Rotterdam, City of Architecture

The past, the present, the future

Rotterdam Central Station - foto Iris van den Broek


The story of Rotterdam – its history, the bombing and the reconstruction – says a lot about the fertile conditions for flourishing architecture. After all, if nothing’s left, why not build on a grand and compelling scale? The courage that was and is shown – in design and the granting of commissions to architects – can be seen everywhere in Rotterdam.

An inner-city packed with diverse architectural styles

The destruction of Rotterdam’s inner city in 1940 resulted in the patchwork of architectural styles that you encounter today. Here, icons of the Nieuwe Bouwen style (Sonneveld House, Van Nelle Factory) and typical post-war architecture (Het Industriegebouw, Rotterdamsche Bank) dazzle alongside ultramodern residential towers (De Rotterdam, Zalmhaventoren and The CoolTower). It is this variety that tells the story of the city. The city where, on a stroll through the centre, you will also come across monuments such as the City Hall, the Laurenskerk and the Schielandshuis: relics of pre-war Rotterdam. And the 45-metre-high Witte Huis (White House), built in 1898 – Europe’s first skyscraper – also survived the bombing. The Markthal, next to the Laurenskerk, tells its own story and heralds a new era in Rotterdam.

Rotterdam was a progressive city in terms of architecture even before the bombing. The city was at the forefront of innovation, particularly in the field of housing. This included the Bergpolderflat by Van Tijen (the first Dutch gallery flat), the Cube Houses by Piet Blom and the Justus van Effenblok by Michiel Brinkman, which for the first time included all kinds of shared facilities for residents and a revolutionary ‘upper street’. The aforementioned Nieuwe Bouwen style also made its appearance in Rotterdam before the war, under the influence of the Bauhaus school and movement. Its principles? The search for simplicity and functionality. City architect J.J.P. Oud (of De Unie, among others) shaped the bond between Bauhaus and Rotterdam. His social housing projects in Spangen, the Kiefhoek, the Witte Dorp and Hoek van Holland caught the attention of German architects, and his lecture in 1923 marked the beginning of intensive contact between the German school and the Nieuwe Bouwen architectural movement in Rotterdam.

The Van Nelle Factory (1925), which can now be visited in combination with the Chabot Museum, is considered the main industrial monument of this movement and has been on the Unesco World Heritage List since 2014. Many architects later reverted to the pre-war renewal of Rotterdam’s social housing. One of the first projects by architect Francine Houben (Mecanoo) is a good example of this. Back in 1989, she designed the Ringvaartplasbuurt-Oost as a new type of garden city, in which gardens and shared outdoor space played the leading role. In doing so, she elaborated on the progressive garden villages that arose in Rotterdam at the time, of which Tuindorp Vreewijk is the best known. The idea behind it was to create good and green living environments for Rotterdam’s workers. You can still see it in the neighbourhood, and at the Vreewijk museum house, you can step back into Rotterdam’s past. The green spaces that Mecanoo reserved in 1989 were rare at the time but earned this project the very first sustainability award.

Spacious Rotterdam

By breaking with the past and opting for a wide layout and modern architecture during reconstruction, Rotterdam acquired its present, spacious look. Light, air and space became the motto. This can be seen at the Lijnbaan, the Netherlands’ first car-free shopping promenade. And also at the music venue (and national monument) De Doelen, the Groothandelsgebouw, the Euromast and De Bijenkorf, which also saw the light of day at this time. Of course, a counter-reaction to this was inevitable. That came in the 1970s when more small houses were built in the city according to the ‘human’ scale. The Cube Houses mentioned earlier are the result of this. In the next phase, Rotterdam took to the skies: high-rise buildings broke through and steadily formed the city’s now characteristic skyline. The arrival of the Erasmus Bridge brought more and more activity – and new buildings – to the Kop van Zuid, with Montevideo, the Maastoren and New Orleans. Gradually, Rotterdam Zuid became a fully-fledged part of the city and the Erasmus Bridge and the monumental Maas Tunnel became must-sees and gateways to new developments in the city. Such as on Katendrecht with Theatre Walhalla, Fenix I, the Fenix Food Factory and the many cultural programmes. And with all the developments in the Afrikaanderwijk and Hart van Zuid. Too many to mention!

We continue to innovate!

The urge to innovate is still alive and kicking in Rotterdam! A lot is happening in the city’s Central District, for example. Architectural firm ZUS saved the Schieblock from demolition, transforming it into a vibrant multi-tenanted business centre with the DakAkker, a rooftop farm. Via the bright yellow Luchtsingel – the bridge connecting the city centre with Noord – you can walk to the Hofbogen air park on top of the former train station. The entire stretch of De Hofbogen is being transformed into a green and lush city park at a height of almost two kilometres! In the same neighbourhood, work is underway on the new development of ZOHO (the Zomerhofkwartier), where residents, entrepreneurs and makers will soon be living, working and socialising together.

The sounds of construction can still be heard, and in the past decade Rotterdam has gained new icons, such as Rotterdam Central Station, the Markthal, De Rotterdam, Het Timmerhuis and the Boijmans Van Beuningen Depot. Rotterdam is never finished. The construction cranes are also an integral part of the skyline. From Nieuwe Bouwen and reconstruction to high-rise buildings, the city has now entered the phase of innovative and climate-adaptive architecture. After all, as cities worldwide struggle with the consequences of climate change, sitting still and doing nothing is not an option. Initiating, learning, anticipating and innovating seem to be in the DNA of the people of Rotterdam. Where can you see that? One place where Rotterdam’s green development is already in full swing is the Rijnhaven: the testing ground for floating construction, with the spectacular Floating Office (by Powerhouse Company) as an attraction for architecture enthusiasts. The building is made entirely of wood, self-sufficient, sustainable and floating! Meanwhile, a floating city park is rising around it, with lawns, trees, plants and a real city beach. On a hot summer day, you can dive into the waters of the Maas River! Floating houses (Havenlofts) and a Floating Farm have also been realised in Rotterdam. Water is not seen as an obstacle but is utilised because Rotterdammers simply consider it a different kind of surface to build on.

Climate-adaptive design

Work is also underway on climate adaptive measures at other outdoor locations in the city. With water plazas, wadis, green roofs and less pavement, for example, the city can better withstand heat, drought and heavy rainfall. By consistently and generously investing in innovation, Rotterdam is one of the front runners in the field of climate adaptation. The Hofbogenpark, as mentioned above, will also be designed in a climate-adaptive way by DE URBANISTEN, DS landscape architects and de Dakdokters. It will provide maximum cooling, offer shelter and absorb CO2 and water. This park is one of seven urban projects in which Rotterdam is committed to a greener, more sustainable living environment.

Although this sustainable objective seems to be at odds with the aim of building no fewer than 50,000 homes by 2040, Rotterdam architects like to make a virtue of necessity. Firms such as MVRDV, Powerhouse, Superuse Studios, LOLA landscape and Mei architects and planners are working with considerable ambition. Not ‘just’ sustainable, but regenerative building is the goal: not just limiting the damage of construction, but adding value at all levels. SAWA illustrates this design attitude. SAWA is being built on the Lloyd Pier in Rotterdam and is sustainable; it’s made of wood, which means that it stores CO2 instead of emitting it. It is circular and even demountable; the materials can be reused. A well-thought-out green concept with private outdoor spaces and a communal vegetable garden has also been developed together with an ecologist. Besides building out of necessity or in imitation of a prevailing style, Rotterdam is now resolutely building a beautiful, green and healthy residential city. After all, greening and sustainability make for a more pleasant living environment.

Architecture of the future

The architectural diversity invites new architects and designers to contribute. The positive spiral of stimulation and inspiration logically continues into the future. The first signs of this are already visible. In line with the idea of sustainability, various historic buildings are being transformed. They are being given a new purpose and, with that, partly a new image, with an addition or extension that depicts the fusion of Rotterdam’s history and innovation beautifully. This applies to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, the old Post Office on the Coolsingel and also to the Fenix Loodsen II. This is where FENIX will be realised, a place where art, history and stories come together in the place where the emigrants used to arrive and depart. After an intensive renovation, a spectacular structure and viewpoint will be added to the pre-war warehouse, which in itself is worth a visit.

BlueCity and M4H: breeding grounds for innovation

Rotterdam is tackling the climate challenge with the same fearlessness and experimental drive with which it built its inner city. Architects, designers and scientists are encouraged to work together on innovative ideas. For example, the former tropical swimming paradise Tropicana has been transformed into BlueCity, a model city for the circular (blue) economy. It offers workshops and laboratories to start-ups such as Waterweg, which develops permeable tiles, and BlueBlocks, which produces bio-based construction materials. The old docks M4H and RDM, which together form Rotterdam’s new makers’ district, are also home to many innovations on the cutting edge of art, design and technology.

Artist Joep van Lieshout also proves that creatives are always given the space and opportunity to innovate here. In collaboration with architect and developer Nanne de Ru (Powerhouse & RED Company), he is building BRUTUS in the M4H district. This cultural centre of at least 7000 m2 houses exhibition spaces, a labyrinth, a place for workshops and education, studios, living and working spaces for artists and an outdoor sculpture garden. This ‘artist-driven playground’ puts ‘makers’ centre stage and guarantees them a place, regardless of gentrification. That too is a sustainable idea because it contributes to the preservation of Rotterdam’s creative and innovative mentality.

Explore the city yourself with the brochure Discover Rotterdam or join an architecture tour with UrbanGuides. Either way, don’t miss out on these 10 (mostly architectural) must-sees!

Discover the Rotterdam Architecture Month (June)

Discover the Rotterdam Architecture Month (June)

Rotterdam is known for its world port, unique architecture, and impressive skyline. The reconstruction after the devastation of 1940 resulted in a patchwork of innovative building styles. It’s no surprise that the largest architecture festival in the Netherlands is held in Rotterdam. The festival focuses on the future of the city and takes place every year in June. Each edition of Architecture Month chooses a new location for its festival heart.

The Markthal (market hall) with the fresh market on Binnenrotte, which you can visit on Tuesdays and Saturdays - foto Iris van den Broek The Markthal (market hall) with the fresh market on Binnenrotte, which you can visit on Tuesdays and Saturdays - foto Iris van den Broek
The market hall with the weekly market on Binnenrotte, which you can visit on Tuesdays and Saturdays.