A weekend in Rotterdam
Rotterdam, with a population of 618,467 people, is the second largest city in the Netherlands, following closely behind the countries capital, Amsterdam. After living in the latter for four months it’s safe to say I find it a charming place to live, but whilst living here I’ve also had a hunger to explore what else this country has to offer.
Travelling in the Netherlands is really easy and convenient all whilst remaining relatively inexpensive. I find travelling by rail to be one of the most pleasant and relaxing ways of getting from A–B, allowing you to drift off into your own thoughts as your eyes gaze over the passing scenery. The train to Rotterdam felt quite surreal and I’ve never been on a train like it, the carriage itself felt like a conflicting cross between a classic retro carriage with a futuristic twist — almost like something out of a film.
This experience was prolonged as upon my arrival I hopped onto the metro, and of the different stations I have been to, Rotterdam Centraal metro is one of the most confusing to navigate. Immediately you walk into a space full of what appear to be mirrors, with endless passages of light and coloured gradient walls. Glass partitions of the spaces and the constant stream of people only adds to the confusion. With that being said though, I felt captivated by the colours and how alternative this station felt, only giving me higher expectations of what the city above ground would look like!
Rotterdam is well known as a playground for architects and unlike Amsterdam, a city ripe in cultural and architectural history, Rotterdam was mostly flattened during World War II, giving the urban planners and architects an opportunity to start again and breathe new life into the city.
On Saturday I spent most of the day exploring the modern and unusual architecture. Travel within cities in the Netherlands is equally as easy as cross-country travel, with trams, bikes, buses and the metro at your disposal. For this weekend though I opted to see the city by foot to get a real feel for the place. Walking through the pedestrianised areas felt comparable to how I imagine it to feel when strolling through the streets of New York, only with less people. Skyscrapers line the roads, offering a dizzying sensation when you attempt to get a sense of the intimidating, yet awe-inspiring scale.
Aside from the skyscrapers the whole city feels very architecturally diverse, ranging from the classic modernist approach of the Huis Sonneveld (and to my surprise the surrounding buildings), to more experimental public spaces such as the Luchtsingel (the Bridge) and to the strict angular forms of De Rotterdam. There is inspiration everywhere you look, and in my opinion, something to be appreciated by all.
One area that attracts many tourists a year, myself included, is the area surrounding Rotterdam Blaak station. This area boasts some of the most well known feats of alternative architecture, including the Kubuswoningen and Blaaktoren by Piet Blom as well as the industrial yellow pipes that can be seen to drape over the city library. The station itself also offers the futuristic feeling that can be felt in the Centraal metro, where the combination of colour and simple geometric shapes creates an almost utopian atmosphere.
One of the main reasons for my visit to this area though was to see the unmissable Markthal whilst getting something to eat from one of the huge variety of food stalls. Designed by architects MVRDV, this sizable market hall was the first of its kind in the Netherlands and is combined with office spaces and apartments that arch over the main hall. It also proudly boasts the largest work of art in the world by Arno Coenen. Titled ‘Horn of Plenty’ this work brings the ceiling to life in 11,000m² of colour and imagination, resulting in the Markthal also being known as Rotterdam’s very own Sistine Chapel.
Sunday saw a visit to Kop van Zuid (a neighbourhood in the south) and started with the icon of Rotterdam–The Erasmus Bridge, or as it is also known–The Swan. At 800-metres long this bridge, designed by Ben van Berkel, spans the Maas River and links the north of the city to the south.
Kop van Zuid is a regenerated area full of history that harmoniously sits alongside the contrasting contemporary architecture and surroundings. Whilst making my way to the Nederlands Fotomuseum I found myself distracted by the aesthetics of the area in which it is situated. Not only is there a fantastic array of architecture, but as a graphic designer I am naturally drawn to typography and the neighbourhood is rich in examples of found type and ghost signs that further instil the historic feeling.
The area is also home to the former head office of the Holland America Line, a company that offered Dutch people the opportunity to set sail and start a new life in North America on their cruise ships. The building dates back to 1917 and the last ship to set sail from Rotterdam to New York left in the year 1971. The headquarters then stood vacant for the following 12 years until it was transformed into the now trading Hotel New York. To satisfy my curiosity I went inside to see whether any of the historic feeling remained and it didn’t disappoint — in the entrance I was met with intricate mosaic typography and taken back to the 1920–1930s through the classic interior feeling.
A cruise company cannot operate without its ships, and so behind Hotel New York stands Las Palmas, the former workshop building for the Holland-America Line. It seems that most of the area has been regenerated, as in 2006 this building was also renovated to house the Nederlands Fotomuseum, another cultural institute for the neighbourhood.
The Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam is known as the leading national museum of photography in the Netherlands and is home to an impressive collection of 5.5 million images of varying genres. I was drawn to visit an exhibition of work by Jacqueline Hassink when an image of a luscious green landscape with rolling hills caught my attention. Coming from Yorkshire in the UK I am surrounded by national parks and areas of outstanding beauty which I often like to hike in. In comparison, the Netherlands is remarkably flat and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t miss the variation in the landscape. This exhibition seemed like the prime opportunity to ‘escape’ and let my mind wander to future adventures.
Hassink’s exhibition, titled Unwired, required a less than conventional start by asking visitors to take their shoes off and hand in their mobile phones to get a full experience of the work on display. Technology stripped and connected to the ground, I entered the exhibition space with a completely open mind.
Described in the leaflet as a body of work that ‘confronts us with our smartphone addiction and appeals to our fundamental need for mental rest’, I felt immediately engrossed as this is a subject that greatly interests me. The exhibition also calls into question what it feels like to live without a mobile phone or WiFi connections, which at a time when everything is so inextricably connected feels difficult to imagine. Even now, I am writing on a machine which I use on a daily basis, next to a mobile phone which lights up to alert me of email notifications and messages, all whilst listening to electronic music through my headphones.
The exhibition was split into two contrasting parts, the first showing analogue photographs from Hassink’s exploration of ‘white spots’ around the globe. The project took her from the far reaches of remote Iceland, to the middle of the primeval forests of Japan and to the archipelago Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. These photographs depict landscapes where there is no digital connectivity of any kind and were calming in nature, offering a momentary escape for the mind, a chance to relax and reflect on the pure beauty of the natural world. The tranquillity of the landscapes shown was reflected in the exhibition space, as without the distraction of glowing phone screens, or the tapping of shoes, we all collectively admired the work in peace.
The second half of the exhibition, titled iPortrait, offered a stark contrast to the natural landscapes, showing portraits of people glued to their smartphones in metros all around the world. Shown as projections, these photographs that were ironically shot on an iPhone gave off a distinct dystopian feeling, where people are disconnected from one another, removing the basic human element of interaction.
Hassink chose to focus on the metro and subways systems of big cities such as London, Paris, New York and Shanghai (just to name a few) as a lateral comparison to the physical hardware of technology. I think that this link is clever and helps the audience to build a picture of how interconnected we all are, and the rate in which we are consuming technology on a daily basis.
This exhibition allowed for contemplation on a subject that is only being increasingly made aware of, especially in the workplace. It made me consider the ‘need’ we seem to have to be so connected, and how I, amongst others can reduce our digital time in order for some much-needed mental rest.
The day soon came to an end, and as I made my way to Rotterdam Centraal station I was reminded of the unforgettable and impressive architecture that the city is so well known for, as the station itself is no exception. This station, designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects is newly-renovated to accommodate for the 110,000 people that pass through it on a daily basis. The exterior of the station is bold, confident and modern — a recurring theme of the city.
As beautiful as Amsterdam is, I found it very refreshing to visit and explore Rotterdam, with the young and experimental architecture proudly displaying the attitude of a forward-thinking and adaptable city. If you are planning to visit I would really recommend it, as there is much to be seen — and in my opinion — inspiration to be found everywhere.