I STAND bemused, feeling like Alice in wonderland, under a whimsical ceiling like a giant jigsaw puzzle, made of around 4,000 perforated aluminium panels, with 3D images of enlarged fruits, vegetables, seeds, fish, flowers and insects. I am at Rotterdam’s horseshoe-shaped Markthal, the biggest indoor market hall in the Netherlands, with the Horn of Plenty, designed by Arno Coenen and Iris Roskam, on its humongous ceiling. This colourful pop-art ceiling mural, rendered by Pixar software, is seen by some as the city poking fun at the 17th century Dutch still-life paintings.
My guide points out that the mammoth building doubles up as an apartment block with 230 flats, whose windows peer down on the market stalls, from behind those images of broccoli florets and gargantuan prawns. I trawl the stalls, where locals shop and meet friends — tasting flavoured Gouda cheese, drooling at a diverse range of products: from cappuccino to cheese, from ice cream to cream-filled waffles and preserves. The Markthal site is also an important one when it comes to history. It is the very place where Rotterdam was founded in 1270, when a dyke was constructed on the river Rotte.
Rotterdam, the port city of the Netherlands, is not your typical pretty-as-a-picture Dutch city, with canals, tulips, clogs and cobblestone lanes, but is an ode to modernism and innovation. Shining, silver skyscrapers and brightly coloured tower blocks rise up on every side. In the middle of Rotterdam is a large bronze statue of a distressed man with a huge hole in place of his heart. Destroyed City is the name of the sculpture, which depicts how the centre of this city, was blitzed by the German Luftwaffe in 1940. It is said that the city burnt for six days till nothing was left. The city council took a radical decision to depart from tradition and construct modern buildings. “Light, air and space” was the motto of their postwar regeneration and the city, thus, became an experimental playground for new building styles.
The Netherland’s second city has been reinventing itself ever since, evolving into a hotbed of architecture and design, with buildings designed by world-renowned architects, from Norman Foster to Renzo Piano. In 2005, The New York Times declared, “Rotterdam is increasingly to architecture what Paris is to fashion or Los Angeles to entertainment.” Since 2003, the city has also hosted an Architecture Biennale, besides iconic building, art museums, and city neighbourhood tours. Lantarenvenster , the arthouse cinema theatre, on Rotterdam’s waterfront area, looking over the harbour, is a sleek glass-and-wood building — an Alvaro Siza masterpiece.
Rotterdam’s Central Station is a good introduction to what the city has to offer. With glass, wood and stainless steel and a dramatic stainless-steel canopy, it has one of the largest rooftop solar projects in Europe too. I also see the minimalistic metal-and-glass design of McDonald’s, by Dutch firm Mei Architects, to replace “the ugliest building in Rotterdam”.
As I walk along the Meuse river that bisects Rotterdam, I see two striking bridges spanning the divide: Erasmusbrug’s asymmetrical arch and Williamsburg’s crimson curve. Named after the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus, the Erasmus Bridge links the city centre in the north with the old docklands in the south — this suspension bridge with 40 steel cables is called The Swan, and has become the emblem of a new Rotterdam. A favourite haunt for film shootings, the Rotterdam Marathon and Tour de France.
Glitzy, futuristic skyscrapers vie for attention on the Wilhelmina Pier, beside the Art Nouveau headquarters of the Holland America line. Two striking buildings are Foster’s curved twin-tower complex, and, at the other end, Piano’s KPN Telecom Building, which features his signature terracotta, glass and curtain walls.
Across Blaak Market Square is Overblaak Development’s hexagonal pencil-shaped tower and the Cube Houses. In the late 1970s, architect Piet Blom designed three interlocking buildings, which included a tower that looks like a sharpened pencil and 40 bright yellow cube-shaped houses, tilted at an angle. As I walk through this surreal Magic Faraway Tree kind of forest, of pylon mounted cube-shaped apartments, I admire the ingenuity of the cubes that are set on pillars, above the traffic noise. Down at the street level are shops, a school and a children’s playground.
For a window into old Rotterdam, I visit the Protestant church of Laurenskerk, one of the few buildings that weren’t destroyed and the only remnant of the medieval city. Completed in 1525, as an austere building for the shipping community it served, it was damaged during the German attack of 1940 and painstakingly restored after World War II. Inside the church is a mausoleum for Dutch sea heroes, bronze doors designed by Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzu, beautiful chandeliers and four organs.
For a mix of food and vintage design, I head to Oude Noorden in north Rotterdam. Come evening, the city’s nightlife and jazz scene will have you enthralled. I, however, choose to spend hours at the lifestyle Swan Market, picking up design bits and bobs to take home. The beers at Bokaal (Nieuwemarkt) — more than 90 international varieties to choose from — seem like the perfect way to call it a day. A last glimpse at the skyline, dotted with construction cranes, tells how the city continues to innovate.
Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based writer.