PURO Travels: Rotterdam. The city of icons or follies?

Young, modern cities, built as late as the 20th century, often struggle with the problem of anonymous spaces and the lack of distinctive landmarks.

Rotterdam is the city whose historic center was entirely destroyed due to the German bombing in May, 1940. The one day raid transformed it into an architectural tabula rasa. Almost immediately, the organized and pragmatic Dutchmen took to rebuilding and reconstructing the war-ravaged center of the city, changing it into an enormous construction site with the team of planners employing innovative, modernistic architectural solutions. The truth is, Rotterdam could have ended up being one of these undistinguished cities without a flair of craziness, whose identities have been smothered by giant slabs of concrete. It could have, but it didn’t. The Dutchmen’s sense of humor and easy-going attitude towards architecture has made the present-day landscape of the city full of odd and weird buildings, whose number increases every day, posing a threat that the abundance will become the curse. One may argue whether the bumper crop of these iconic buildings stems from the sense of humor or, perhaps, architects’ inflated egos. What is certain, however, is the fact that once we visit Rotterdam, its architecture will make us feel as if we were in the so-far-unknown city different from any place we have been to. These buildings function as separate entities that came from nowhere and took over the city – regardless of the fact that they fit neither the context nor the scale of it. Not taking anything seriously, they live their own lives as if by accident, but still define the character of Rotterdam. The city, with its history of wartime destruction, has become the main destination for everyone passionate about the contemporary architecture – it has turned into a real laboratory of experimental buildings. Today, we use our PURO microscope to take a closer look at the most colorful weirdoes.





Markthal – apartments with a market underneath

The neighboring area of Blaak street is the largest cluster of architectural oddities in Rotterdam. One of these is Markthal by MVRDV (the studio which also designed the Baltic Tower in Poznan, currently under construction), completed in 2014. Markthall is by no means an ordinary market hall. In fact, the market hall is underneath a residential building, whose shape reminds of an arch. The bizarre nature of this hybrid – one of the newest landmarks of Rotterdam – lies not only in the concept that links the market hall and apartments or in the design of the building as an arch. It is also reflected in a decorative vault of the hall reminding of the Sistine Chapel. The “last judgment” here is not about people, however, but about all the groceries that can be found on the market – vegetables, fruit, fish…This horror vacui and garish aesthetic may be overwhelming. At the same time, it seems a little bit out of date – perhaps because it took 10 years to complete the project. As it turns out, landmark architecture can easily become the object of ridicule – especially if trends change much faster than the progress on a construction site. But does ridiculous mean bad?

Markthal (the Market Hall), design. MVRDV, 2004-2014; address: Grotemark 4





Cubic not-so-living spaces

The architectural crazy boom at The Blaak area started with the completion of Cube houses (Dutch: Kubuswoningen) in the 1980s. The set of innovative houses has quickly become the icon of the city. The peculiar design created by architect Piet Blom is based on the concept of a forest, with each house representing a tree. Houses are located on pylons and densely packed above the ground so that there is an open ground floor which, originally, was to serve as a public urban space. Admired and frequently visited by tourists, Cube houses – despite the architect’s good intentions – choose a pronounced formal effect over functionality. Each of the cubes has an apartment inside it, but it is really difficult to live in there because, due to the fact that the cubes are tilted 45 degrees, every wall in each apartment is slanted. Furniture must be entirely custom-made to fit in, for the standard IKEA pieces will certainly not serve their purpose.

Kubuswoningen (Cube houses), design: Piet Blom, 1977; address: Overblaak 70




Blue, fairy-tale houses

The MVRDV studio is famous for its original, iconic projects, with the already-discussed Markthal being just one of them. Didden Village – a rather small-scale design – is a set of monolithic, intensely ultramarine blue houses. Located on a roof of one of the West Rotterdam tenement houses, they look as if they were taken from a fairy-tale illustration. Architects wanted the design to show that it is possible to search for non-standard solutions (such as building new houses on the roofs of the old ones) in the era when we are faced with the growing density of cities. According to the architects the advantage of such designs is not only their potential to invigorate sky-high spaces, but also the price – it is cheaper to built a house on a roof than on the ground.

Didden Village, design MVRDV, 2002-2006; address: Beatrijsstraat 71





Rotterdam Centraal – an enormous kapsalon

For many years, had only a temporary railway station built of blue containers, and was waiting impatiently for the building of a real-life edifice. The Rotterdam Centraal building was completed in 2014 and almost immediately hailed as Station Kapsalon Groot – an enormous kapsalon, which is a Dutch dish with döner or shawarma meat served in a takeaway container made of aluminum foil –foil that perfectly resembles the crumpled metal panels which are the finishing of the station roof. Aptly seasoned not with a bit of garlic sauce but with an impressive wooden vault.

Rotterdam Centraal, design Benthem Crouwel, MVSA Architects, West8, 2014



De Rotterdam – elegance without proportions

De Rotterdam high-rise is the most elegant among all the oddities we look at in this article. Even though the building – designed by famous Rem Koolhaas from OMA [translator’s note: a famous Dutch architectural firm] – is minimalist and modernistic in style, bringing to mind Miese van der Rohe’s refined Chicago and New York skyscrapers, something seems to be off about it. No wonder – after all, it’s Rotterdam we are speaking about. The multifunctional building (with offices, apartments, restaurants and a hotel) uncompromisingly entered the landscape of the city, changing the skyline of the Rotterdam Manhattan once and for all. Although the style of its details and materials is classical and restrained, the proportions of the building are breakneck to say the least. In all probability, no city has such an insolently massive skyscraper. It’s a one-of-a-kind heavy block, whose shape changes depending on the perspective – the block that (perhaps thanks to Rem Koolhaas’ magic touch) seems to fit this puzzling city perfectly.

de Rotterdam, design: OMA, 1997-2013; address: Wilhelminakade 139



A stairway to heaven

This temporary installation is the best ending to our list of peculiarities.  The main reason standing behind Rotterdam’s architectural craziness was the necessity to rebuild the city as fast as possible after the wartime bombardment. This May, MVRDV made an interesting intervention in the public space – they built a gigantic, open staircase with 180 steps leading straight to the roof of an eight-floor building, from which everyone can admire a panorama of the city. Of course, the choice of the building was not accidental. Groothandelsgebouw – designed by H.A. Maaskant and located next to the Central Station – is one of the symbols of the post-war 75 years of rebuilding Rotterdam. The staircase is a nod to all these years, with the scaffolding directly referring to the rebuilding. The stairway to heaven in the center of the city is open until June 19, 2016. You still have time to climb it!

The Stairs, design MVRDV, 2016; address: Stationsplein 45


Text and photos: Zuza Mielczarek


Zuzanna Mielczarek, b. 1990 in Poznań. In 2014, she defended her architectural project of an urban educational farm at the University of Arts in Poznań and obtained the title of an engineer/architect. At present, she lives both in Rotterdam and Poznań and continues her search for design inspiration at Delft University of Technology and Poznań University of Arts.  She’s interested in design as a stimulus for social change and interpersonal relations. She’s been in training in such architectural firms as Medusa Group in Bytom, SHAU in Rotterdam, but also in a furniture design and woodworking studio Atelier 365 in Brussels. Her achievements comprise, among other things, furniture projects and cardboard toys.






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