How did Holland's second city become its biggest urban experiment?We investigate the rebirth of Rotterdam
Martin Morrell
| Credit: 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).

As you walk around central Rotterdam you notice something else that is more American than European: residential areas are mostly poor, often run-down, and ethnically mixed. There are more Moroccans, Turks, and blacks from Suriname (the former Dutch Guiana) in the streets than there are white Europeans. A quick scan of names on the doors of apartment buildings shows a preponderance of Arabic ones. Fast-food places offer shish kebabs and hummus. Children play games in Dutch; their parents talk to them in Turkish. Popular music from Casablanca, Istanbul, and Paramaribo fills the evening air. The prosperous Dutch middle class has moved to the lakes and parks of Kralingen and beyond. In more traditional European cities, it's the other way around: the poor have been pushed out to brutish, graffiti-covered suburbs, while the rich enjoy the historic city centers.

Almost every major European city has a distinctive look; Rotterdam, however, lacks a signature style. It is precisely this neutral quality, this stylelessness, this open-ended, rough-at-the-edges, unfinished atmosphere that draws many artists. One of them is Rem Koolhaas, whose iconoclastic ideas, expressed in such books as SMLXL, have made him a cult figure in Tokyo and New York, no less—and perhaps more so—than in Rotterdam. The industrial spaces and warehouses are perfect for offices, discotheques, and artists' studios. Koolhaas is not attracted to Rotterdam because it is "hot." He likes it because you can work there without being bothered by metropolitan gossip and buzz. And also because, unlike Amsterdam—which is already perfect in its way, a finished city—Rotterdam is still a work in progress, a place where anything is possible.

KOOLHAAS IS TOO COOL TO BE A BOOSTER OF THE CITY HE WORKS IN. He finds most buildings, including the showy new skyscrapers, ugly. But ugliness, for Koolhaas, can be a plus. He is the man, after all, who saw potential in the Berlin Wall.

The OMA building is typically neutral; it could be anywhere. Inside, you could be anywhere, too—except, perhaps, in Holland, since you rarely hear any Dutch spoken. I was shown a model for the new library in Seattle by a Russian woman who spoke perfect English. A young Japanese man explained the intricate design for a concert hall in Portugal, and a group of Germans, Americans, and even a few Dutch people stood around discussing a plan for a bunch of skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan. Koolhaas himself flits in and out, like a tall phantom in Prada shoes, here from Milan today, gone to Tokyo or Las Vegas or Bordeaux tomorrow.

And yet, however much he denies a particular connection with Rotterdam itself, Koolhaas has put an unmistakable stamp on the city, not just by building the Kunsthal and a mysterious private house for "Mr. X," but by stirring things up. In 1982, the Rotterdam Arts Council organized the first Architecture International Rotterdam (AIR). Foreign architects were brought in to inspire local architects, government officials, and institutions and to make the place less provincial. Koolhaas participated in the late 1980's and early 90's, and also inspired other OMA architects, such as Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs, who later formed their own firm, mvrdv. The OMA design in the early eighties for a group of high-rise buildings near an upended bridge that would itself be turned into a building—with a restaurant on top—never got built, but it did prod others to be bolder.

Roughness can be made into a virtue. If there is a common strain in modern Dutch architecture, it is the taste for modesty, the sometimes perverse love of industrial materials, the ability to build handsome buildings cheaply. Koolhaas once said, "The research into how you can carry out as many programs as possible with as little money as possible is incredibly interesting."

I visited Koolhaas's former colleagues, Maas and van Rijs of mvrdv, in their office, in a crude, almost derelict-looking building on the banks of the Meuse. It was in the kind of industrial terrain, largely abandoned, dead at night, where murders happen in the movies. Maas and van Rijs have been responsible for some highly sophisticated architecture, but their aesthetic vision is deliberately tough, even brutal. Dressed casually, like graduate students, they talked about their plans to redesign the city of Rotterdam. Why not mix industrial and residential areas?Why not have marinas right next to oil refineries?Prettiness is the enemy. Their favorite word is stoer—tough, robust, virile. It is a very Rotterdam attitude.

To embrace the Dutch cliché about Rotterdam as the city of commerce and money is to miss an important fact. The way it looks, its architecture, its hearty Modernism, is less the result of commercial interests than of a tension between business and politics. What I hadn't realized before my visit was the extent to which politics and planning had determined the shape of the postwar city. Rotterdam is one of the most planned cities west of Dresden. And the planning, which began almost immediately after the bombing in 1940, was social, even socialist.

Some bombed cities—Warsaw, for example—tried to heal their man-made wounds through careful reconstruction or mimicry of the past. This was never the goal in Rotterdam. On the contrary, city planners saw the destruction of downtown Rotterdam as an opportunity to build a totally new, modern city. That was also how the Nazi occupiers saw it; they wanted Rotterdam to be a "great Germanic port." One reason Dutch city planners were so keen to get going was that they didn't want the Germans to do it for them. Not much was actually built during the war, but by the time the Germans were defeated, in May 1945, the blueprint for Rotterdam had been ready for years.

Zones had been plotted, and plans for streets, squares, and parks drawn up. Since all private land-ownership claims had been scrapped, it was possible to start with a blank slate; the rest was up to the architects. They could choose their own styles, but city planning was subject to political and socioeconomic concerns. Industry had to be confined to certain outlying districts. Banks and offices would be in the center, and low-income municipal housing would be built around the downtown core. If you wanted to own a house, you had to move to a suburb. That's why the central residential areas of Rotterdam are still relatively poor. Yet, even before the war, some of the most interesting, and typically Dutch, architecture was built in the less affluent areas. J.J.P. Oud's two-story terraced workers' housing in the south of Rotterdam, for example, is a triumph of 1920's socialist architecture and a perfect example of the Dutch talent for turning thrift into a virtue.

So Rotterdam, despite its reputation for stinking of money, was anything but a capitalist free-for-all. It has been governed largely by Socialists, some of whom, especially in the 1970's, were actively anti-capitalist. When, in 1973, the Shell Oil Co. built an office tower on a prime site, one city alderman called it a "capitalist erection." Because politicians and planners were more interested in social policies than in aesthetics, the architectural style of Rotterdam became a hodgepodge. The downtown is a collection of buildings, rather than a coherent district. And the styles reflect the changing fashions not only in architecture, but also in politics. The 1970's and early 80's saw many small-scale, quasi-traditional, or sometimes self-consciously playful buildings, part of the government's desire to "give the city back to the people."

PATERNALISTIC PLANNING FOR A VIRTUOUS society, and the love of thrift and modesty, are traditional Dutch characteristics, the very ones that have made Holland such a well-ordered, civilized place. But they have also made it a little dull, even oppressive, and this invites rebellion. One afternoon, I had coffee with Chris Dercon, the creative director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, in Museumpark near the Netherlands Architecture Institute. Like Koolhaas, or Simon Field, the British co-director of the Rotterdam international film festival, Dercon likes the freedom of working in Rotterdam. But he has the critical outsider's view of Holland. To him, Dutch culture seems stifled by compromise and consensus. Dercon likes rebels. Koolhaas was a rebel, but OMA has become too grand now to cause much outrage. Dercon still rates Koolhaas highly, but the most important artist in Rotterdam, in his view, is a rather peculiar man named Joep van Lieshout.

I had seen pictures of van Lieshout, wearing an aloha shirt and riding in a retooled Mercedes limo, with a machine gun in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. Koolhaas had warned me that he could be a little "difficult." He had the reputation of being a "sex maniac," a superannuated hippie, a punk survivalist. In fact, he is also a serious artist whose architectural and interior designs have been shown in galleries and museums all over the world. Van Lieshout designed a bathroom for the Boijmans museum and a bar unit for a Koolhaas building in Lille, France. He has also designed jewel-encrusted knuckle dusters, "survival knives," giant phalluses, do-it-yourself mobile homes, and a mobile abortion clinic. He has a farm, where he and his co-workers raise their own pigs. His work is the purest example of deliberate roughness, of using the simplest means. The worst sin, in his eyes, is trying to make something look better or grander than it is.

The Atelier Van Lieshout, a kind of commune in which the artist and his colleagues live and work, is on a wharf surrounded by car wrecks, tanneries, garbage dumps, small factories, and an office for movie stuntmen. Van Lieshout's studio seems the very antithesis of well-ordered, civilized, comfortable, respectable Dutchness. A sculpture of a stylized nude with legs spread wide lies prone in front of the factory-like studio. But, actually, Dutch orderliness intrudes even here. Van Lieshout's street is part of a designated prostitution zone, where special steel partitions are thoughtfully provided by the municipal authorities to give the hookers and their clients some privacy. The official term for these depressing areas is "tolerance zones."

I was shown around the studio by van Lieshout's business manager, a middle-aged man with a pink nose and a white beard. He pointed out that the jerry-built office unit and dining room, made of polyester and chipboard, were meant as "a kind of critique of architecture." Beautiful finishes, expensive materials, building regulations—these are all part of the bourgeois world that van Lieshout and his acolytes claim to have rejected. They have taken Koolhaas's philosophy of making things as cheaply as possible to its logical extreme. Only if you construct your own world, with your own hands, with minimal means, without consideration for society's rules or pretensions, will you be free. Like right-wing American survivalists, van Lieshout and his colleagues make a fetish of "autonomy"; hence the do-it-yourself trailers, the private farm, the portable polyester toilets, and the military hardware, which actually turned out to be fake. The idea is at once very un-Dutch and, in its puritanical hatred of polish, very Dutch indeed.

I expected a monster. In fact, van Lieshout was a polite, rather charming man in a flowered shirt, who talked about his work in a professional manner while listening to music. We'd installed ourselves in the back of one of his homemade trailers. I asked him about his idea of freedom. I was prepared for a theory or at least an outrageous statement. Instead, he said that having money was the best way to be free. The crude architecture, the polyester furniture, are all for sale. The atelier is really an art factory. Van Lieshout is a Dutch Andy Warhol who deliberately blurs the lines between mass production and art, commerce and philosophy. The fake guns, the talk of free sex, the communal living, the pig-raising, and the production of crude functional goods that turn into art objects as soon as they are displayed in a museum, all this is part of a performance. The rebellion against Dutch order is a performance as well, much publicized by van Lieshout himself. Like the transvestite prostitutes outside his window, van Lieshout's commune, too, is allowed to operate in a "tolerance zone."

WALKING BACK ALONG THE RIVER TOWARD the city center, past the mvrdv office, past the public housing inhabited by Turks and Moroccans, past a green field, an old mill, and two or three canals, I thought how hard it was, for even the most rebellious spirit, and despite the multicultural ambience, to escape the civilized, thrifty, socially concerned Dutch sense of order. In their own ways, van Lieshout, Koolhaas, and other Dutch artists and architects represent that very same order. And yet they came to Rotterdam to rebel, because the city was still rough at the edges, lacked a coherent style, and so was open to new possibilities. I wondered how much longer that would be true.

In the old city hall, one of the buildings that survived the Nazi fury, I met Hans Kombrink, the alderman in charge of urban planning, or what is known in Dutch officialese as "ordering of space." He is a member of the left-of-center Labor Party, the same party that, 20 years ago, put a stop to the construction of corporate high-rises in the hope of giving Rotterdam back to the people. This was also the party responsible for turning much of central Rotterdam over to inexpensive municipal housing. But since then the tune had changed. Eating his way through a lethal-looking "butter cake" in his private office, Kombrink told me that it was time wealthier people returned to live in the city center. There would be more expensive housing blocks, where people could buy property. Kombrink was keen to increase the number of prestigious corporate buildings. As long as you have some "eye-catchers," he once said, "the rest will follow."

In 5, 10, or 15 years, Dutch order will have conquered Rotterdam, too. Rotterdam will be a more cohesive, more polished city, with yuppies occupying the city center and dense clusters of fine corporate buildings making for an imposing skyline. At last John Hole will have his heart back. It would not be a bad thing. In many ways it will make Rotterdam a more agreeable place. But the promise of adventure, of starting all over and making something new, will be lost. It will be the end of a rough utopia.



Bilderberg Parkhotel 70 Westersingel; 31-10/436-3611, fax 31-10/436-4212; doubles from $160. A late-19th-century townhouse revamped in the early 1990's with the addition of a gigantic steel tower.

Hotel New York 1 Koninginnenhoofd; 31-10/439-0500, fax 31-10/484-2701; doubles from $75. Rotterdam's own twin towers used to be the headquarters of the Holland America Cruise Line. Now you can get a room with a view over the dockyards.


Off_Corso 22 Kruiskade; 31-10/411-3897. A cyber-lounge.

Artusi 15A Witte de Withstraat; 31-10/412-1413; dinner for two $50. Mediterranean food in a modern setting.

Restaurant Lux 133 S. Gravendijkwal; 31-10/476-2206; dinner for two $50.


Netherlands Architecture Institute 25 Museumpark; 31-10/440-1200;

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen 18—20 Museumpark; 31-10/441-9400; A vast permanent collection—from van Eyck to Magritte.

Kunsthal 341 Museumpark; 31-10/440-0300; The 3,000-square-foot space houses temporary exhibitions on architecture, art, and design. "Rotterdam As Seen by European Masters" is on display until January 6.

Sonneveld House 25 Museumpark; 31-10/440-1200; The recently restored Dutch Functionalist house is open to the public.

31st International Film Festival Rotterdam 2002 278B Karel Doormanstraat; 31-10/890-9090, fax 31-10/890-9091; Held next year from January 23 to February 3.