Go Here: Rotterdam

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There are certain charms that North Americans hope for when visiting a Western European town or city: café-lined squares, gingerbread buildings, cobblestonedstreets that twist and turn in every direction.

Arriving in Rotterdam, then, can be unsatisfying, at least at first. Glass-and-steel skyscrapers shoot up from wide, razor-straight, car-filled boulevards. On the surface, everything looks distressingly familiar.

The seeming charmlessness of the place was, for a long time, why tourists to the Netherlands skipped Rotterdam. More people preferred the exuberance of Amsterdam or the stateliness of The Hague to the efficient, if bland, port city.

Recently, though, Rotterdam has been producing exhilarating works of contemporary architecture – quirky, cool and colourful train stations, food markets and bridges that not only stand out today, but point to an optimistic tomorrow. This zeal for the contemporary helped boost visits to Rotterdam by almost 25 per cent between 2015 and 2016 alone. The figure will likely rise as Rotterdam continues to unveil its inspiring infrastructure for the future, including a floating cow farm, an island park made of plastic and the world’s coolest warehouse (seriously).

Rotterdam’s history stretches back more than a millennium, but the place was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War. A single day of bombing erased nearly 30,000 buildings. Instead of re-creating the past (only a dozen or so historic landmarks remain), Rotterdam decided to adopt modernity.

At first, that meant modernity by way of Cleveland. But more recently, the city’s open attitude to contemporary architecture has cultivated many top designers, including the architectural aptronym Rem Koolhaas, who designed Rotterdam’s new City Hall to look like a pixelated cloud, and West 8, a landscape studio that has not only helped reinvent its own town, but also designed the “wave decks” that ripple across Toronto’s waterfront.

The results are evident as soon as one arrives in Rotterdam. The central station, opened in 2014, replaces something that was too small, too cramped and had all the grace of a 1950s government office. Now, the platforms are topped with an airy glass-and-steel canopy that filters light as through a forest of geometrically perfect trees. The concourse is topped by a dynamic roof that swoops overhead like an eagle’s wing in mid-flap.

As daring as the train station’s ceilings are, they don’t compare to the Market Hall, a massive food market designed by architecture firm MVRDV. The ceiling, often called Rotterdam’s Sistine Chapel, is decorated with 4,000 aluminum panels that together create a giant mosaic of fruits, vegetables, fish and flowers.

The building, which cost nearly €180-million ($270.8-million), was partly funded by an innovative formula. The city wanted to extend and cover an existing outdoor market, but didn’t want to pay for it. So it worked with a developer who offset the financing by incorporating both condos and offices into the arc of the roof. Subtly placed windows, punched through the mosaic, provide residents with views into the market so they can eye the local delicacies ( gouda, krokets and stroopwafels, say) that they might go down and buy later.

The new Luchtsingel pedestrian bridge, designed by local architecture firm ZUS, was also built with an innovative financing model – crowdfunding. The sinuous structure branches off in different directions to reconnect three neighbourhoods once rent apart by industrial infrastructure, namely train tracks and giant roads. The walls of the bridge, painted a vibrant, highlighter yellow, are lined with 8,000-plus names – a thank you to the many donors who backed the project.

The bridge connects with Schiekade 189, a converted factory now filled with startups as well as Op Het Dak, a locavore restaurant with a devotion to freshness so strong that much of the produce is grown on an adjacent rooftop.

Producing food locally is something the city is trying to do more of. This summer, Beladon, a sustainable-development company, is opening the world’s first floating farm. Located in Rotterdam’s Merwehaven harbour, it will house 40 cows producing milk, yogurt and cheese. “With a growing population covering our farmland in concrete, we asked ourselves, how can we find space on a crowded planet?” Beladon’s CEO Peter van Wingerden says.

Rotterdam’s waterways, long a source of the city’s economic strength, seemed like a good place to start. The farm will be connected by multiple bridges, to make ferrying the livestock (and their waste) easier. It will also have milking and manure-collecting robots that van Wingerden says will help the farming process both on and off the water.

Near the farm, on the Nieuwe Maas river, will be another floating structure: Recycled Park. Designed by architect Ramon Knoester, a series of interlocking, plant-covered islands made of salvaged waste hopes to address two problems: provide more green space to the residents of the growing city and find a purpose for the ubiquitous plastics that are being dumped every year. “There is so much plastic being dumped into the water,” Knoester says. “We will be able to walk on it spring 2018,” he says, when the park opens.

If the Recycled Park shows how Rotterdam makes the most of overlooked objects and spaces, so does the Art Depot. Set to open in 2018, it’s essentially a warehouse for all the city’s art that it doesn’t have room to display at its Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. But instead of hiding all the paintings and sculptures away in a dank, hidden facility (the way it currently does), the Art Depot, designed by the Market Hall’s MVRDV, puts the collection on view, albeit in an uncurated, intentionally cluttered way. Rather than spare rooms with a few paintings per wall, crowded, storage-cum-cabinets and racks will allow people to easily search through the archives. Plus, the urn-shaped, mirror-clad building, topped with a garden and restaurant, will be much more inviting than the typical storage locker.

“As far as we know, this is the first facility of its kind,” project architect Sannevan der Burgh says. “So we are curious to see what kind of precedent this sets.” It’s a sentiment that can be carried over to the whole city.

This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, January 6, 2017.

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