“It will be beautiful. Rotterdam will be a beautiful city.” Rotterdam will be spacious, it will have the elegance of a metropolis: the speeding traffic, the broad boulevards, all the tall buildings will generate a sense of bustle that blends harmoniously with modern life. It will not be easy-going, but today we would prefer to see a row of gleaming cars than a carriage full of old ladies, and we feel more at home in a shop faced in glass and mirrors than in an antiquated grocery store, where the pleasant scent of cloves, soap and candy stimulates us. Rotterdam will be our city, the city of twentieth-century people.

Rein Blijstra, in Het Vrije Volk 13-11-1952

onbekend-rotterdambouwt
Cover of Hoe zal Rotterdam bouwen? by architect Herman Kraaijvanger from 1946.Paul Groenendijk Collection

A new, better, more beautiful city

Reconstruction is the term used to denote the redevelopment of the Netherlands after the destruction of World War Two. In architecture and urban design it chiefly covers the period from 1945 to about 1968, and Rotterdam is the ultimate City of Reconstruction. Nowhere is that more visible than in the city centre. The bombing of 14 May 1940 destroyed the heart of the city, but other cities such as Middelburg, Arnhem, Nijmegen and Den Helder were also hit badly. Rotterdam tackled its reconstruction in the most rigorous and consistent manner and applied new ideas concerning functional planning. Rotterdam had never been renowned for its urban beauty, which is why so much of the city was cleared to create a tabula rasa for a new, better, more beautiful world.

na-aandenslag
The Aan den slag (‘Get to work’) monument seems inspired by socialist realism.National Archive/Spaarnestad Collection/Photographer unknown

Get to work

Reconstruction work did not get going during the wartime occupation, as scarcely any building work was possible. But after the liberation, the reconstruction of the city and harbour gained momentum rapidly. An illuminated sign on Coolsingel, the city’s main thoroughfare, read ‘Get to work’. Rotterdammers know how to make themselves useful. At its unveiling in November 1945, Karel Paul van der Mandele said: “Amidst the memorials erected to those who fell in the war, this monument will rise and call us to work. Before us lies the major task of building a new city. Employers and workers must join together and persevere. They must work and create work. May this memorial urge them on and inspire them.”

Pride

Enthusiasm for the reconstruction effort in Rotterdam was huge. Most Rotterdammers followed the progress of building work with pride. All sorts of activities took place on the annual ‘Opbouwdag’ (Construction Day), and daily newspapers covered them prominently. So-called ‘Reconstruction Rides’ organised by the RET, the city transport service, were very popular.

Moreover, there were exhibitions such as Rotterdam in the Near Future (1947), The City on the Maas Gets Back on its Feet (1949) and A City Rises Again (1950), and a series of events held very five years: Ahoy’ (1950), E55 (1955), Floriade (1960) and C70 (1970). Two magazines were entirely devoted to the reconstruction of Rotterdam: Rotterdam Builds! and The City on the Maas. Ten and twenty years of reconstruction were marked with publications. Many photographers were commissioned to compile books of photographs of the new Rotterdam, among them Cas Oorthuys, Ed van Wijk, Kees Molkenboer and Frits Rotgans. The city also commissioned films about the reconstruction, including And Still…Rotterdam! and Keep At It!. The city archive commissioned artists to capture the building work, and photographer Jan Roovers to take pictures of the city.

onbekend-wederopbouw1
Book cover for De Schoonheid van ons Land (‘The Beauty of our Country’). The new centre of Rotterdam was still seen as a paragon of beauty in 1959.Paul Groenendijk Collection

From scepticism to reassessment

By the late 1960s, however, reconstruction euphoria made way for scepticism and criticism. People felt the new centre was barren, impersonal and cheerless. It needed to become more attractive, vibrant and greener, and especially, it needed more homes and recreational amenities. In the 1970s, Amsterdam architects like Piet Blom were brought in to add some charm to the city. Buildings from the reconstruction era were demolished and replaced by contemporary architecture. Since the end of the twentieth century, however, there has been a reassessment of the architecture from the reconstruction period. Many publications, exhibitions and events emphasise the unique qualities of reconstruction architecture in Rotterdam. The fire boundary, the line that traces the extent of the area destroyed by the bombardment, is marked out in the city. Various buildings from the reconstruction period have already been given the status of listed historic structures and have been restored. In 2015, 75 years of reconstruction will be celebrated.

Houen zo! Part 1.

Houen zo! Part 2.