The bombing of Rotterdam in 1940 literally left the place in ruins and now, 75 years later, a completely different city has been created in its place. It’s bigger, tougher and trendier than ever, with reminders of bygone days here and there. Together with EUR urban historian and director of Museum Rotterdam Paul van de Laar. EM visited five landmarks that he feels are the most typical of the reconstruction of the city.
“A lot of people feel that Rotterdam isn’t a city for living in. You only go there to work. And I thought exactly the same when I went to university in Rotterdam in the 1980s. I would far rather have stayed in Utrecht, which is much nicer. Well, I was wrong. True love lasts for ever and that goes for Rotterdam too. But it isn’t love at first sight by any means. You have to get used to the place first, but once you’ve done that, the city never lets you go and the love between you is for life. That’s exactly what happened to me. And of course you have to invest in the city just like you do in a romantic relationship. If you do that, you get so much in return.”
“Museum Rotterdam recently moved to Het Timmerhuis, which is located in a beautiful new building designed by the famous architect Rem Koolhaas. It may be new, but it’s built next to the old Stadstimmerhuis building: a municipal listed building with a nice symbolic significance. The reconstruction plans for the city drawn up by Cornelis van Traa (Ed: urban designer) were coordinated in this very building. That’s why our first temporary exhibition will be devoting a great deal of attention to the effects of reconstruction. We got down to building a new and modern city right after the bombing, with the emphasis on the port and the economy. Nowadays we think smoke coming out of chimneys is dirty and pollutive but it was a sign of prosperity in those days. The turning point came at the beginning of the 1970s, at the time of the oil crisis. That’s when we started wondering if we’d actually rebuilt the city as we wanted it. We asked ourselves if the city centre was a nice place to live and what had happened to the cosy atmosphere. We started making changes in Rotterdam during the years that followed and we started appreciating it again. We could be proud of our city and we were able to see its beauty. Nowadays we love rough, tough cities, cities on the edge. We’re familiar with all those cleaned-up gabled buildings. This is a global trend and of course Rotterdam fits in perfectly with it.”
The Laurens church
“De Laurenskerk is the oldest community centre in Rotterdam. It wasn’t converted into a church until later on, in the 18th century. And nowadays it’s gone back to being a multifunctional community centre with lots of events. That’s really something special. After the bombing, there wasn’t much left of De Laurenskerk, only the church tower was still standing. The story goes that Hitler had given orders not to destroy it, but I don’t know if that’s true. De Laurenskerk was rebuilt stone for stone after the war, so it really does symbolise reconstruction. There’s a statue of Desiderius Erasmus diagonally opposite the church. Although he left Rotterdam as a small child and never returned, we can’t imagine Rotterdam’s history without him. I always start my lectures by saying that Erasmus was the father of city marketing. Some old travel books and guides actually say, ‘Rotterdam may not be a very beautiful city, but the statue of Erasmus is definitely worth a detour.’ Isn’t that great? And the statue is standing there in the public space too, which could be quite risky. But obviously people have so much respect for him that he’s in no danger there.”
The Cube houses
“Personally, I think the Cube Houses, also known as the Forest of Blaak, are absolutely revolting. They’re ill-kept unattractive tourist shops with ugly flower boxes. I wouldn’t live there if you paid me. But the ‘show cube’ still attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year, which has made it part of Rotterdam’s city marketing. It’s included in almost all information about Rotterdam. And that really is astonishing because this complex isn’t in the least typical of Rotterdam. It isn’t a big tough eye-catcher like De Markthal or De Rotterdam. It’s small and intimate, which tells us a lot about the ideas we had about the city in the 1970s and how they ought to be expressed. We felt that the city should look cheerful and inviting. The city took on a post-modern small-scale look because we thought people should live closer together and have more contact with one another. The Cube Houses were built in an area which was still fairly vacant and the architect, Piet Blom, obviously got his inspiration from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. You know, that bridge with the little houses on it. He wanted to create a connection route along De Blaak to the other part of the city. De Blaak and De Maasboulevard are two motorways that run across the city and the Cube Houses form a bridge to the Old Port (Oude Haven). It wasn’t a bad idea at all, but opinions are divided on whether it’s a success.”
“Katendrecht used to be known as the peninsula where Rotterdam put all its anti-social citizens. A lot of illiterate labourers from Brabant and Zeeland came here to work in the docks at the end of the 19th century. That’s the classic image Rotterdam has – the development of a working city. Katendrecht is strongly associated with the other side of Rotterdam, people who didn’t belong in Noord. All these outsiders used to live in Katendrecht. The first Chinese migrants came to live here after 1911 and prostitutes settled in Katendrecht after the Second World War as well, which dented its image even further. But suddenly something happened and Katendrecht changed from a no-go area to one of Rotterdam’s biggest hot spots in less than 10 years’ time. What’s the secret of its success? We always tend to say that credit is due to the municipality with its urban development and waterfront regeneration. It’s just like what they did to Kop van Zuid.
“The cultural vitality we’ve got here now – the success of the Fenixloods, Walhalla and Deliplein – obviously took shape bottom-top”
But it’s different here all the same. The cultural vitality we’ve got here now – the success of the Fenixloods, Walhalla and Deliplein – obviously took shape bottom-top. The cultural and creative sector itself played the biggest part in developing this area. And that’s where its strength lies. That’s why redevelopment of the Entrepotgebied failed while Katendrecht is a huge success. Of course, it’s partly due to the economic crisis, otherwise big business would have left its mark right away. In that case, we might have wondered whether the area’s history had been taken into consideration but luckily they did do this. Old Katendrecht’s negative image has been turned around 180 degrees and has become positive. Katendrecht is a tolerant place now and it’s also tremendously rough and tough. ‘Can you handle Katendrecht?’ as the saying goes. This is where the pioneers are. And the Verhalenhuis Belvédère is a really unusual spot in Katendrecht. It’s a meeting-place for all the stories about this district.”
“Louis-Ferdinand Céline described New York as ‘the upright city’ when his ship docked there. I get that same feeling very strongly too whenever I look at our Rotterdam skyscrapers like New Orleans, Montevideo and De Rotterdam, and all the different architectural styles rubbing shoulders. It’s unique. Rem Koolhaas’s De Rotterdam really is a fantastic building. And then the idea that Hotel New York was standing empty for such a long time. It’s a shame that the Port of Rotterdam Authority building is right next to it, as it’s blocking a wonderful view from Noord to Zuid. It’s probably to do with money but I think it’s a wasted opportunity. Very few people thought that the Wilhelminapier would be a success at the beginning of the 1990s. It’s great to see what an impact the Erasmusbrug has had, as well as the Rijnhavenbrug linking the Wilhelminapier to Katendrecht.”
“Filling in the Rijnhaven would be a typically Rotterdam thing to do”
“It wasn’t being used any more anyway. The reason why this didn’t happen was also a financial one. Excavating the ground for a port costs a lot, but filling in these excavations costs even more. That’s why the area around the Wilhelminapier has been preserved. And a good thing too if you ask me, because being here makes me feel happy. The connections between Noord and Zuid are great.”