Back to the Future: How Rotterdam Became an American-style Metropolis

Originally published in DUTCH, the Magazine, July/August 2023

Like a fraternal twin with shared DNA but wildly different in personality and style, Rotterdam is the visual antithesis of Amsterdam. Rather than Golden Age canal mansions, futuristic glass towers line its canals, creating a modern skyline more typical of an American metropolis than any Dutch city.

With sleek high-rises on opposite sides of the Nieuwe Maas River and a montage of eclectic architecture, the Netherlands’ second largest city has evolved into an urban showcase of experimental design that’s both daring and sustainable. The past may define the Dutch capital, but the future inspires the New York of the Netherlands, affectionately nicknamed “Manhattan on the Maas.” 

Rotterdam surprises with sleek high-rises and a montage of eclectic architecture.

Identity Lost 

Between world wars, Rotterdam was a bastion of international espionage, jazz, culture and nightlife. Thanks to Dutch neutrality and a strategic location as Europe’s largest port, it attracted spies, traitors, immigrants and artists in the early 20th century. Still as quaint as Amsterdam until May 14, 1940, its pre-war identity was obliterated by Luftwaffe bombs that killed some 900 Rotterdammers and made 85,000 others homeless. Beyond the human toll, the aerial raid destroyed six centuries of cobblestone streets, medieval churches and gabled buildings, totalling some 30,000 structures. In 15 minutes, Rotterdam’s medieval core was leveled to little more than ashes. 

Nazi bombs leveled Rotterdam to little more than ashes in just 15 minutes on May 14, 1940. Photo credit: Holocaust Encyclopaedia

Following the attack fires raged, consuming most of what was left of the city. Dutch forces surrendered after Hitler threatened to bomb Utrecht, but Rotterdam was unintentionally hit again in 1943 and 1945 by Allied troops targeting shipbuilding installations and train rails. Like Nazi raids, these accidental assaults destroyed lives and property while igniting fires that ravaged more of the city than the bombs alone. Occupying Germans cleared the debris and deported most Jewish Rotterdammers to Nazi death camps. 

A Blank Slate

While infernos still simmered, administrators met four days after the Rotterdam Blitz to discuss reconstruction. Despite pleas to restore historic buildings to their former glory, as Poland did at considerable expense in Warsaw, Dutch officials resolved to bulldoze Rotterdam’s center with the exception of a few tattered municipal structures, leaving a blank slate for renewal. With glass-half-full vision, they saw Hitler’s destruction as an opportunity to improve impoverished, overcrowded neighborhoods and solve other issues that had plagued pre-war Rotterdam. Simultaneously, they could modernize the urban fabric in ways previously seen as too radical. 

Rather than restoring historic buildings to their former glory, as Poland did in Warsaw, Dutch officials bulldozed Rotterdam’s entire center. Photo credit: Notes From Poland, Arian Zwegers/Flickr

In a pivotal move that shaped its post-war identity, Rotterdam’s peacetime planners concluded that using the past as a template for rebuilding would preclude a more modern future. While Amsterdam and other Dutch cities looked back for inspiration, these visionaries rejected nostalgia and embraced the chance to construct a striking American-style metropolis rather than a carbon copy of the quaint town that was lost. Their creativity turned the most apocalyptic event in Rotterdam history into a launch pad for Europe’s architectural test kitchen.

Less than a week after Hitler’s bombardment, Rotterdam city planner W.G. Witteveen drew up plans that preserved most of the former layout but with widened streets and sidewalks. Under his watch, several new or unfinished projects, including Rotterdam Bank and the Maastunnel – the Netherlands’ first car-cyclist-pedestrian passage under the Maas – progressed toward completion, providing employment for Rotterdammers during the German occupation until construction stopped in 1942.

Post-war Rotterdam welcomed the kind of architectural experimentation deemed too revolutionary in cultural or political centers like Amsterdam and Den Haag.

In 1944, as the Nazis clung to control, Dutch industrialist Cees van der Leeuw convened another meeting at Van Nellefabriek, his steel and glass factory dubbed “the most beautiful spectacle of the modern age” by legendary architect Le Corbusier. In this icon of 20th-century industrial architecture, captains of industry deemed Witteveen’s plan too strict. They wanted more flexibility in a grander, more radical rebuild.

When the city fired Witteveen and hired his assistant, Cornelis van Traa, to create “a free-flowing city of objects,” a new Rotterdam with one of the world’s most playful landscapes was born. The reinvented city welcomed the kind of architectural experimentation deemed too revolutionary in cultural or political centers like Amsterdam and Den Haag. 

Nirvana for Architecture Geeks

Adopted in 1946, van Traa’s rebuild emphasized open spaces and wide, American-style boulevards as conducive to cars as to bikes and horses. It reimagined Maas Boulevard as a tree-lined corridor showcasing the river and working harbor. A year later, wholesaler Frits Pot flew to Chicago to research designs for a massive office building that would provide much-needed space for re-emerging businesses.

Completed in 1953, the Groothandelsgebouw, modeled after Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, is one of Rotterdam’s first major post-war structures. In the same year, Europe’s first car-free shopping street, the Lijnbaan, opened in Rotterdam, lined with shops allegedly selling shirts with the sleeves already rolled up. 

To showcase the emerging skyline while creating a visual link between the city and its harbor – named world’s biggest in 1962 – Euromast debuted at the first Floriade International Flower Exhibition in 1960. The 185-meter tower offers panoramic views of Rotterdam and beyond and has been a member of the World Federation of Great Towers since 2010.

While Euromast is still the tallest symbol of the post-war city, Piet Blom’s playful Kubuswoningen is possibly the most whimsical. Responding to ’70s politician Hans Mentink’s call for “architecture with some life in it,” Blom designed a forest of yellow cube-houses forming an asymmetrical village within a city, with an “urban roof” of housetops representing trees.

Tilting at 45-degree angles, Piet Blom’s yellow cube houses rise above a main road near Rotterdam’s Blaak tram/metro stop.

As a solution to using space above a pedestrian bridge, the 38 cube homes plus two super cubes tilt at 45-degree angles on hexagonal pillars above a main road near Blaak tram/metro stop, which inspired the nickname, “Blaak Forest.”

Inside the Kijk-Kubus Museum House, there’s proof that innovative architecture calls for creative interior design; the three-level homes offer great views but nary a straight wall. Accessed via typically narrow Dutch stairs, they feature angled sides and ceilings that make just 25% of a 100-square-meter interior usable. While playfully eccentric, the Kubuswoningen create a barrier between city and river, counter to van Traa’s plan. 

Adjacent to the Cube Houses, Blom’s Pencil Tower juts into the sky like a sharpened writing tool. Next to this hexagonal tower, Rotterdam Central Library, an architectural curiosity shaped like a cube minus one corner, sprouts yellow ribbons of air-conditioning pipes that have inspired critical comparisons to Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Built in 1977, the cascading glass facade features six floors housing 400,000 books, including the largest collection of Erasmus’ works shelved in an open setting.

Built in 1984, the Blaaktoren (Pencil Tower) is a 61-meter, 15-story residential building designed by Piet Blom.

Manhattan on the Maas

Before Rotterdam’s post-war reinvention, its 43-meter-high Wittehuis was Europe’s tallest building. Completed in 1898, the 11-story office structure is modeled after Art Nouveau-style American highrises, with a Chicago-type steel skeleton, ceramic façade and modern elevator. It marks the perimeter of the 1940 bombing, which heavily damaged its office.

A quarter-century before its debut, Holland America opened a sea route linking Rotterdam with New York. From 1872 until its last steamship crossed the Atlantic a century later, millions of Europeans left the wharves of what is now Kop Van Zuid, seeking greener pastures in America. In 1993, the headquarters of the Dutch shipping company transformed into Hotel New York, with “Holland Amerika Lijn” still emblazoned on its façade. 

Built at the turn of the 20th century, Rotterdam’s Wittehuis marks the perimeter of the 1940 bombing, which heavily damaged its office.

As skyscrapers rose on both banks of the river, Rotterdam earned its “Manhattan on the Mass” nickname. Sanctioned after long political struggles, towers like Kop van Zuid on its southern bank have gentrified the Wilhelminakade district, a neighborhood that fell into disrepair with the advent of affordable air travel. It’s now one of Rotterdam’s swankiest.

On the northern side, De Rotterdam, named after one of the ships that carried Dutch migrants to America from the same pier, was part of an ambitious revitalization plan aimed at transforming the historic port into a lively waterfront hub. Its three, 150-meter towers were conceived as a city within a city, with offices, apartments, a hotel, conference facilities, shops and restaurants. Powered by rooftop solar panels and wind turbines, with temperature control via the Maas and high-tech elevators that return power to the grid, it’s one of the Netherlands’ greenest buildings. 

Opened in 1996 by Queen Beatrix, the iconic Erasmus Bridge frames Rotterdam’s futuristic skyline.

In the early 21st century, skyscrapers like the 160-meter Maastoren and New Orleans, as well as Zalmhaventoren, a 212-meter residential tower, were added to the mix. World-class architects, including Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster, contributed to a futuristic skyline framed by Rotterdam’s iconic Erasmusbrug.

Opened by Queen Beatrix in 1996, the 800-meter-long suspension bridge is named after Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, aka Erasmus of Rotterdam. The graceful arc, nicknamed “De Zwaan” (The Swan) for its curves and white color, connects north and south Rotterdam. At 139 meters, it’s the Netherlands’ tallest bridge.

Nicknamed “The Swan” for its graceful curves and white color, the Erasmus Bridge connects north and south Rotterdam.

From Surreal to Sustainable

In 2014, the most surreal addition to Rotterdam’s post-war architectural montage opened:  Markthal. MVRDV, a Dutch firm known for quirky architectural solutions, designed the €175 million indoor food court capped with a dome of posh apartments.

Inside what resembles an airplane hanger, everything from Dutch cheeses to Moroccan spices and organic meat is sold – priced higher than fare at the neighboring Saturday street-fair but marketed with more flair. Under a Sistine Chapel of produce, grapes as plump as watermelons and highrise broccoli stalks tumble from a ceiling mural described as “the Big Bang of Fruit” by its creator, Arno Coenen. 

In the same year Markthal opened, Rotterdam Central Station debuted as an uber-modern transport hub. After years of construction, it testifies to the city’s ongoing spirit of reinvention in a soaring steel and glass structure with no resemblance to Amsterdam’s 19th-century train station. In a nod to the past, the clock on the façade built in 1957 was preserved. LED lighting now illuminates the “Centraal Station” letters while solar panels partially cover a roof pointed toward Centrum. 

By promoting green architecture, Rotterdam aims to become the world’s most sustainable port city. Toward that goal, plastic waste is retrieved on the south side of the Maas before it reaches the North Sea at Recycled Park. The waste is recycled into floating platforms that maximize space in a water-bound city while providing surfaces for plants and marine life to thrive.

Plastic waste is retrieved on the south side of the Maas at Recycled Park.

Equally out-of-this-world is Floating Farm, a self-sustaining dairy platform that yields 1,200 liters of milk/daily in a bovine paradise for 40 happy cows. If floating cows and waste retrieval systems aren’t enough to launch Rotterdam into the sustainable future, the city also is the first in the world to build roads using plastic waste rescued from the sea. By removing waste from the ocean and resuscitating it as polymer blocks, the Plastic Road keeps millions of tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, paving the way for a cleaner, more sustainable future.

In 2007, Rotterdam joined C40 Cities, a worldwide network of 96 metropolises confronting climate change with projects ranging from net-zero carbon buildings to “greener” streets. It reinforced its environmental commitment with its 2019 Climate Agreement to halve CO2 and greenhouse-gas emissions by 2029. To reach that goal, it’s investing in green spaces, incentivizing smart design, and extracting value from neglect.

Rooftop gardens make use of vertical space, yielding herbs, green space, and spots for casual dining.

Some 200 million square feet of post-war flat rooftops have transformed into “green roofs” that double as urban social spaces that absorb rain and summer heat. In 2025, the Dutch Windwheel, a 174-meter-round building powered by a bladeless wind turbine, will showcase Dutch innovation as a platform for renewable energy, advanced technology, and the circular economy.

Looking Back, Envisioning the Future

In what’s become a futuristic city, vestiges of the past remain. Still standing in Rotterdam’s old medieval center is Sint-Laurenskerk, completed in 1525, and the 17th-century statue of Erasmus that fronts it on Grotekerkplein. Other rare survivors of the Rotterdam Blitz include Het Schielandshuis Museum, a 17th-century building now housing Rotterdam Tourist Information; Wereldmuseum Rotterdam, a 19th-century museum that traces Rotterdam’s colonial past; and Rotterdam City Hall, completed in 1920. 

In a country where many towns still resemble Golden Age villages, Rotterdam stands tall as the Netherlands’ most un-Dutch modern metropolis.

One of the few unscathed neighborhoods wasn’t originally in Rotterdam, but served as the port of Delft. With its old boats, cantilevered drawbridge, churning windmill and 15th-century Pelgrimvaderskerk, historic Delfshaven looks like it could be plucked from a Vermeer painting. But it’s an anomaly in a post-war landscape where daring is conventional and architects push the envelope toward science fiction.

In a country where many towns still resemble Golden Age villages, Rotterdam stands tall as the Netherlands’ most un-Dutch modern metropolis. Unlike post-war Dubai or Doha – cities created from deserts by one wealthy generation seeking a global reputation – it’s evolved over nearly a century as a livable, walkable, bikeable city that meets its residents’ needs while respecting the past and envisioning the future.

One comment

  1. Brilliant article. It was so very informative about Rotterdam. Well written and interesting. Thank you!

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