When it comes to architecture, few cities are as bold and innovative as Rotterdam. That is due not only to the many celebrity architects designing spectacular buildings there, but also to the city’s readiness to experiment through architecture with new, more sustainable ways of life – on land and on water.
- Marie-Sophie Müller
There is a saying in Rotterdam which goes: shirts are sold with the sleeves already rolled up. In the Netherlands’ second-largest city, nobody likes to rest on their laurels – people are too busy looking and building towards a better future. That is something of a tradition in the city which boasts Europe’s largest port. For when the old city centre, with its artistic brick houses, had been destroyed by German aerial bombardment in the spring of 1940, there remained two options: restoration or reinvention. The people of Rotterdam decided on the latter course – with the result that, over the last seven decades, the city has become an inhabitable architectural laboratory. Designs which elsewhere would end up in a drawer as interesting intellectual exercises are put into practice here.
Over the last 70 years, Rotterdam has become a habitable architectural laboratory. Designs which elsewhere would end up in a drawer as interesting intellectual exercises are put into practice here.
And whereas in most major cities there appears to be consensus on what good architecture should look like, Rotterdam remains flexible, adopting utterly contrasting styles – often simultaneously and in close proximity. A recent example can be found in the Laurenskwartier, which boasts both the Timmerhuis by Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and the Markthal, designed by architectural partners MVRDV. They share a common concept, however, which is to design not just a building but a modern approach to living that combines public life and private space. In the case of the Timmerhuis that means a veritable pick’n’mix of units, including shops, a museum, restaurants, local government offices and private apartments. The Markthal, meanwhile, combines living with shopping and gastronomy under a single gigantic arched gateway.
A cloud of steel and glass
This approach has breathed new life into neighbourhoods at risk of dying after dark, because people only ever came here to shop or work. At the same time, the sale of private apartments helps cap the cost of such ambitious building projects, thereby rendering them possible in the first place. The new Timmerhuis is a pile of pixelated glass cubes in various shades of grey, contained within a white steel skeleton and forming a unit bordered on two sides by the old city hall building, the Stadstimmerhuis of 1954. The cubes are piled upwards into two residential tower blocks, almost ephemeral in appearance, as if the entire construct might float off at any time and fill the next vacant building lot.
This transient appearance reflects the building’s modern internal organisation: a car-share system for electric cars in partnership with BMW enables residents to do without vehicles of their own; the same principle is applied to the city hall offices, where with just 1,200 desks for 1,800 employees, workspace has been reinvented. With many employees now working part-time or from home, the approach works without a problem.
Building on water
And if you find that revolutionary, the people of Rotterdam are quick to offer a lesson in innovation. The latest obsession of the city planners, engineers and architects is termed “floating urban development” – in other words, building on water. In addition to the transparent floating event and exhibition pavilion in the city’s Rijnhaven and adjacent Bobbing Forest created in March, the years ahead will see the construction of two aquatic hotels, private housing in the Nassauhaven and the Floating Farm, a dairy farm built on the waters of the Nieuwe Maas river. Peter van Wingerden of Beladon, the office responsible for developing the Floating Farm, feels that expansion into or onto the water is merely a logical step: “The Dutch have been living with water for hundreds of years.”
But the Floating Farm is not just about land reclamation: its primary concern is to bring production closer to the consumer. “If fresh milk can be produced at your front door, it shortens the logistics chain, protects the environment and literally brings city dwellers closer to agriculture,” says van Wingerden.
Three-tier floating farm
In Merve4Heaven, the floating high-tech farm launched in March, Beladon draws on two areas of typically Dutch expertise: a seafaring tradition and agriculture. The floating farm is on three levels and self-sustaining, making use of rainwater filters and solar energy to produce fodder, manure and milk in a closed-loop process. With this project, the Dutch designers were also thinking beyond Rotterdam to other large cities situated strategically close to water, such as New York. People there have already shown interest in the pilot project here in Rotterdam, says van Wingerden: “Cities get bigger, and most large ones lie on rivers or bodies of water. So why not exploit the fact?”
For the architectural partners at WHIM, Rotterdam’s delta is not only a potential construction site, it also supplies the building materials. Architect Ramon Knoester uses plastic waste from all over Europe that washes up in the Rhine, Maas and Schelde rivers, and which would otherwise drift out into the North Sea, never to be seen again. He then moulds it into floating construction material. In autumn 2016, a Recycled Park made out of these plastic building modules will be created in Rotterdam’s old harbour. The hexagonal modules are designed to enable vegetation to grow on their upper surface, similar to roof gardens. The underside lies in the water and has an uneven structure that allows aquatic plants to attach to it. In this way, what was once a pile of water-borne rubbish is turned into a platform for new vegetation.
What makes the people of Rotterdam so accepting of ideas which to our ears sound like pipe dreams or science fiction? Perhaps it is because when the city was destroyed there was virtually nothing left to look back to. But it may also be to do with Rotterdam’s long seafaring tradition. For seafarers are experts at finding creative solutions to changing circumstances and are well aware of the dangers inherent in water – as well as its potential.