The Paradox of Rotterdam

*Report by Jean-Philippe Peynot*

A new city that witnessed the birth of Erasmus in the 15th century. An anarchic city where everything is in its place. A market city where human relationships are more important than negociations. An industrial city where life is good. Rotterdam was destroyed during the Second World War, but almost simultaneously rose from its ashes, with the force and vitality that makes it one of the most surprising and attractive cities of the early 21st century.

The Paradox of Rotterdam
The city of Rotterdam has been advancing towards the future and towards the sea for over a thousand years. Photo : © Peter Schmidt / Rotterdam Image Bank

Rotterdam unveiled
Some cities know what they need to do to attract travellers, to keep the world’s attention focused on them. Paris, London or Amsterdam readily lend themselves to the dreams of those who have not yet visited. And then there are other cities, more discrete, secretive, that are not so easy to discern. Rotterdam is one such city. One of the largest ports in Europe, it isn’t just concerned with its image. Rotterdam is a city that lives for its inhabitants, an authentic city, that strikes a chord with the people who visit. Your journey begins on the Thalys train in Paris. Two hours and 37 minutes later you’re in Rotterdam. You can take a relaxing stroll along the waters edge, a continuous stretch of water which is omnipresent, flowing through the forest of skyscapers dotted with some well-preserved old houses. In Rotterdam, you don’t feel the weight of history. The city is contemporary, and immediate impressions are that it is an accomodating city. There is no city centre or periphery here, the city grew along the Nieuwe Maas, which brings water from the Rhine to the North Sea, the port was moved from the east to the west of the city to accomodate ever-larger ships.

Architecture is the heart and pride of the city
In Rotterdam, architectural tradition is not representative of a style or advent of an era but of a collective interest in architecture, its history and its most recent developments. Thus, the Sonneveld House, paradigm for “machines for living”, designed in 1929 by Leendert van der Vlugt and Johannes Andreas Brinkman fait-elle face à the Dutch Institute of Architecture, where they celebrate architecture for everyday life and reflect on how to build the city, beyond the purely “cosmetic” concerns, which nowadays seems to be a decisive factor in the choice of architect, which might further explain why a “star” architect is often chosen over a lesser known architect. Buildings are commisioned on a whim as if we were adding a building to a collection, rather than a city. Not easily summed up by its buildings, Rotterdam seems to be able to reinvent itself. It’s a city that is still contemporary, still full of life, and more attractive than ever.

The Paradox of Rotterdam
The Frank Brandwijk Suite © Pincoffs

At home in Rotterdam
The Pincoffs Hotel is a mix of old and modern styles, and has all the advantages of a guest house and of a large hotel. The subtle mix of antiques and contemporary furnishings add a touch of originality, and sometimes even humour. Everything has been considered to make you feel at home, from the light and spaces to memories. Here, the old adage ‘opposites attract’ certainly rings true. Could it be a gauge of success, or seduction? The name of the hotel was inspired by Lodewijk Pincoffs, an esteemed businessman who in the 19th century contributed to turning the port of Rotterdam into the influential port that is has become today. The Pincoffs Hotel is a part of this complex story of a man who was famous before being reviled, and a city that flourished and that was admired around the world, before being almost completely destroyed in the last century.

Industrial Romanticism
After travelling the world as journalists, Karen Hamerlynck and her husband Edwin van der Meijde, who adored Rotterdam, decided to create their ideal hotel. According to Karen, a native of Amsterdam, Rotterdam is a romantic city that gets under your skin, “a sort of industrial romanticism”, and it is also “a city where there is plenty of space, for its buildings, inhabitants and also for ideas. If you have a good idea, you get your chance. Whenever you want to do something positive for the city, everyone helps you, from neighbours to the politicians.” Perhaps this is why the Pincoffs Hotel might seem so welcoming and charming, it’s the place for you!

The Paradox of Rotterdam
The two street facing facades of the hotel overlook a body of water © Pincoffs

The Paradox of Rotterdam
The room where breakfast is served © Pincoffs

The Paradox of Rotterdam
Schieblock, the building occupied by the architects ZUS and other creatives, among them Fabrique Urbaine, who made the pieces of furniture you can see in the foreground. Photo: Ossip van Duivenbode © ZUS

Order and anarchy
Rotterdam is a city bubbling with creativity. Of course there’s the prestigious Witte de With,
a contemporary arts centre which coexists, in the same building, with another arts centre which calls itself TENT, but next door there is also a place that is much less conventional: WORM, run by artists who, with the help of the municipality, have managed to create a model for an arts centre that is open to all forms of culture, scholarly or popular, whether it be music, film, performance or any other form of creation.
Similarly, in a business zone where real estate projects were interrupted because of the recession, a collective of architects called ZUS (Sensitive Urban Zone) has reached an agreement with the municipality to revive the abandoned buildings while the crisis drags on until the economic downturn blows over and the major real estate projects cantake off again.
The irony of the situation is, that the the operation is a resounding success and the buildings have been converted into a creative hub that is more dynamic than they could ever have imagined. And yet, for ZUS and WORM, and their many friends, it’s always been about a form of anarchic protest, as the organisation that they built is run on the principles of freedom and transgression. Of course now that it’s a success, the developers are taking an interest and are exploring alternative possibilities to pre-designed office accommodation.

Dining out in the port of Rotterdam
Rotterdam is a city surrounded by water, but it also has agricultural land close by. Concern for the environment is a prerequisite for the survival of the city, a fact that everyone seems to agree upon, and that includes head chef Herman den Blijker. In an old warehouse named after the capital of the Canary Islands, the Las Palmas restaurant offers simple but high quality food, in a friendly atmosphere reminiscent of the port. The cod from the North Sea, and lamb that is raised on a neighbouring farm, are exceptional and prepared with great delicacy. Also worth noting: the service is perfect and the personnel even smile, at least, as Herman points out, they do when the chef’s not there!

The Paradox of Rotterdam
The Las Palmas restaurant is a convivial place to eat and drink, where you can watch the chefs prepare the dishes. © Las Palmas

The Paradox of Rotterdam
Handmade, an exhibition at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, examines commonplace assumptions associated with artisanal practices. Shown here, the Asymmetric Coral Dress (2012) by Iris van Herpen, Photo: Michel Zoeter. © Iris van Herpen

The Paradox of Rotterdam
Royal Blue Wool Isla Pants, Rust Orange Wool Straight Top, Royal Blue Background and Loyal Plant. From the collection Come in your blue stockings by the very young and talented Daisy Kroon. Photo: Remty Elenga. © Daisy Kroon



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Take the Thalys from Paris. It only takes 2hrs 37min. There are 10 departures each day.

The Pincoffs Suite Hotel - Stieltjesstraat 34 -

Las Palmas - Wilhelminakade 300 - Fresh produce, including fish caught in the North Sea and lamb raised near Rotterdam, for one of the best restaurants in town.

Ivy Restaurant - Lloydstraat 294 - Classic and modern cuisine -

Hopper - Schiedamse Vest 146 - To enjoy one of the best coffees in Rotterdam and eat a snack or homemade pastry -

Groos - Schiekade 203 - All the young Rotterdam-based designers are grouped together in this shop, and are proudly presented to the public. The building is entirely dedicated to design -

Margreeth Olsthoorn - Schilderstraat 5 - A very chic selection of new fashion trends for men and women, which include the Dutch brand Avelon -

ANSH46 - Fashion boutique for women with some of the best designers, including Alexander Wang, Rick Owens and Helmut Lang - Mauritsweg 51 -

Dutch Architecture Institute- Sibyllegatan 31 -

Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum - Museumpark 20 -

NAi – Nederlands Architectuurinstituut - Oppert 34 –

WORM -An unusual place, run by artists, where the visual arts, music and cinema coexist in harmony -

TENT and Witte De With, Centre for Contemporary Art - Witte de Withstraat 50 - et

KUNSTHAL (arch. Rem Koohaas), Westzeedijk 341 (on the other side of Museumpark) –

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