Dutch city is keen on continually remaking itself



The Cube homes designed by architect Piet Blom.


Walking out of Rotterdam’s central rail station, you have to weave your way through a giant building site just to catch a tram or reach a cafe.

Is this any way to arrive in a city celebrating a year of architecture that aims to showcase its urban landscape? Well, actually it is.

Wrecking balls and scaffolding are as much a part of this city as the kinked pylon of the Erasmus Bridge, which towers over the River Maas, and the water taxis and freight barges that ply its murky waters.

“If a building doesn’t work, we tear it down and build a new one,” said Ossip van Duivenbode, a Rotterdam resident, architecture student and guide.

The Second World War also played a role. On May 14, 1940, a Nazi bombardment flattened buildings and sparked an inferno that destroyed most of the city centre, creating an architects’ playground during postwar reconstruction.

“The bombing was good for the architects,” said Van Duivenbode. “They said, ‘Finally, we can realize our dreams.’“

The result is a Dutch city totally different from the Golden Age houses that teeter like drunken sailors over Amsterdam’s canals or the stately palaces and parliament of The Hague. While most of the country’s cities are resolutely low-rise, Rotterdam reaches for the sky.

The Kop van Zuid, on the banks of the Maas river that carves the city in two, is known as Manhattan On The Maas. Its towering office and apartment blocks flanking historic brownstone warehouses have been turned into swanky homes.

The mix of buildings that survived the bombing, and modern residential and office blocks like Renzo Piano’s “leaning” KPN tower, combine to make Rotterdam a magnet for building buffs.

And, this being the Netherlands, the best way to see it is by bike. Picking up rented green bikes near central station, a group of reporters recently set off, led by Van Duivenbode, to see the city’s architectural highlights.

One of the first stops was De Unie, a cafe with a Mondrianesque facade designed in 1924 by Dutch architect J.J.P. Oud. The original building, a classic example of the Dutch movement De Stijl, was destroyed in the bombing, and a reconstruction was built in 1986.

Bas Czerwinski/associated press

A woman walks in front of the towering office of Nationale Nederlanden in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

As part of its “City Of Architecture” year that has just kicked off, Rotterdam has launched a website,www.rotterdam2007.nl, with descriptions and anecdotes about 40 of the city’s most interesting buildings.

The strangest buildings in the city must be the Cube homes designed by Amsterdam architect Piet Blom in 1978. Intended to look like a futuristic forest, the neighbourhood’s homes are all yellow, white and grey cubes perched at an angle.

Cycling over the Willemsbrug across the Maas and turning right you reach Wilhelminapier on the Kop van Zuid. The street could be renamed Pritzker-pier, in honour of the prestigious architecture prize.

First there is the KPN tower by Piano (Pritzker Prize winner in 1998), and at the other end of the street is the World Port Centre by Britain’s 1999 Pritzker winner Sir Norman Foster.

Between the two, construction is planned for The Rotterdam, a multifunctional tower block featuring apartments, a cinema, restaurants and a hotel.

It has been designed by Rotterdam-based 2000 Pritzker winner Rem Koolhaas.

Piano’s tower features a facade that leans forward at a six-degree angle and is propped up by a giant stake. The facade is covered with green lights that can be programmed to create patterns and messages so it can communicate with the city.


  • For events during Rotterdam’s year of architecture, visit www.rotterdam2007.nl.

  • Rotterdam can be easily reached by train from any city in the Netherlands and from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

  • Bicycle tours can be organized through Rotterdam ByCycle, which is based next to Central Station; www.rotterdambycycle.nl or phone 011-31-10-465-2228. Booking recommended.

  • Guided architectural tours can be booked through Rotterdam ArchiGuides; www.rotterdam-archiguides.nl or 011-31-10-433-2231. The company organizes tours by bus, bike or on foot.

  • If you want to sleep in a piece of Rotterdam’s architectural heritage, try the Hotel New York, www.hotelnewyork.nl/eng or the Bilderberg Parkhotel, www.bilderberg.nl/hotels/parkhotel/.