Rotterdam's architecture and culture


Its skyline may seem bonkers, but Rotterdam’s spirit of ‘can do’ makes it a haven for creativity, writes Veronica Simpson


Words by Veronica Simpson

On my first visit to Rotterdam, five years ago, I spent the first two days in shock; perhaps not surprisingly, as I was staying in a cheap hostel in the Piet Blom-designed Cube Houses – two huge cuboid apartment structures clad in yellow tiles, tilted on their axes, with the interiors of each structure a similarly topsyturvy experience. This building was bonkers enough, but MVRDV’s Markethall was under construction nearby, a giant, sky-scraping arch of apartments, framing an indoor market.

While Rotterdam does have an old town, the central/riverfront area I was staying in was almost all recently built, having been bombed badly during the Second World War. Subsequent construction appears to have evolved along bizarre, ‘anything goes’ principles: cheap 1980s office blocks next to giant Meccano-esque structures of steel and tinted glass, and buildings as inverted L-shapes, their upper storeys propped up on skinny stilts – all carved up by huge multi-lane freeways, occasionally dotted with bizarre public art. With no obvious ‘heart’ to the city’s modern, gridded layout, I found myself wondering: does Rotterdam actually have any kind of planning system?

On subsequent visits, I have discovered that indeed it does, but it also has a spirit of openness and innovation fostered by the many creative people who moved into the cheap housing and studio space the city offered during the 1980s, in an attempt to counteract decades in the doldrums during which its backstreets, derelict harbour buildings and transport hubs became a haven for all kinds of antisocial or criminal behaviours. With plenty of space for squatting and experimentation, young artists, architects and designers took up the call, and their influence is tangible in the Rotterdam you see today: from the Luchtsingel Bridge – a timber pedestrian bridge constructed over a motorway, which was crowdfunded and designed under the stewardship of local architects Zones Urbaines Sensibles – to the shimmering, eye-boggling skyscraper De Rotterdam by resident architecture superbrand OMA, which perches on Rotterdam Zuid, a rapidly regenerating dock site linked to the city centre by Ben van Berkel’s famous Erasmus Bridge.

A primary example of the fruits that can emerge from the city’s artist-led approach is Joep van Lieshout, founder of Atelier van Lieshout (AVL). On a balmy summer’s day in 2019 he is happy to lead a bunch of curious journalists around the vast former grain warehouse that is now his studio. A tall, broadshouldered, shaggy-haired man, his anecdotes reveal much inventiveness, mischief and restless energy. He came to Rotterdam in the 1980s, he says, because they had a good art school. And he’s never left, partly thanks to the atmosphere of benign neglect that percolated through the city’s streets during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1987, he squatted a building next door to this warehouse – a much smaller studio. ‘We went to the city and said we will look after it,’ he says. ‘They forgot about us for 30 years.’

Over that time his work and fortunes have bloomed. He tells us about a sculpture at the front of the building, called The Domesticator, which he agrees, ‘looks like a man having intercourse with some kind of animal… We wanted to exhibit this in front of the Louvre, two years ago. They said “no way”. So it went in front of the Pompidou. It’s about how people try to influence nature and the world: first the plough, then the wheel, now new domestication goes on, with genetic modification, big data.’ This work, he says, ‘is to make us aware of the ethics and the challenges of this new technology’.

His art practice is ‘very much engaged with today’s challenges’. One of which is undoubtedly how to create cities that remain humane, engaging, egalitarian, as their population increases. To this end, he has purchased the entire site on which his studio sits. Using his sculptural sensibilities and with an ambitious arts-led programme, he has come up with a model for this development: The Brutus (see case study Laocoön). With any luck – and €150m of funding – he’ll see this become reality.

The homegrown arts and architecture scene is embedded in the fabric of the city, not just in iconic buildings by the city’s leading practices, such as OMA (which also designed the new city hall, the Timmerhus, completed in 2015) or MVRDV, or displays of huge, blobby public sculptures and liberally strewn graffiti.

Rotterdam-based arts consultancy Mothership was responsible for producing a spectacular artwork – the city’s (possibly Europe’s) biggest – to animate the vast underside of MVRDV’s Markethall arch. Designed by Amsterdam based artists Arno & Iris, this 11,000 sq m work, titled Horn of Plenty, helped to draw eight million visitors to the venue in its first year.

Mothership’s founder, Jeroen Everaert, has all kinds of new schemes on the go, including designs for a Floating Solar Park, a rippling platform of 3,770 solar panels shaped like a gigantic wave, which he hopes to float in the harbour near the New York Hotel for at least a couple of years. Not only will it generate energy for the surrounding homes, he says, but it is designed to be walked or jumped on, so that it could become a space for play and leisure. The project team has the technology, the engineering and sustainability partners on board, but they have not yet secured the funding to make this a reality.

Not for nothing is Rotterdam’s logo Make it Happen. It seems to be a city of dreamers. The city’s head urban planner, Mattijs van Ruijven, says: ‘We like innovation in our city. We like to keep our old warehouses, for example, and build something on top.’ He references an impressive new housing project by Mei Architects, which layers new homes on top of previously derelict warehouses, Fenix Lofts (see case study). ‘We like this mix of old and new,’ he says. ‘We don’t want to be a city that looks like every other city.’

Tourism is part of the growth plan, of course. ‘We are building to make the city more attractive for people living here and also more attractive for visitors – more international visitors. This brings new challenges,’ he says. One of these challenges is flagged up the day after my arrival, when my morning stroll from the NHow hotel (in the aforementioned OMA skyscraper) is interrupted by the sight of a gigantic cruise liner, parked up along the waterfront beside me, seemingly as wide as De Rotterdam is tall. But while these floating cities, these temples to tourist indolence, are an eyesore in Venice (I have fondly dubbed them ‘the fatbergs’), they seem weirdly in proportion here; though whether Rotterdam’s streets and museums can absorb the thousands of tourists who flood from their sleek flanks any better than Venice is another matter.

Aware of how international tourism has tipped the balance in Holland’s most visited city – Amsterdam – to the point where it impacts very negatively on locals’ quality of life, Rotterdam’s focus is on ‘good growth,’ says van Ruijven, listing the qualities they have embedded in their plan, among them: inclusiveness, greenery, energy efficiency, productivity and density. Along these lines, over the past decade, the city has invested substantially in infrastructure – for example, a spectacular, cycle and pedestrian-friendly new station Rotterdam Central, designed by West8.

Another major new asset for improving mobility in Rotterdam is the fleet of yellow and black water taxis, zipping along the river and around the smaller canals (there are over 50 waterfront docks). These were introduced in response to public demand: Rotterdammers apparently saw how fun and efficient the proprietary water taxi service was for guests of the iconic New York Hotel, and suggested that all Rotterdammers could benefit from waterborne transport. The water taxis have a flat fare structure, to keep the scheme accessible.

There has also been major investment in public realm, says van Ruijven: ‘To become more attractive we wanted to introduce the idea of the city lounge. It was about being able to be in your city centre, stay for longer, walk or sit at pavement cafes and bars.’ You see this most visibly around Witte de Withstraat, a route lined with bars and cafes that connects many of the city’s impressive cultural institutions.

Density is also part of the growth strategy – that means new housing placed in existing neighbourhoods, prioritising mixed use schemes or investing in amenities that enrich opportunities for their communities. For example, OMA’s forthcoming 63,000-seater Feyenoord Stadium, billed as the largest football stadium in the Netherlands, is situated near the riverfront in Rotterdam Zuid, with huge efforts being taken to integrate this new destination into its emerging neighbourhood, so as to enhance street life and boost the local economy.

You can see why people keep coming up with interesting proposals – many of them do get off the ground. And maybe that flags up one of the most important elements that makes Rotterdam what it is: diversity. We are told by van Ruijven that 50% of Rotterdammers are not from Holland. What’s more, a few years back, the city appointed a Moroccan mayor – a first for Europe. Arriving barefoot as a 15-year-old, Ahmed Aboutaleb studied engineering, ended up working in the Ministry of Health, and has become a powerful evangelist for multiculturalism. In all, the city seems infused with valuable qualities of entrepreneurialism and tolerance. Qualities we could all do with more of these days. Long may that spirit last.


Case Study
Laocoön

Artists have the power to show us new ways of visualising the world as it could be – for better or worse. Very rarely do they get to make those visions happen. Joep van Lieshout, one of Holland’s most notable sculptors, was lucky enough to find free studio space in a former dock area long since fallen into decline. Decades later, with his fame and fortune substantially enhanced, and now leading a studio of 20 named Atelier van Lieshout (AVL), he bought not just a large grain silo next door but the whole site. He saw an opportunity for his biggest venture yet: to revitalise the entire area around his studio, turning it into a place of culture and cultural production, funded by the sale of 400 apartments in two mid-rise and one high-rise (120m-high) blocks.

The regenerating dockland is now renamed M4H, while AVL’s scheme, called Laocoön, includes a museum, exhibition and project spaces, a park, the aforementioned three blocks of apartments, an art hotel and restaurants. The apartments will be ‘market rate’, he says, although the artist studios will be subsidised.

He first conceived the idea in 2008, in a work he humorously entitled Planus Maximus Megalomanium Epidemea (big megalomaniac epidemic plan), then created the AVL Mundo Foundation to help make it happen. The foundation itself has already set up several public initiatives, including eight artist residencies and 20 exhibitions.

Now with a studio team of 20, which includes architects and makers of all kinds, van Lieshout and his team have come up with the designs. ‘I’ve got young architects to assist and make drawings. At a certain moment I will have to connect with a real architecture studio,’ he admitted, while showing interested journalists around the gleaming white model of the scheme, in his vast studio – a former grain silo, complete with intact funnels.

Most importantly, he needs £150m to build it. It has residential; it will have a ‘sort of museum’ too, but he says ‘I hate museum architecture’.

He is not a fan of fancy statement buildings by the likes of Frank Gehry, he says; he likes big, robust, industrial spaces. There will be a visitable archive for his own sprawling works, and he is thinking of having a glazed wall as part of his studio so people can see the art being made. While the concept is in part a provocation, he is deadly serious about trying to make it happen. He adds: ‘The name of my development company is Caligula. My business card is covered in blood spatters.’ His hope is that the scheme could be completed within four years.


Case Study
Fenix I Loft Apartments

The Holland America Line has left quite a legacy in Rotterdam. The shipping firm that transported three million migrants – and millions of tonnes of goods – between Europe and America before, during and after both world wars is still visible in the city’s most interesting, semi-regenerated area of Rotterdam Zuid. It is visible in the New York Hotel, which now occupies the handsome 1916 building that used to be its offices, and in the warehouses across the wharf from it, in Katendrecht, which have been left unprogrammed for decades to spontaneously emerge as hipster bars and restaurants. One of these has been transformed as an aspirational, mixed-use apartment complex with wide waterfront vistas. Mei Architects won the competition to take this historic warehouse – at 360m long, the biggest warehouse in the world when built in the 1920s – and transform it into Fenix Lofts.

 This 45,000 sq m structure is filled with 200 apartments, three dance companies, and a mixture of food and beverage and retail outlets along its ground floor. The original structure is a mix of a 1950s repair to Second World War bomb damage and extension added to the original 1920s architecture. The concrete frame and windows of these structures have been retained, and a ‘steel table’ inserted around them to allow for the construction of several floors of staggered apartments on top of the building.

Image Credit: Wax Architectural Visualizations

Mei’s design splits the scheme down the middle to create a street through the building at ground-floor level, with an open, atrium staircase above so you can see the street activity around the building every time you pass through it. Where the old structure meets the new, Mei has left the edges raw and exposed to reinforce that connection between the eras and lives of the building. The three dance studios occupy the long glazed storey that is sandwiched between these levels.

The load bearing is all on the building’s steel columns, leaving the timber frame construction of the interiors almost completely flexible, allowing tenants and buyers to specify the floor area and room layout. Of those seen during a site visit, bedrooms are generally placed on the inside with living spaces around the edges, to make the most of the panoramic views over the river.

There are multiple roof terraces, while every level enjoys wide balconies on the outside, and open balconies around the interior circulation areas, which include white metal plant housings designed to create a lush interior courtyard. Irrigation of plants is facilitated by slim pipes that distribute rainwater to every planter. The apartments are a mix of social rent, affordable and market rate.

Client Heijmans Vastgoed
Architect Mei Architects and Planners
Area 45,000 sq m (approximately 8,500 sq m commercial, cultural and culinary; 9,000 sq m parking – 225 places – and 23,000 sq m loft apartments).
Cost €48m
Completion Autumn 2019
Contractor Heijmans Woningbouw
Structural engineer ABT Delft
MEP (installations) Techniplan
Building physics LBP|Sight


Case Study
Depot Boijmans

Museum Boijmans van Beuningen is Rotterdam’s foremost art institution. Established 170 years ago, it has a collection of 151,000 works – from medieval art to surrealists, pop art to 20th century contemporary furniture and fashion. But in common with so many museums of its stature, as little as eight per cent of the collection can be shown at any one time. Prompted by a major flooding incident that flagged up the inadequacy of current storage facilities, director Sjarel Ex came up with the idea of creating a brand new, state-of-the-art, above-ground storage facility (after all, basements are always vulnerable when your city is six metres below sea level).

He secured the backing of the city and its citizens by making the facility open and accessible to the public. MVRDV won the competition to design this new and innovative space – the world’s first publicly accessible art depot – with a mirrorball of a building, set right next to the original museum in the city’s Museumpark. With other leading cultural venues around it, as well as precious city centre greenery, MVRDV’s masterstroke was to diminish the volume of this large 15,541 sq m building by cladding it in mirrored panels, which wrap around its voluptuous cupped shape. That way the building reflects the park and the city back on itself, and keeps daylight inside the building to the conservation-standard minimum.

A recessed doorway, concealed at night, is revealed during the day, offering visitors two routes into and through the building: either you buy a ticket and tour the different depot areas, all specifically climate-controlled for the artwork enclosed, or enter the public elevator (for free) and head up to the rooftop garden, where new vistas over the city will be enjoyed in a public park that should incorporate at least some of the mature birch trees that will have been removed for construction.

Visitors to the depot will be able to see thousands of previously hidden paintings, sculptures and objects, visit conservation workshops, and learn more about the crucial behind-the-scenes work that goes into the stewardship of a collection.

A gallery space on the sixth floor will also expand the museum’s exhibition opportunities – a vital resource while the original building is closed for an extensive seven-year refurbishment.

Clients Municipality of Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Stichting de Verre Bergen Foundation
Architects MVRDV
Area 15,541 sq m
Cost €223.5m
Opening 2021


Case Study
Zones Urbaines Sensibles

Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman began Zones Urbaines Sensibles (ZUS) in 2001, combining architecture and landscape design. Already recognised for their innovative and resourceful approach in 2007, when they won the Maaskant Prize for young architects, their signature project emerged when they started squatting one of the huge, concrete office buildings, the Schieblock, near Rotterdam central station in 2011 while the new station was still a building site. Acting as property guardians, the duo, along with a team of like-minded creatives, has slowly repaired and taken over the entire building, turning it into a ‘cultural collective’. In 2015, they completed a crowd-funded pedestrian bridge, the Luchtsingel (which translates as air canal), a 400ft timber structure to link this block – right next to a busy, multi-lane highway – to the surrounding streets. Having secured funding from over 8,000 individuals, the city council stepped in to help with funding and make it happen.

Image Credit: Iris Van Den Broek

From a no-go zone a decade ago, this quarter has become one of Rotterdam’s liveliest; the entire block is now occupied and includes an art gallery, Annabel’s nightclub, a ground-floor beer garden, and a rooftop farm that has its own destination vegetarian restaurant, Op Het Dak. The title of an exhibition ZUS mounted in the gallery, Architecture of Appropriation, could well double up as its primary ethos. The firm states: ‘We are intensely interested in alternative development methods, in particular in relation to ownership. How can we ensure an honest division of living and working spaces today?’

The act of squatting and reviving an unloved building is seen as an important antidote to the urban slide towards privatization and corporate ownership. In the Schieblock and adjacent Delftsehof, ZUS has formed a co-operative with as many diverse participants as possible, large and small. It is in discussions with Rotterdam’s architecture museum, Het Nieuwe Institute, about the possible establishment of a Ministry of Spatial Affairs, investigating enlightened planning strategies.

Practicing community-minded appropriation has drawn clients and projects from further afield, including a new public piazza, Station Square, in Eindhoven, and a new hybrid urban landscape next to Utrecht Central Station. ZUS has also consulted on a civic amenities and regeneration strategy for New Meadowlands in New Jersey. It is being brought into that most Dutch of all issues too, flooding infrastructure, designing a sea lock that is part landscape, part infrastructure, for Ijmuiden, and a high-water channel, Flood Gate Veessen-Wapenveld. ZUS received the Urban Intervention Award Berlin, in 2012, and was nominated for the Mies van der Rohe Award in 2017.








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