In 1980, photographer Peter Elenbaas first got onto a small plane for some aerial photography. Many more aerial photography excursions were to follow. Now he is releasing a book of aerial photos of Rotterdam.

At long last Peter Elenbaas has photographed the Netherlands’ second-largest city from the air and added it to his ‘Cloudless’ series. After more than a handful of books on Amsterdam, another one on Het Gooi, yet another one on the Wadden Isles and even one on the province of Groningen, Elenbaas finally decided to take his Canon EOS 1Ds MKIII and skim over the Meuse City in a small plane.

'I hardly know what I’m looking at'

“It was about time,” the 62-year-old photographer, who (obviously) lives in 020, agreed. The fact that the book Rotterdam onbewolkt (Cloudless Rotterdam) is seeing the light in the very year Rotterdam is commemorating 75 years’ worth of post-war reconstruction is great, but completely coincidental, as Elenbaas had been planning the project for years. “I used to have this prejudice that Rotterdam was a boring city which was great for drivers only. I hardly ever visited the place; I only drove through it when we visited my grandfather who lived near Rotterdam. I’ve changed my mind about the place since then.”

He flew over Rotterdam several times, for a total of twelve hours, taking off from Hilversum. He did not handle the control stick himself. “For one thing, I don’t hold a pilot’s licence, and for another, flying and photography are not a good combination, although I do know people who do both.” He received permission from Rotterdam The Hague Airport’s air traffic controllers to carry out the flights, and during each flight he tried to capture another part of the city.

Once he had come down to earth again, he would analyse the results. “I hardly know what I’m looking at, so once I get home, I’ll take my time to have a good look. After that I’ll really immerse myself in the architecture and the history of the city and of certain neighbourhoods.”

Great mixture of styles

Thanks to what he saw from the air, Elenbaas, who studied landscape architecture at Wageningen University for a brief period of time, has become considerably more enthusiastic about Rotterdam. “The high-rises, in particular, are very daring. I guess the lack of an old city centre which must not be ruined allowed all these tall buildings to be erected. But the result is a great mixture of architectural styles. Moreover, the towers on the banks of the Meuse make Rotterdam a city of international grandeur.”

Those buildings, Elenbaas says, would not have been erected in the Amsterdam city centre, which he calls an open-air museum where nothing has changed for centuries. One of the things which struck him from the air is that Rotterdam’s development has been the opposite of Amsterdam’s. Amsterdam has an old city centre surrounded by a layer of newer neighbourhoods, whereas Rotterdam has a new city centre surrounded by a layer of older neighbourhoods. “For instance, the older houses start right behind Rotterdam Central Station, in the Proveniers neighbourhood,” says Elenbaas. “The same thing happens in Zuid [the southern part of the city], with the garden villages, and in West [the western part of the city], with neighbourhoods such as Delfshaven.”

In actual fact, the only part of the city centre which he ended up finding boring was the bit between the Laurenskerk (St Lawrence’s Church) and Kralingen. “That neighbourhood has no personality whatsoever,” he says. In that respect it’s a typical post-war reconstruction neighbourhood. He also found a fair bit of post-war reconstruction architecture in Zuid, including small, rickety houses in neighbourhoods such as De Wielewaal in Charlois, which were intended as temporary homes at the time, but are only just now being replaced.

Immensely lively

By now Elenbaas, who does say he has been a Feyenoord supporter all of his life, has changed his mind about Rotterdam, partially because of a weekend he spent exploring the city on the ground. “Of course, that’s when you really get a feel for a place, and I have to say, the atmosphere is very lively, what with all these small shops and all sorts of pubs and restaurants. I was immensely pleasantly surprised.”

Onbewolkt Rotterdam will be released on 21 April by Bas Lubberhuizen Publishers (ISBN 978 90 593 7447 8). The book, which has 144 pages, costs € 32.50. There will also be an English-language edition, called Cloudless Rotterdam (ISBN: 9789059374485).