Mass Capital: Shumi Bose on OMA's De Rotterdam

Sixteen years on from its conception, and after a stop-start history coloured by global crisis and loss of confidence, November 2013 saw the completion of the gargantuan De Rotterdam — The Rotterdam — the latest contribution to the city from its most prodigious architectural offspring, OMA


Words by Shumi Bose

Photography: Ossip van Duivenbode

It is only fitting to start by describing De Rotterdam visually, since its sheer size and glassy brilliance insist on it being noticed. The largest single building in the Netherlands, De Rotterdam is undoubtedly massive, but it plays tricks on you. Above a simple concrete pediment, its glazed grid spreads uniformly across glitchy, broken surfaces. Three narrowly separated towers shift on their axes; like their reflections on the water before them, their massive volumes seem unstable. At night, the building's otherwise featureless facade is animated by changing patterns of work, rest and play. This is ornament by occupation.


The articulated bulk of De Rotterdam looks out onto the city harbour

Impressive is one word to describe OMA's transparent agglomeration, dominating the waterfront of historic Wilhelminapier in Rotterdam's Kop van Zuid district. Perplexing is another, both for its tricksy geometry and in terms of whether the building itself makes sense after its stop-start history, tracking 16 years from design to completion. The development comprises a gross floor area of 162,000 sq m, including 72,000 sq m of office space, 240 apartments and a 285-room hotel. Each tower houses up to 45 floors; the total cost is stated as €340m. These numbers don't reflect the current demands of Rotterdam, where up to 70 per cent of office space lies fallow and the residential market is stagnant. Commissioned in 1997, at a peak of European optimism, the project came to an abrupt halt in 2001. OMA's associate in charge, Kees van Casteren, links this directly to the events of 9/11. The client had their confidence shaken, he says, and the work stopped. Since then, conservative changes have been made to the design -- apartment sizes came down and double-height floors were dropped in favour of more saleable space. Work recommenced in 2006, construction followed from 2009 and the building is finally 'delivered' this November, into a very different world.


The Western, outward-facing facade of the residential block is taken up by private balconies

De Rotterdam will join a number of high-profile towers that have come up around the 'pier' since it was first conceived. Indeed, the whole zone is planned like a bouquet of trophy architecture -- an outdated (but not so distant) strategy that placed much faith in buildings to generate, rather than nurture, viable urban growth. Notable among De Rotterdam's neighbours are Alvaro Siza's elegant crenellated New Orleans tower, Mecanoo's diagrammatic Montevideo, Foster + Partners schizophrenic World Port Centre and Renzo Piano Building Workshop's slanting, bleeping edifice for KPN Telecom. Perhaps due to its long design gestation -- indeed OMA's Boompjes study, made back in 1980 with Elia Zenghelis, plants a line of towers on the very same site -- De Rotterdam has kept its looks better than those that jumped the line. With its simple stacked glass volumes, it either dwarfs or outstyles -- or does both.


Ben van Berkel's dramatic cable stayed Erasmus Bridge (1996) draws the eye towards De Rotterdam

Simple is inaccurate. From a distance, and at a certain angle, the towers coalesce into a neat, pleasingly sheer mass. Move round a bit and the edges start to break up -- irregular voids appear, revealing a fractured whole. Rhythmic lines warp and distort, as separate volumes emerge. Get closer still and the impassive surfaces and narrow slots suggest another place: Chicago or New York, perhaps. In fact, another time, too -- De Rotterdam is every inch the classic tower-on-podium arrangement, so characteristic of 1950s and 1960s corporate architecture.

In fact, De Rotterdam is composed of three 150m towers, 'broken' by a sudden change to their cross-section plan. The Tetris-like stacks, with irregular overhangs and cantilevers, rise from of a vast concrete podium in which three car-park storeys are sandwiched between double-height layers at the ground floor, 'Waterfront' and the upper, two-storey public deck earmarked as a 'Leisure Area'. Both these and the ground floor will be publicly accessible and hopeful of finding the usual mix of retail tenants, the lower more shopping- and eating- orientated, and the upper with perhaps more fitness centres and the like. Above the podium, on the sixth floor, sits a conference centre belonging to a business-luxe hotel, which continues up the east tower, with some office space at the very top.


With more than its fair share of exuberant architectural experiment, Rotterdam's urban fabric is resilient and wildly diverse

To the west, a 45-storey residential block comprises 240 apartments, a small share of which will be operated by a housing association. The residential units are designed to three basic specifications. There are six standard apartments to each floor, with the penthouses, sold off-plan, naturally dwarfing the denser rental apartments. The west facade of De Rotterdam's residential block is given over in entirety to balconies, offering views across the harbour; all apartments benefit from either a balcony or an interior courtyard or 'loggia'.


Narrow voids and the proximity of immense volumes make for dramatic vistas within the building

With retail, residential, hotel and office, OMA offers that De Rotterdam is 'conceived as a vertical city'. In places, the programmatic volumes come extremely close together: one corner of the residential block is overlooked by offices across a 'void' of only six metres. In the UK, an office building would be required to maintain an 18 metre gap from a residential building; De Rotterdam evades similar regulations by being a single building. Perhaps the Dutch are more amenable to exhibitionism. Arguing for De Rotterdam's logic of performative transparency, Van Casteren says, 'The bathrooms are on the interior; it's just the living areas and some bedrooms that are exposed. Personally, I wouldn't mind!' Crucially, the office block will be tenanted in part by departments of the local municipality. And there's the rub, at least for many Rotterdammers, a population admittedly more tolerant than most towards exuberant architectural litter.


Office and residential units overlook each other over relatively narrow gaps

In order to restart the project after its sudden arrest, co-clients and local developers OVG encouraged the municipality to underwrite De Rotterdam with an intentional tenancy agreement. This meant that it committed to transferring certain departments from existing offices to a new and high-value property, much to the chagrin of tax-paying citizens. 'It's a sensitive issue,' agrees Van Casteren, 'because the municipality has in recent times been forced to let a lot of people go.' The problem is made worse because it isn't the first time that this has happened. In the early 1970s, the Rotterdam municipality was forced to make a similar agreement for the construction of SOM's uncompromisingly rational Europoint towers in Marconiplein, which it has occupied to date.

Ironically, De Rotterdam's podium-tower typology -- down to the faceless, sheer glass wall -- was epitomised most elegantly by Lever House, New York (1952), designed by none other than SOM's Natalie de Blois and Gordon Bunshaft. History often repeats itself but OMA, and Koolhaas in particular, is far too conscious of debts owed to let such echoes recur innocently.

No, this time the story is not as simple as the vertiginous architecture of American postwar optimism: this time, the podium supports an ambition and complexity inflated far beyond that of its mid-century predecessor.


Cladding on the residential towers varies almost imperceptibly, and no lighting treatment has been applied. Visual interest is provided exclusively by occupancy

De Rotterdam, like many of the improbably ambitious developments that have mushroomed across western Europe, is the product of giddy, unstable capital which must be kept moving. The prevailing logic of speculative investors suggests that, whatever the odds, concrete and glass boxes (if not bricks and mortar) are safer bets than bank vaults. So, although Rotterdam is nothing like as busy as New York, De Rotterdam has double the number of floors as Lever House; not one single tower but three, or rather six volumes that awkwardly elbow each other out of alignment; not one single corporation to house, but a host of functions, tenants and funds.


OMA has also provided interior design guidance for the hotel rooms

Koolhaas rides high on the list of architects who have attained mythic status within their lifetimes. But unlike the hero figures of high modernism, his generation of starchitects has been amoral rather than high-minded. Breaking from a postwar European context of extreme social consciousness, into the delirious hedonism of New York, OMA has long recognised and embraced the international market. Its critical strategy has been one of injecting and transmogrifying market demands with a radical spatial intelligence. Koolhaas himself has admitted to 'a repertoire [...] to be pursued intellectually and coolly, so I'm not torn in any agonised sense. Architecture is a constant technical operation of going with or against expectations.' The city, rather than the architect, might have decided to stop De Rotterdam, to cancel the prestigious project and redirect funds towards dwindling public services. But it didn't. So here is the reward: a larger-than-life exaggeration of the corporate podium-tower, anxious and engorged, casting a fractured reflection on the water and baring its guts.


OMA Associate in charge Kees van Casteren has worked on De Rotterdam for over a decade, and much longer on the Wihelminapier

We return from the windy, noisy site to OMA HQ, itself housed in an unassuming gem by Dutch modernist master Hugh Maaskant. The office is alive with projects, including, of course, next year's Venice Biennale, of which OMA will be the sole author. A soft-spoken and composed Koolhaas greets us person. 'Did you approach the building from over the Erasmus bridge?' he asks. We did not; the nearest subway emerges on Wilhelminapier itself. 'But that's the only way you need to see it to understand it,' Koolhaas mumbles, before suddenly deciding to drive us back over the water and right the wrong himself. On the unexpected, breakneck journey, I ponder what this means; after a three-hour visit with van Casteren, it is difficult to imagine what could be unlocked by a glance across the water.

The most fascinating thing on the still-raw construction site for me -- and stick with me on this -- was an engineering detail, which would be later hidden by concrete. At certain heights, major structural columns revealed steel valves or vessels, with thin steel plates stacked laterally in between. To explain their significance, I'll have to go slow and start at the beginning.


An adjustable 'vessel' with removable steel plates is used to off-set warping and sinking anticipated during construction

The Netherlands, as is commonly known, is largely an artificial land mass. Over generations, the Dutch have willed it into being from boggy and unpromising foundations. The ground that Wilhelminapier sits on is of particularly poor quality, and De Rotterdam is no small load to bear. Van Casteren had brightly offered a bizarre metric to translate the building's gargantuan scale: the mass of De Rotterdam weighs 'as much as a traffic jam from Rotterdam all the way to Milan'. Therefore, it is expected to sink, and not by a few hairs.

At my incredulous behest, van Casteren explains that most of the movement happens during construction and settles by the time the build is complete. In order to compensate for eventual sag, the structure is, in effect, ratcheted up too 'tight'. As it settles, the above-mentioned steel plates are removed, allowing for the changes. A similar system is used to balance the cantilevered overhangs of high-rise blocks. In oversimplified terms, these adjustments resemble the classic magician's tablecloth trick. Except here, several centimetre-thick slices of steel are whipped out from within the structural bones of the building, even as it stands.

Koolhaas zips through the rush hour traffic, as the sun's rays begin to lengthen. In the centre of town, OMA are at work on the Stadskantoor, or City Hall, another publicly funded project intended to improve civic services -- but that's a story for another day. Across the Erasmus bridge, the hulking form of De Rotterdam reappears, and with it the recollection of the municipal agreements and tablecloth-tricks that ensuring its stability. Now the building seems like a glassy game of Jenga, its blocks laid on shifting ground. This is OMA's representation of precarious capital indeed: perfect, transparently legible and writ large across the waterfront.



Read what architectural historian, professor of design and long-time Rotterdam resident Wouter Vanstiphout has to say about De Rotterdam here.



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