OMA’s towering new De Rotterdam complex recasts the notion of the vertical city - but how does it stack up?
De Rotterdam is an enormous building with five main functions, roughly divided in offices, hotel, living, leisure and parking. It is not tailor-made but can theoretically accommodate a multitude of different businesses, which then customise their own interiors. Windows run from floor to ceiling but only the apartments on the west side have balconies optimising views of Rotterdam harbour, the North Sea, spectacular sunsets and, at night, the perpetual ballet mécanique of the container terminals. The original 1998 design for De Rotterdam also contained a multiplex cinema in the plinth and the facades were more differentiated. What is striking about the building is the overall impression of blankness. It is so blank, that it isn’t even enigmatic any more. It is not spectacular either, despite its size. It just sits there.
That does not mean De Rotterdam is uninteresting but rather that it unfolds in time, visually when you drive around it, or when the weather and light conditions change. De Rotterdam is so big that you can see it from afar, from outside Rotterdam, and because it stands in its very centre, your eye is always drawn towards it. It reminds me of Charles Luckman’s 1969 Federal Building on Wilshire in Los Angeles, an equally blank office block with a curtain wall facade that you circle around while driving on nearby freeways. Depending on where you are it constantly changes its appearance, especially at night, when just a few floors are lit here and there.
There is something similarly erratic in the composition of the blocks that make up De Rotterdam. The upper parts have been shifted from their bases, apparently without logic. In the case of De Rotterdam, however, it is clear though that this composition is studied, giving it a tension, which may relax when you move around it because the slits in the building open up. The towers stand on a plinth, forming a pedestal and emphasising the idea that you are confronted with a serious composition, reminiscent of some post-minimal art, like the work of Swiss artist Helmut Federle. At night, the facade turns into a largely blank screen, with pixels backlit from behind and a giant ‘n’ projected on it from the other side of the river to mark the ‘nhow’ hotel, which would otherwise not be distinguishable from the rest of the building.
The restrained aesthetics of De Rotterdam would appear to fit seamlessly into a series of recent buildings by OMA, calculated at distancing it from the hyperventilating madness of recent signature architecture. Yet a certain blankness has always been a continuous theme in the work of Rem Koolhaas and OMA, since Koolhaas’s earliest confrontations with culture in the work of the Nulbeweging. This Dutch variant on the Zero movement defined a large part of the editorial board of De Haagse Post, the magazine where he began working in the early ’60s as a journalist and layout assistant immediately after school. The work of Dutch polymath Armando, who produced simple monochrome lacquered sheet metal paintings with a few carefully placed bolts or barbed wire, encapsulated the Nulbeweging ethos, amplified by his manifesto Een internationale primeur (An international scoop). ‘Not moralizing or interpreting (art-ificing) the reality, but intensifying it. Starting point: an uncompromising acceptance of reality.(…) Working method: isolating, annexing. Thus: authenticity. Not of the maker, but of the information. The artist who is no longer an artist, but a cold, rational eye.’
In the same period, Koolhaas could see the work of artists like Yves Klein and other Nouveaux Réalistes in his beloved Stedelijk Museum. But it was not just visual blankness Koolhaas was confronted with at the time. There was also the blankness of the architectural plans of Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon: vast sectors that were supposed to be occupied by a wandering and thus constantly changing population, provisionally and playfully building ‘ambiances’ to temporarily dwell in like futuristic gypsies. Koolhaas did one of his first interviews with Constant in the Haagse Post in 1966, on the occasion of the artist presenting at the Biennale in Venice.
The issue of blankness is also present in some of Rem Koolhaas’s key texts, published in S, M, L, XL in 1995, three years before the initial design for De Rotterdam. Even if Koolhaas may be cautious, not wanting to see his realised projects as mere illustrations of his theories, it is hard to overlook the relationship between certain texts and De Rotterdam. Extolling a spirit of radical pragmatism, Typical Plan (1993) fetishises the deep rectangular, empty plans of American office buildings as developed in the 20th century, only disturbed by lift shafts and washrooms. Imagining Nothingness (1985) celebrates emptiness in a city, because ‘Where there is nothing, everything is possible’, and proposes the establishment of liberty zones. It is like Constant’s sectors, a ‘relentlessly enabling, ennobling background’, but one in which Junkspace is realised. In its celebration of anonymity, De Rotterdam is certainly generic.
But most of all, De Rotterdam is about Bigness (1994). Bigness is the sublime quality buildings acquire beyond a certain scale. Beyond that, Bigness not only enables the typical plan and puts it into a context but, because all floors may have multiple different occupants and programmes, it elevates the project to something beyond the simple vision of the architect. Ideally, it becomes like a gigantic beehive, an almost anarchist dynamic organisation with unpredictable outcomes, in which all occupants are connected in multiple ways, with the lift as a catalyst. Bigness also explains why there is not a more strenuous attempt to differentiate the volumes and the facade. ‘In Bigness’, Koolhaas writes, ‘the distance between core and envelope increases to the point where the facade can no longer reveal what happens inside. The humanist expectation of “honesty” is doomed: interior and exterior become separate projects, one dealing with the instability of programmatic and iconographic needs, the other − agent of disinformation − offering the city the apparent stability of an object.’ In the way Bigness breaks with all kinds of expectations about architecture, it also breaks with its context. ‘It exists; at most, it coexists. Its context is fuck context.’
This is how you experience De Rotterdam. Set on the Kop van Zuid peninsula in the river Meuse, it is much bigger than subsequent masterplans ever envisaged. The buildings surrounding it − a bad Piano tower, a cheap Foster, a weird and over-ambitious Mecanoo and a Siza caricature of an American Art-Deco skyscraper − are reduced to desperate figurants. The Piano building adjacent to De Rotterdam, which with its leaning facade was always a bit awkward, now looks as if it has been pushed aside by the OMA moloch and is falling over. In fact, the whole tableau now looks as if the other buildings are about to be torn down.
Rotterdam has a tradition of Bigness. After the city was flattened by wartime German bombardments, reconstruction started with large buildings providing spaces for wholesalers and smaller businesses, such as the 1953 Groothandelsgebouw by Hugh Maaskant next to the Central Station. Maaskant was the champion of this kind of building and also designed the offices OMA currently occupies. Yet however big these buildings may be, Maaskant always took care to divide his volumes and cultivate dramatic sculptural effects. They would never be as big and anonymous as the famous Chicago Merchandise Mart, once the largest building in the world in terms of floor space, and which he visited for inspiration.
“Bigness not only enables the typical plan and puts it into a context but, because all floors may have multiple different occupants and programmes, it elevates the project to something beyond the simple vision of the architect.”
Already in 1991, in a lecture for the Stichting Hoogbouw, a foundation that promoted high-rise buildings in the Netherlands, Koolhaas (invited as author of Delirious New York), emphasised that the difference between European and American skyscrapers is not so much their height but their depth, sometimes even taking up a whole block of the grid of Manhattan. De Rotterdam is not only a high, but also a deep building, taking up a whole block on the Kop van Zuid. In that sense, it is an American building that has landed in Rotterdam, aptly enough on the former pier and next to the terminal building from where the ships to New York used to leave. Even if it may not be an illustration of Koolhaas’s theories, it shows how theories as suggestions, digested by politicians and the market, can ultimately create a situation in which they are realised: by the person who presented the theories in the first place, or by someone else.
The problem with theories is also that over time they tend to become independent, solidify and even freeze. It remains to be seen if De Rotterdam will really become the wild and dynamic organisation Koolhaas predicts in Bigness. Apart from the hotel and the apartments, much of it is occupied by a single organisation, Rotterdam’s municipal city planning and engineering department. Following drastic staff cuts it moved there from three giant towers by SOM on the periphery of the city, adding to the huge volume of Rotterdam’s vacant building stock. Because there is no pressure on the real estate market, it’s unlikely De Rotterdam will ever become a New York-style commercial and social condenser.
For the Kop van Zuid and Rotterdam it’s a great pity that the cinema included in the original scheme is missing. This would not only have made De Rotterdam livelier, it would also have helped to animate the street. With the first floors given over to a parking garage and only the hotel reception addressing the ground plane, De Rotterdam recalls less compelling American examplars − not New York, but downtown Houston or Atlanta where the skyscrapers have no relationship with the street. The way the parking is present in the atrium, through glass walls, suggests (in the way of Houston), that this is the most important entrance to the building. Yet it has nothing to do with the idea of traditional public space in the European city. Without the context of a culture of urban congestion (in the way of New York), a theory celebrating radical pragmatism by its outcomes risks putting the cart before the horse. The blank canvas becomes just a blank.
Blank Account: De Rotterdam, by OMA in Rotterdam, Netherlands