The new heart of Rotterdam. Post-war reconstruction of the destroyed city

"The City on the Maas is getting back on its feet". The Dutch press was full of similar headlines after World War II, inspiring the people of Rotterdam to believe in the complete restoration of the city's central "triangle", which was completely destroyed in 1940.

The bombing of the second largest city in the Netherlands by the Luftwaffe began on May 10, 1940. Soon after, on May 14, a tragic event occurred that became known in the history of World War II as the Rotterdam Blitz. In a quarter of an hour, about 97 tons of bombs were dropped on the city, killing 850 people and destroying the central part of Rotterdam with an area of approximately 2.5 square kilometers, leaving about 80,000 people, 13% of the city's population, homeless.

This is what the center of Rotterdam looked like after the bombing of 1940, when the area was cleared of ruins for the future. The only dominant feature is the Sint-Laurenskerk tower

A total of 25,479 houses, 31 department stores, 2,320 small shops, 31 factories, 1,319 workshops, 675 warehouses, 1,437 offices, 13 banks, 19 consulates, 69 schools, 13 church hospitals, 14 public hospitals, 14 government offices, 4 train stations, 4 newspaper offices, 2 museums, 517 cafes and restaurants, 22 party halls, 12 cinemas, 2 theaters, and 184 commercial buildings were destroyed. Since 2007, the streets of modern-day Rotterdam have been marked by the firing lines of the destroyed center, which, like scars on the urban fabric, remind us of the tragedy that the city and its inhabitants suffered during World War II.

In a quarter of an hour, about 97 tons of bombs were dropped on the city, killing 850 people and destroying the central part of Rotterdam with an area of approximately 2.5 square kilometers.

The next day after the bombing, after assessing the situation and receiving an ultimatum from Germany about the possible destruction of Utrecht, the Netherlands surrendered. A few days later, on May 18, 1940, the Rotterdam City Council commissioned the architect Willem Gerrit Witteveen (1891-1979) to develop a new city plan. Since 1947, this date has been celebrated as Construction Day.

A pile of stones is all that remains of the Sint-Laurenskerk. Rotterdam, 1940

Various events were held at the time: the first piles of new buildings were laid in the ground, monuments and exhibitions were unveiled, lectures were organized, thematic publications were presented, etc. In the postwar years, two magazines were published that were entirely devoted to the reconstruction of Rotterdam: "Rotterdam Builds!" and "The City on the Maas". Anniversary dates-ten and twenty years of reconstruction-were marked by separate publications.

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Many photographers were commissioned to capture the new Rotterdam on film for later use in albums, including Cass Ortuis, Ed van Wijk, Kees Molkenburg, and Fritz Rothgans. The city also commissioned films about the reconstruction, including "And Yet... Rotterdam!" and "Hold on!". The city archives commissioned artists to record the construction work and photographer Jan Ruwers to take pictures of the city.

Poster for the exhibition Rotterdam Straks ("Rotterdam in the near future"), 1947, which presented the basic plan for reconstruction. © Rotterdam City Archives

On May 18, 1940, the City Council of Rotterdam commissioned the architect Willem Gerrit Witteveen to develop a new city plan. Since 1947, this date has been celebrated as Construction Day.

Installation of the memorial stone at the new shopping center in Hoogvliet on the day of construction, 1960. © Rotterdam City Archives

A bus stop for reconstruction tours for those wishing to see the construction in progress with their own eyes. © Rotterdam City Archives

Poster of a reconstruction tour depicting a residential area on the Gronendal, 1956. ©Rotterdam City Archives

The last Construction Day was held in 1970, when the reconstruction was finally completed. Since 1976, the City Center Day has been held annually on this date. In addition to the Construction Day, there were other initiatives to popularize the city's restoration. For example, in the spring of 1946, so-called reconstruction bus tours were organized for those who wanted to see the construction process with their own eyes. The route ran through the entire city and covered a distance of 31 km.

In 1956, due to the great interest of foreign tourists, the city's BBB travel agency organized a separate tour for them. Around 1957, the interest of Rotterdam residents in tours began to wane. It is assumed that this was due to the fact that relatively little had changed in and around the city that year. In 1960, the route was changed and the trip no longer passed through the center: attention was shifted to the expansion of the left bank of the Maas.


Reconstruction plan and basic plan

The recovery of the Netherlands after World War II, which went down in the history of urban design under the term "reconstruction," covered the period from 1945 to 1968. Rotterdam suffered the most damage and therefore changed more dramatically than the rest of the Dutch cities. The reconstruction plan, developed by Witteveen and his followers, envisaged the modernization of the city rather than its rebuilding according to the previous scheme.

As the architectural critic and writer Reinder Bleijstra (1901-1975) wrote in 1952 in Het Vrije Volk, "Rotterdam will be spacious, it will have the elegance of a metropolis: high-speed traffic, wide boulevards, tall buildings will create a sense of bustle that is in harmony with modern life... Rotterdam will be our city, the city of twentieth-century people." Pre-war Rotterdam was not distinguished by beauty and comfort, so it was decided to clear the center of the ruins to create a tabula rasa and apply new ideas for functional planning.

Witteveen, architect of the new Rotterdam, working on a design sketch, June 1940.

A map of Witten from December 1941. © Rotterdam City Archives

The reconstruction plan developed by Witteveen and his followers envisaged the modernization of the city, not its reconstruction according to the previous scheme

Despite the fact that during the military occupation, which lasted until May 5, 1945, no restoration work was carried out, the preparatory stage for future construction, such as rubble removal and garbage collection, began immediately and lasted until November 1940. Therefore, Witteveen and his team of specialists had to quickly decide which of the few surviving buildings were worth preserving. These were the Delftse Poort gate (1764), the Schielandshuis palace (1665), and the Laurenskerk tower (1525), but not the church itself.

The speed of the response and the development of the reconstruction plan were partly due to the fear that any delay could allow the Nazis to take over the reconstruction. The biggest fear was the specter of the "Great German Port" that Rotterdam could have become as envisioned by Albert Speer, Hitler's personal architect at the time and later Reich Minister of War Industries.

Delftse Poort (1764) on an early twentieth-century postcard. In 1938, the city council accepted Witteveen's proposal to move the Delft Gate to another location. In February-May 1939, the gate was carefully dismantled and moved. However, during the bombing of the city in May 1940, the work was only half completed. Some of the preserved elements were damaged, so in 1941 it was decided not to complete the reconstruction and to demolish the part that had already been assembled.

Symbolic recreation of the Delft Gate by Cor Kraat, 1988-95, Rotterdam

The Schielandshuis Palace (1665), which housed the Rotterdam Museum from 1986 to 2016 and then became a hotel

The beginning of the reconstruction of the Laurenskerk, 1952. Source:

In his plan, developed in a few weeks, Witteveen tried to find a solution to the city's problems of the time and ensure better circulation of traffic along wide boulevards, a higher aesthetic quality of buildings, and the clearing of urban slums around the Gudsessingel district. In terms of urban design, he stuck to perimeter neighborhoods and monumental streetscapes.

The architectural design was traditional: residential buildings and outbuildings with gable roofs. In September 1940, Witteveen presented his proposals to a government commissioner, who noted that the plan did not meet the needs of a city of almost a million inhabitants. Nevertheless, the reconstruction scheme was officially adopted in 1941 and presented at the Boijmans-Van Beuningen Museum in October of that year.

Witteveen tried to find a solution to the city's problems of the time and provide better circulation of traffic along wide boulevards

After clearing the rubble and demolishing buildings that could not be restored, temporary residential and commercial buildings were erected. However, some construction work was still carried out. Those projects that were under construction at the beginning of the war, such as the Blijdorp Zoo and the Maas Tunnel, were completed, except for the Rotterdamsche Bank on the main street of Kulsingel, which remained unfinished.

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The only project built during the war was the first phase of Wereldhaven in Gudsessingel, a residential neighborhood designed by Jan Wijs that consisted of 5-6-story brick buildings with courtyards and shops on the ground floors. From July 1942 until the end of the war, all construction in Rotterdam was suspended, and the vacant plots were used to grow grain.

Laying the first pile of the Wereldhaven residential complex, Rotterdam, April 15, 1941

One of the courtyards of Wereldhaven, 1951. © Rotterdam City Archives

Leopoldstraat, photographed from the houses on the Gudsessingel, 1946. © Rotterdam City Archives

Over the following years, the idea of rebuilding the city changed. From 1942 onwards, a group of Rotterdam businessmen led by the director of the Van Nelle company, Sijs van der Leeuw, who formed the Rotterdam Club, and progressive architects from the Opbouw, a society of architects and artists, began to criticize Witteveen's plans. They considered the reconstruction of Rotterdam to be more of an economic than an aesthetic endeavor.

Witteveen "recused himself" and went on sick leave in April 1944, from which he never returned to implement his plan. Witteveen was succeeded by his assistant Cornelis van Traa (1899-1970), who, based on Witteveen's ideas, drew up a new reconstruction plan called the "Basic Plan." Under van Traa, the city plan changed to a flexible scheme.

While Witteveen thought primarily in three dimensions and designed the city with the help of perspective drawings, van Traa's "Basic Plan" primarily focused on infrastructure and zoning. His plan was two-dimensional and did not prevent possible transformations in the future.

Basic plan, 1946. © Rotterdam City Archives

Perhaps the most important innovation in van Traa's plan was the zoning of the city and the separation of living from work and leisure. The center was intended primarily for work, shopping, and entertainment

Councilman Minus Polak turns on the traffic lights on the renovated Hofplein, December 15, 1966. © Rotterdam City Archives

Chaos in the pre-war Hofplein square. © Groot Rotterdam

Hofplein in the twenty-first century. Photo: © Ton Hermans

In the "Basic Plan" the idea of the old city triangle, formed in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, was preserved, and the street pattern was transformed into a regular grid of transport arteries. Hofplein Square, which in Witteveen's time was a complicated intersection with the modern Palace of Industry, was transformed into a well-organized traffic circle in van Traa's plan. Kulsingel Street was widened from 44 to 80 meters to turn it into a real central boulevard.

An important feature of the plan was the rebuilding of Kulsingel in the direction of Schiedamseweg. There, at the intersection with the Löwegafen, a so-called "window to the river" was created, from where one could feel the proximity of the water and the docks. This intervention necessitated the demolition of what remained of the Bijenkorf department store building (1928-1930) designed by Willem Marinus Dudok. The center was expanded to the west, creating space for the Linbaan shopping district.

The basic plan was so flexible that the street model evolved from courtyards in the city center to the revolutionary Linbaan Street, which became the first designed pedestrian shopping street in Europe. The plan also gave a noticeable preference to apartment buildings. In contrast to Witteveen, which was based on traditional architecture, subordinated and controlled by the city authorities, the Basic Plan, on the contrary, provided more space for modern, functional architecture, freed from the framework of municipal requirements.

The De Bijenkorf department store shortly after its completion, 1930s. Source:

New Bijenkorf designed by Marcel Breuer, 1957. Photo: © Frans Blok

In the late 1960s, when the plan was implemented, the euphoria of reconstruction gave way to skepticism and criticism

Perhaps the most important innovation in van Traa's plan was the zoning of the city and the separation of living from work and leisure. The center was intended primarily for work, shopping, and entertainment. Businesses and factories were moved to special industrial districts outside the center. Housing was mainly planned in areas on the outskirts of the city and in new garden suburbs in the south.

In contrast to the harmonious cityscape of Witteveen, van Traa sought clear and powerful contrasts between urban elements, such as the juxtaposition of the water space of the Maas and the high-rise, rhythmic buildings on the shore. Or like the open dock of Leeuwen, which stands out against the surrounding densely built-up areas, or the contrasts between wide transport arteries and narrow shopping streets, between transport intersections and squares on the one hand, and courtyards and other spaces closed to traffic on the other.

Office building in Hoogstrat designed by Jo van den Broek and Jaap Bakema, 1953. In the photo - after modern reconstruction, © Frans Blok

The "basic plan" for the reconstruction of Rotterdam was adopted by the city council on May 28, 1946. A headline in Het Vrije Volk called on the city to get to work: "Rotterdam, roll up your sleeves!" A brochure titled "The New Heart of Rotterdam" was also published, and in 1947 the city's reconstruction plan was presented as a model in the exhibition "Rotterdam in the Near Future" at the Boijmans-Van Beuningen Museum.

Groothandelsgebouw building designed by Hugh Maaskant and William of Tijen, 1953. Photo: © Frans Blok

In the late 1960s, when the plan was implemented, the euphoria of the reconstruction gave way to skepticism and criticism. Citizens considered the new center barren, impersonal, and joyless, and wanted it to become more attractive, brighter, greener, and with places for recreation. In the 1970s, Amsterdam architects such as Piet Blom were involved in the transformation to add charm to the city.

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At this time, some buildings of the reconstruction era were demolished and replaced with modern architecture. But since the end of the twentieth century, a new wave of reassessment of postwar architecture has been taking place. Many publications, exhibitions, and events emphasize its unique qualities, and buildings are being given the status of architectural monuments and restored.

View of the city center from the 5th floor of the Netherlands Architecture Institute. Photo: © Ton Hermans

Manhattan on the Maasai

Today's Rotterdam is a bold collage of few historic buildings from the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, modernist industrial and residential buildings from the early twentieth century, reconstruction-era buildings, and modern landmarks: the Erasmus cable-stayed bridge (1996) designed by Ben van Berkel (UNStudio); the multifunctional Markthal building (2014) on the market square next to the reconstructed Laurenskerk, which brought its authors, MVRDV, into the top architectural league; the "vertical city" De Rotterdam (2013), three 44-storey towers on the banks of the Maas, designed by the famous OMA; and De Zalmhaven (2022), a skyscraper designed by Dam & Partner architects and Claus en Kaan Architecten, with one of its towers standing 215 meters high, which will soon make it the tallest building in the Netherlands.

Two landmarks in one photo: the Erasmus cable-stayed bridge (1996) designed by Ben van Berkel (UNStudio) and the "vertical city" De Rotterdam (2013) designed by OMA

According to Rem Koolhaas, the high concentration of architectural practices per square meter in Rotterdam is directly related to its destruction during the Second World War

Markthal multifunctional building (2014) on the market square designed by MVRDV

Markthal (2014) in dialog with Laurenskerk (1525)

According to Rem Koolhaas, whose OMA bureau, like many other well-known Dutch architects, is headquartered in Rotterdam, the high concentration of architectural practices per square meter in the city is directly related to its destruction during World War II: "The city almost completely disappeared, only a few buildings remained. Of course, it had to be rebuilt, so it became very interesting for architects. It's no coincidence that the vast majority of Dutch architects live here," said Koolhaas in an interview dedicated to the long-awaited completion of De Rotterdam in 2013.

Van Traa's basic plan allowed, on the one hand, to establish a structured center, and, on the other hand, provided flexibility in filling this structure

Koolhaas was born in Rotterdam in 1944, six months before the war ended. He still remembers the deep crater from a German bomb in the middle of the sidewalk a few steps from his childhood home. According to Koolhaas, the almost non-existent historical context of urban architecture in Rotterdam gave architects complete carte blanche to experiment with forms and scales. Based on the theory of contextualism, which he wrote about in his study Bigness or the Problem of Large (1994), "if you create a building in an environment with others, the right way is to make it similar in scale and, if possible, in terms of expression."

But Koolhaas has always considered this way of thinking to be very limited and has instead considered another approach, which is contrast. "There are ways to experiment with these contrasts in architecture, just like the Surrealists combined an umbrella and a sewing machine in one painting... Rotterdam is a city where this kind of experimentation is legitimate. Since it was destroyed, the whole idea of context is very relative here."

De Zalmhaven skyscraper (2022) by Dam & Partner architects and Claus en Kaan Architecten

Van Traa's basic plan allowed, on the one hand, for a structured center, and, on the other hand, provided flexibility in filling this structure. At the first stage, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was mainly block development, which was perceived as progressive and served as an example of the city of the future for developing countries. The next decade, according to Koolhaas, brought nostalgia for historicism to Rotterdam.

At the same time, port activities began to gradually move towards the sea, and subsequently, Rotterdam, where the port had played the role of a city-forming enterprise since the late nineteenth century, was threatened with becoming a ghost: "In the 80s and 90s, the city no longer looked out over a busy harbor, but at empty warehouses; it became a kind of ghost town.

"So the reason why De Rotterdam is where it is is because it has become important for the city to start the next phase of its existence," says Koolhaas, "so it's not just an architectural ambition, but part of the ambition of the city itself. By listening to them, OMA and other Dutch bureaus are contributing to the development of Rotterdam in the 21st century. And it is for this reason that the city has turned into a second Manhattan and has become the center of Dutch skyscrapers. We will see where the spiral of history will lead architectural Rotterdam.



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