ROTTERDAM IN THE LIMELIGHT; Holland's Vibrant Second City Is a Showcase for Modern Architecture, Design and Art, Says Rowan Moore

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Byline: Rowan Moore

ROTTERDAM is everything that the standard tourist version of Holland is not. It's not big on pretty gables, or tulips, or windmills, or historic canalside walks. Although it has fine art galleries, you don't get the cascades of Rembrandt, Hals or Vermeer you get in other Dutch cities.

Its pride instead is in being modern. A big dock city, it believes in the power of doing and making. It represents that side of Dutchness that is about creating things anew, without too much sentimentality, and has done so for a century. Reconstruction following wartime devastation reinforced this culture.

Now, as the base of the legendary Rem Koolhaas, and several other leading architects, it is the nursery of design ideas that get pumped out in cities across the world.

As I write about architecture, I've been there often enough to visit its famous studios, and as it's a short hop across the North Sea it feels almost like an annexe of London. But this spring -- one of the best times to visit -- I went just to be there and see what I would do. The answer, which reflects on my inclinations as well as the city's, was to see more architecture.

Seeking a warming hot chocolate I found myself in the airy and elegant Cafe Brasserie Dudok, named after its pioneering architect.

I visited the Sonneveld House, a vision of modern living from 1933. I made the pilgrimage to the Van Nelle tea and coffee factory of 1931, now offices for creative businesses. With its sweeping glass walls and dramatically sloping walkways, this is everything modernist architecture aspired to be, but all too rarely was.

Wherever you go in Rotterdam there are signs of faith in the new -- sometimes naive, sometimes misguided, sometimes impressive. I ascended the Euromast of 1960, one of those hopeful pointy things you can find in a number of post-war cities, from whose elevated restaurant I took in a 360-degree view of city and docks.

I crossed the Erasmus Bridge, a sinewy pylon whose straining wires carry a road over the broad river Maas.

I dutifully visited the Netherlands Institute of Architecture, a sadly cumbersome building that fails to be a shining example of the art form it was built to celebrate.

One side of Dutch design is about clarity, elegance, lightness and the slightly fanatical application of reason, but there is another. Dutch architects also like perversity and a touch of madness.

It is part of the Netherlands' national identity that you can put much of a country below sea level, and this kind of methodical craziness also finds expression in its architecture.

Thus one of Rotterdam's top tourist attractions is the development of Cubic Houses by the architect Piet Blom, with each house an angled cube, like dice arrested in mid-fall. Each is poised on a hexagonal stalk. The theory is that they represent a small forest of trees, and that each dwelling is like a treehouse. …


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