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Rebirth of Rotterdam

Martin Morrell

Photo: Martin Morrell

In the middle of Rotterdam stands a man without a heart. His arms are flung toward the sky, as if in supplication to the gods. The official title of this wounded figure, sculpted in 1951 by Ossip Zadkine, is The Destroyed City. Rotterdammers call him "Jan Gat," or John Hole. He commemorates the day, in May 1940, that German Heinkel bombers ripped out the heart of the city in a matter of hours.

When I was growing up in The Hague in the fifties, the old center of Rotterdam was still a damaged, windswept place, with a gimcrack shopping street, a few banks, and a railway station. The city hall and the stock exchange had somehow, miraculously, survived the bombing, and stood there for almost 20 years like broken teeth in a smashed face. At night the city emptied out. There was more action in the harbor of Europe's busiest port than there was downtown.

Even if it was an ugly, provincial, industrious place, Rotterdammers were still very proud of their city. The rest of us never quite understood why.

My youthful prejudices against Rotterdam were confirmed one Saturday in the 1980's, when a friend took me to a soccer match between Feyenoord of Rotterdam and Ajax of Amsterdam. The style of the two teams, and their supporters, reflected the clichéd images of the two cities. Feyenoord's play was workmanlike, tough, not beautiful, but often effective, while Ajax's was artistic, risky, and full of quirky individualism. Because pre-war Amsterdam had a large Jewish population, and Ajax once had many Jewish supporters (and some players, too), the Amsterdam club still has a Jewish image. My friend and I had the misfortune to sit among the Feyenoord supporters. Never had I heard so much anti-Semitic abuse as on that sunny Saturday afternoon. The Ajax fans, used to this kind of thing, taunted their opponents by waving huge Israeli flags. And all this in a country where much of the Jewish population was wiped out a few years after Rotterdam lost its heart.

The idea, then, that Rotterdam is now the most "happening" place in Holland, the showcase of new architecture and design, a center of modern style that has left touristy, complacent Amsterdam far behind, is novel and counterintuitive. Yet these are the indisputable facts: Rotterdam is the city of Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Rotterdam's Boijmans—Van Beuningen is among the most exciting museums in Europe. Rotterdam holds Europe's most experimental major film festival. Rotterdam's Netherlands Architecture Institute, a high-tech jewel designed by Jo Coenen, is a model of what such institutes should be, stimulating interest and ideas through exhibitions, seminars, publications, and architectural city tours. The fact that many Dutch architects are given serious commissions at an unusually young age is one reason Dutch architecture is so lively. And the wartime destruction of Rotterdam opened that city, not Amsterdam, to innovation.

At first sight Rotterdam looks American. I walked from the city center, across Ben van Berkel's amazing Erasmus Bridge, suspended over the Meuse River like a great steel harp, to the Hotel New York on the tip of the old Holland-America Line wharf—known as the Kop van Zuid, the Southern Head. The scale of the buildings, though nothing like what you find in Chicago or even L.A., is big for a Calvinist country, in which ostentation is traditionally loathed. And yet there is no other place remotely as modern-looking in Holland, or indeed Europe, apart from Frankfurt and Berlin.

The cluster of skyscrapers in the center of town includes Abe Bonnema's deep-blue 495-foot-high glass slabs for the Nationale Nederlanden insurance company; the World Trade Center by Groosman Partners, which seems to grow, like a great glass tree, out of the old stock exchange; the silver cylinders on Weena 200 by Brouwer, Steketee & Klompenhouwer; the white Nedlloyd building by W. G. Quist; and, just across the Erasmus Bridge, Renzo Piano's forward-tilting KPN Telecom building. Of these, I would rate only Piano's structure as a genuinely beautiful piece of architecture. The rest are rather brash and businesslike.

Architectural beauty is to be found more readily on a smaller scale: Rem Koolhaas's bizarre art center, the Kunsthal, whose design has the absurd intricacy of an Escher drawing; or the addition to the Park Hotel by Erick van Egerarat of the firm Mecanoo; or the Architecture Institute itself; or private houses, such as the newly restored Sonneveld House, designed in 1933 by Brinkman & Van der Vlugt (which also designed the rather handsome soccer stadium for Feyenoord—too handsome for the team's supporters, if you ask me).

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