed. Either they were oblivious of what Manhattan stands for or I visited Rotterdam on a really odd day. I like to think the former is true.
I already wanted to give up and ask these innocent people all my probing questions, when somebody could tell me the long-sought answer right away: “Rotterdam doesn’t want to compete with Manhattan, it wants to compete with the rest of the Netherlands.” Rotterdam, he said, always felt inferior to Amsterdam. Not just since the war, but already many hundreds of years ago. Amsterdam was always superior: more culture, nicer people, more beautiful faces, a better living standard, in short: a better city. And Amsterdam made sure this wouldn’t change. Now all of a sudden, Rotterdam – this grimy, cold, sedate and unfriendly spot of land – had become rich and could do something about it. They built a harbour that was back then the world’s largest, they attracted industry and they liked to show off. So they built high-rises, they built a shiny and new central station, they built the Erasmus bridge and many more. Rotterdam, so he said, has a reason to be proud again. That made a lot more sense to me: In a city, that rivals its neighbour, such slogans can become a powerful propaganda.
However, I was happy to get back home. Rotterdam really is a strange place. But it doesn’t let you go away with an indifferent opinion, it leaves you thinking about modern utopias, about people’s dreams, carefully constructed visions and sturdy frames of references. I might not visit it soon again, but it will interesting to see how the city will deal with its image in the future.