Discovering contrasts

Falling for Rotterdam

VBAT Refreshing
Jan 12, 2017 · 10 min read

Written by Craig Berry
Creative Intern at VBAT

Rotterdam Skyline. Source: Fritzenstein by Raymond Fritzenstein on 500px

So far I have been living in Amsterdam for just over 3 months and I am confident enough to navigate my way around the 17th century city fairly well. Beautiful historical buildings line the rivers and canals such as the Oude Kerk, Koninklijk Paleis, De Waag, the Montelbaanstoren and the Rembrandthuis. These are all great pieces of architecture that show the history of Amsterdam which has survived to this day. Although, a city whose historical architecture hasn’t survived and has changed dramatically over time is that of Rotterdam which like many other great European cities was bombed and destroyed during the Second World War. Because of this Rotterdam looks very different to Amsterdam and this is something that I wanted to check out for myself so I visited the city to admire its architecture and also hit up some of the city’s cultural galleries and museums.

Firstly: Architecture. As I mentioned earlier, Rotterdam was near enough flattened after the Second World War meaning that the city was almost a blank canvas that needed to be re-designed (some buildings survived the blitz such as the Laurenskerk, the Beurs, the Postkantoor and the town hall). As sad as it was that the city’s historical and traditional buildings were destroyed; it was seen as ‘the perfect opportunity’ to address some of the problems of the city such as overcrowded and poor neighbourhoods, allowing the introduction of modern buildings. The city’s designers and architects didn’t look to rebuild the old city, as it “would be at the expense of a more modern future”. Because of this Rotterdam’s skyline is a vast array of skyscrapers and high-rise buildings of all shapes and sizes, here I want to show, talk about and pass judgment on some of these.

Upon stepping foot out of Rotterdam Centraal Station it’s immediately clear that this is a modern city; the day I was there was particularly wet and foggy which although wasn’t the nicest weather to be in, it made for an epic view of the towering skyscrapers in the Kruisplein.

Rotterdam, Kruisplein. Image: Craig Berry

One of the most interesting and thought-provoking building(s) I saw which was the Kubuswoningen/Kijk-Kubus (Cube-Houses) (warning: word-heavy analysis!). I did some research before I came here and I made a list of interesting places and this was one of those places. Although the images online didn’t give this place justice it deserves. Walking into the Blaak area of the city you can’t miss these incredible bright yellow, tree-like buildings which — to borrow a phrase from my blog entry about Zaandam’s Inntel Hotel — look like a bizarre Disney attraction. Designed by Piet Blom, in 1984, after he was set the brief to “redevelop the area with architecture of character” which the outcome surely is successful as these cube-houses are just oozing character.

De Kubuswoningen by Piet Blom. Image: Craig Berry

What really interested me about these cube houses was that not only do they look great but also they are functional houses and homes which in being a non-conventional design really challenge the idea of what sustainable mass-housing can look like when people have a more open mind about this. Blom wanted to challenge the widely accepted idea that “a building has to be recognisable as a house for it to qualify as housing”. Furthermore because each of the cube-houses are raised up on stilts (tree-trunks) it means that they are lifted up off the ground which opens and creates public space underneath where people can walk, play, socialise etc. whilst also allowing for clear window views from the individual elevated cube-houses; this idea was inspired by prolific Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.

In the same Blaak area was the Blaaktoren/Het Potlood (Blaak Tower/The Pencil) that is also by Piet Blom although not as spectacular as the Kubuswonignen, it’s still a really cool high-rise housing tower which looks nothing like normal high-rise I’d see in the UK with its pointy top. At the head of the area though is the Markthal (Market Hall) with its huge archway window. It is a residential, office building and market hall monolith that the size of is difficult to describe in words so maybe numbers will help. (warning: number heavy analysis!). 228 apartments, 4600m2 retail space, 1600m2 Horeca (food service) space and a 4-storey car park with 1200+ spaces. The 11,000m2 artwork that adorns the ceiling and walls of the Markthal is a bright and vibrant piece with huge images of fruits, vegetables and insects that make you feel tiny in comparison. Created by Arno Coenen, the 3D image is so massive that it needed special servers to run the 1,47TB file and it spans over 4000 tiles of the building’s interior. It is commonly referred to as ‘The Sistine Chapel of Rotterdam’ with good reason.

De Blaaktoren by Piet Blom. Image: Craig Berry
Markthal Rotterdam. Source:
Markthal Rotterdam. Source: Sprout

Also near the Markthal and Blaaktoren is the Witte Huis, — one of the few buildings to survive the war — which stands tall at the Geldersplein. Built in 1898 and at 45 metres tall it was Europe’s first and tallest high-rise office building, designed to live up the USA’s architecture innovations. This idea came from the designers visiting New York and being inspired by the Art-Nouveau style over there but instead of using steel they chose stone to retain some tradition — thus giving the building its white colour and name. The top of the building is very fancy and ornate with spires on the 4 corners, each one flying the beautifully graphic Rotterdam green and white striped city flag.

Het Witte Huis. Image: Craig Berry
Flag of Rotterdam

Finally for the city’s architecture we cross the vast River Maas/Nieuwe Maas via the Erasmusbrug (Erasmug Bridge). The bridge is named after Desiderius Erasmus, a prominent Rotterdam figure; it is over 800 metres long wide and over 130 metres tall. Due to its interesting shape and use of cables it has been given the nickname De Zwaan (The Swan) as well as its pale colour. It was hard to see the full bridge on the day because of the rain and fog but by crossing it I was able to admire it up close.

Erasmusbrug. Image: Craig Berry

On this side of the river is the strange shape of the De Rotterdam building. An office building, which to me, looked like stacks of paper, piled on top of one another but not perfectly aligned. Sections of the glass and metal structure appear to hang off the edge of others — designed by the great Rem Koolhuis in 1998 — all of these structures together make it the largest building in the Netherlands at around 16,000m2 over 44 floors. Again another piece of architecture that looks totally different from anything I’ve seen personally before.

De Rotterdam. Source: Dezeen

Now for the art galleries and museums. Starting with the difficult to pronounce Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Here there was a mixture of current and contemporary art, modern art from the 20th century, Dutch Masters from the 17th century and older classic art pieces dating to the medieval times. Personally, as much as I can appreciate these older pieces of art and historical artifacts I prefer my art to be more modern, usually from the 1920’s onwards where art movements were sprouting up and different styles were emerging and still do today. The museum’s collection highlights for me included pieces by Roy Lichtenstein — Mirror №4 (1970), Piet Mondrian — Composition No II (1929), Andy Warhol — The Kiss (1963) and Joan Miró — Monsieur et Madame (1969). These pieces range in the years of methods of production but they were all great to see in the space.

Museum Boijmans van Beuningen; courtyard. Image: Craig Berry

As well as these pieces, the contemporary art in the other half of the museum were interesting and intriguing. Ones that stood out were Five Young Chinese Designers — ‘Three Eyes’ where several installations focused on their beliefs and the idea that they need to look into the future as well as looking back over 1000 years of their Chinese culture. My favourite was a piece which was 4 screens hanging from the ceiling with bold and direct statements on them, their size and commanding white on black type were visually strong as well as what they were saying.

Three Eyes. Image: Craig Berry

Another great piece that was actually fun and interactive whilst also quite scary and strange was Pipilotti Rist’s ‘Laat je haar neer’ (Let your hair down/Lay her down). It was a raised rope net that you had to climb and lay down on to view the projection on the ceiling. The video’s projected were very diverse and strong at times, I didn’t stick around too long as you could see straight down to the floor through the net which was terrifying and also hilarious trying to climb back out of whilst holding my phone and a pile of museum leaflets.

Pipilotti Rist’s ‘Laat je haar neer’. Image: Craig Berry

Lastly another installation piece by Yayoi Kusama called ‘Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli’s Field’. It was exactly that; every wall was a mirror and you were able to stand directly in the middle. Covering the floor though were thousands of red and white spotted phallic shaped stuffed objects which looked more like mushrooms; despite only being about 50cm wide, the mirrors made it look endless. These kinds of contemporary art installations are good because you can get fully immersed in them, allowing you to fully experience the artist’s intentions.

Self portrait in Yayoi Kusama’s installation ‘Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli’s Field’. Image Craig Berry

Crossing the earlier mentioned Erasmusbrug I visited the Nederlands Fotomuseum specifically to see the Josef Koudelka double exhibition of ‘EXILES/WALLS’. As an internationally renowned Magnum photographer Koudelka’s work needs little introduction and the images speak for themselves. Powerful and emotional black and white photographs covered the walls of the ‘EXILES’ section where Koudelka documented his life in exile over 20 years as he roamed across Europe, capturing what he saw along the way. WALL is Koudelka’s look at the impact of the concrete barrier wall that splits Israel and the West Bank; what was spectacular here was the book that was produced for it, a vast concertina book or photographs that spanned the length of the exhibition space, also titled ‘WALL’. The style of photography used by Koudelka is one that is very thought provoking, using black and white film with lots of grain gives this moody feel; a style also used by Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama.

Josef Koudelka — ‘EXILES. Image: Craig Berry
Josef Koudelka — WALLS. Image. Craig Berry

Lastly I checked out the Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art after previous VBAT intern and Rotterdam resident Sean Valies recommended it to me. The things on show here were very contemporary, as the name would suggest. It’s the kind of place you wouldn’t take someone who didn’t have any interest in art and if you did they would absolutely hate it. But, fortunately, that’s not me. Each floor of the building had various pieces — sculptures, paintings, installations, sound and videos. What I really liked was the ground floor and the room and experience and level of detail for Mark Geffriaud’s — ‘two thousand fifteen’. The video itself focuses on his travels and his interactions with the Aymara, “the only people on earth that have an inverted concept of time: the past lies ahead and the future behind.” This is somewhat portrayed in the video as the screens often were interrupted by shutters as well as the sound track being totally separate from the video track, allowing for chance linking of the two, creating a non-conventional experience.

Image courtesy: Mark Geffriaud and gb agency

I could go on for much longer about what I saw and experienced during my day in Rotterdam, despite the wet, cold and foggy weather this didn’t dampen my spirit and it was a truly great day out by myself in another great European city. The built-up modern skyline city reminds me a lot of London or Berlin, which also have their reasons for looking how they do. Here though the architecture is certainly less conventional and it seems that architects, designers and planners have a lot more freedom to do what they want with the landscape of the city as clearly what they have done so far is working as it pulls in inquisitive people across the world to visit it, people just like me.

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written by Craig Berry
Creative at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme

Inside VBAT

Weekly blog posts by Creatives from VBAT, on different topics related to Retail, Branding, Packaging, Innovation and Design in and around Amsterdam.

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Multidisciplinary Branding and Design agency. Constantly Creative, Always Refreshing. Creating Iconic Brands.

Inside VBAT

Weekly blog posts by Creatives from VBAT, on different topics related to Retail, Branding, Packaging, Innovation and Design in and around Amsterdam.

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