Between 1940 – 1943 Rotterdam was throughly bombed by the nazi army to become the worst damaged city during the WWII. The city looses over 26 000 homes and 6 000 other buildings and receives the name of “stad zonder hart” (dutch for “city without a heart”). In recent years Rotterdam has been praised as “the city of the future” and “world class center of architectural innovation”.
It is fascinating to observe how some places, such as Mostar or Berlin, which were once torn by war, never really recover, while others seem to thrive and find new life from the ashes. But how does a city go from “heartless” to an architectural gem?
In the second half of the 20th and the beginning of 21st century, Rotterdam found itself in a very special situation. The mass destruction and devastation brought an overwhelming demand for new housing, while at the same time, the well developing economy of the Netherlands provided opportunities for investment. Much of the visual past of Rotterdam was gone, but nevertheless the canvas wasn’t blank. Unlike booming contemporary cities with no context, but financial possibilities and large demands, such as Kuala Lumpur or Dubai, which are eager for progress and architectural shine, Rotterdam still had its past in its people. The culture, sensibility and identity that has been fostered for hundreds of years still laid in the place. Famous european architects were invited and a brave new urban plan was drafted. Thus the most exciting architectural playground of post-modern Europe was opened.
The city was now not only hopeful, it was also ambitious and had started building up expectations that needed to be faced.
Walking through Rotterdam today tells a different story. The utopian architectural setting at the start of the 2000s is interrupted by the very same factor that seemingly allowed for it. Its buildings are new, but unimaginative. They are conservative and dull, but too large to ignore. They demand attention, but lack sophistication and depth. It was because of the financial prosperity that they exist, but at the same time it is only monetary value they are built for – square meters in profitable area, extended views over the city and an easily recognizable branding. Buildings that might be good for a company, but surely not pleasant for the city and its citizens. Rotterdam disappoints mainly because it was meant to inspire. A fertile soil pushed too far, too fast. A harmonious urban environment has buildings that look after each other and make place for social interaction within themselves. It grows slowly and as it does, the city evolves and each new building enriches it, instead of competing for the spotlight of the city skyline.
P.S.: Of course there are some good pieces of architecture there too. The curious Cube Houses by Piet Blom are still the most innovative sight in the city since 1977. The Central Train Station by Benthem Crouwel Architects, MVSA Architects and West 8 and is a truly fantastic building with probably the best acoustics of a train station anywhere. The entire promenade leading to Rotterdam Centraal has a vibe of a city of the future in the best sence.
This article is part of a series on architectural city portraits. For more similar stories see the top menu called “Places”.