Finding Rotterdam

by Matthias · 04.04.2014 · Escapism · 4 comments

Rem Koolhaas's "De Rotterdam" – too large to fit in a single picture.

Rem Koolhaas’s “De Rotterdam” – too large to fit in a single picture.

Though the lush life of Ber­lin is any­thing but bor­ing, I am sure you know that urge to get out of the city, that enthrals 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.

Finding Rotterdam
Finding Rotterdam

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.

Finding Rotterdam

Erasmus bridge as seen from the top of De Rotterdam.

Finding Rotterdam

Com­mon in Rot­ter­dam: archi­tec­tural contrasts.

Finding Rotterdam

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:

Finding Rotterdam

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.

Finding Rotterdam Finding Rotterdam Finding Rotterdam Finding Rotterdam

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.

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  1. Very good art­icle (Lots of inform­a­tion) accom­pan­ied with beau­ti­ful pictures.

  2. Saw your art­icle linked on Twit­ter. Your image of the city is not mine, that’s okay. How­ever, I must admit, there are some ugly build­ings in this city, but what sur­prised me was the short period of time (just one Day?) on which you came to the con­clu­sions you men­tioned in your art­icle. I myself moved to this city for it’s tides, the traffic on the river, the amaz­ing views (from my high-rise apart­ment oppos­ite to De Rot­ter­dam, on the other side of the river), and at the time I moved to this city I never expec­ted to see so many rainbows.

    Lynda M.J. Keizer
  3. I think it would be a good idea if you visit our city again and do your home­work bet­ter this time and make sure you have good guide. Rot­ter­dam isn’t easy to com­pre­hend, it’s like a secret hand­shake, but you feel so rich and for­tu­nate if you’re able to share the feel­ing.
    I for one, and I know many Rot­ter­dam­mers would agree, don’t feel i live in ‘Man­hat­tan aan de Maas’ … that would be ridicu­lous. Where i do live then? Our fam­ous poet Jules Deelder put it so well (and i hope you can under­stand, or have it trans­lated):

    I wouldn’t trade Rot­ter­dam for any other city or area in the world. Not even for Manhattan.

    Petra Berrevoets
  4. Well, as it is always the case with press trips, one has only lim­ited time. I am aware that there is prob­ably no such place that can be com­pre­hens­ively under­stood in less than a year. But does that mean that the impres­sions, feel­ings and thoughts I had were point­less? I don’t think so. The per­cep­tion of a place is depend­ent on what one already knew, already exper­i­enced, already felt. Any place can present itself com­pletely dif­fer­ent to the next per­son. Neither of these per­spect­ives are ulti­mately true nor false, they’re just per­spect­ives. But that’s just an old wisdom.

    Still, I tried to com­pare my impres­sions and thoughts with what loc­als had to say. I talked to as many as I could to broaden my view, and to be hon­est, some of them were fairpy quickly annoyed by my par­tic­u­larly detailled asking.

    I may only present and write what I felt and learned, for I can­not share what didn’t occur to me. And that’s just fine. I never aimed to give a com­pre­hens­ive account of Rot­ter­dam and even after I spent all my life in Ber­lin, I could not give a com­pre­hens­ive account of it either. So please take these words with a grain of salt and rather try to explain why Rot­ter­dam impress a vis­itor in this way.