Masters of light and shade

Art meets industrial in Rotterdam, Holland’s second city

By Ramy Salameh Created: November 5, 2012 Last Updated: November 6, 2012
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“There is always something being built in the city,” our guide confirmed as we stepped out from Rotterdam Central Station, which is being transformed into another of the city’s architectural landmarks. Using crimped silver cladding over a series of diagonal waves, the futuristic façade is taking shape and will soon become a fitting terminus for Holland’s second city.

Just 41 minutes away from Amsterdam by high-speed train, Rotterdam’s character and appearance is the polar opposite of the Dutch capital. There are no immediate signs of canals, or any gabled buildings silhouetted against the skyline, just the modern high rise landscape of business and industry. World War II, and more specifically May 1940, permanently disfigured pre-war Rotterdam. But this was also the moment the city was reborn, giving its citizens a blank canvas to regenerate their post-war home – a chance they grabbed with both hands.

Few cities can on the one hand be described as gritty, industrial, and workman-like, while on the other be a hub for art and design, innovation, and futurism. This modern-day Rotterdam is a place that attracts the creative industries, major art exhibitions, and a trend-setting young and ethnically diverse population to the banks of the River Maas.

Museum Park

The Road to Van Eyck – a new exhibition at the renowned Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen featuring the work of Jan Van Eyck – was the reason I had arrived in the city. Located in Museum Park, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is just one of the heavyweight cultural institutions that circuit the park and make it one of the many reasons for visiting Rotterdam. Jan Van Eyck was an early Dutch master whose revolutionary techniques influenced art and artists across the globe long after his death in 1441. 

The exhibition curators have tried to identify the genre of work that would have influenced Van Eyck’s art. The curators’ research led them to discover that previously unattributed medieval paintings were the work of Dutch painters of the early Netherlandish School. Bearing in mind that only a limited number of works from that period exist, the journey to create the exhibition has been incredibly valuable in gaining greater insight into Holland’s art history. Having all these works displayed together is unlikely to take place again owing to the age and fragile nature of the paintings still in existence, heightening its importance.

Van Eyck was a master of light and shade. Now, the cluster of buildings in Museum Park, including the Kunsthal Museum designed by Rem Koolhaas and the Netherland’s Architecture Institute, display his and other artists’ work. It would have been the perfect place for Van Eyck to be inspired if he were alive today. 

Kunsthal Museum continues the theme of edgy, industrial-style architecture that is apparent across the city, with the graduated ramp of the auditorium being the roof of the restaurant and vast window-vistas letting light filter into the large spaces. Currently, the museum features the voluptuous sculptures of Maillol, and the Avant Gardes exhibition stretching from the 1870s to the present day.

Innovative architecture

A number of Rotterdam’s landmark structures have given rise to some fond nicknames: The Cubes, The Pencil, The Red Apple, and maybe the most symbolic, The Swan, which is the Erasmus Bridge, designed by Ben Van Berkel. The 808-metre-long structure spans the River Maas in a modern and majestic fashion. The 32 steel cables fan out from the A-frame like rays of light, shining down upon the north and south banks. 

A number of Rotterdam’s landmark structures have given rise to some fond nicknames: The Cubes, The Pencil, The Red Apple, and maybe the most symbolic, The Swan, which is the Erasmus Bridge

The south bank is an area of the city that continues to be regenerated. It is within the southern district around Wilhemenakade where a few of the remaining buildings of the past have been shaped into the present. They sit happily next to futuristic designs that have already created the next fashionable area of the city. 

The former workshop complex of the Holland-America line dating back to the 1950s incorporates the LPII Expo Hall and the Nederland FotoMuseum. It also has one of the best restaurants in the country owned and run by chef Hermin den Blijker called Las Palmas, named after the warehouse building it now occupies. 

Las Palmas is a place where den Blijker’s talented team creates the very best of Dutch cuisine within the open plan kitchens, including the signature “fish and meat” dishes. The chic dining space is bathed in soft light, yet sits well against the stark cement walls, columns, and visible piping and duct work that streak across the ceiling like an underground map.

Back across the bridge, nocturnal life comes alive in Witte de Withstraat avenue, where trendy bars and restaurants intermingle with boutique shops and galleries. Each individually expresses the multi-cultural and trendy nature of over 166 nationalities who call Rotterdam home. This ethnic thread is no better highlighted than walking past the windows of the Hotel Bazar and Restaurant. A sea of North African lanterns emanating kaleidoscopic colours above the heads of diners is enough to entice shoppers into the eastern souk-style atmosphere.

Rotterdam is not just a diversion from the capital Amsterdam, but a standalone cultural weekend treat. The more time spent researching the “what’s on” section of the media, the more the city will give back to you, with an array of activities to match the other established centres of fashion, architecture, and culture.

The next time I hear a Rotterdamer say “There is always building taking place in their city”, I will proffer a wry smile. I now understand that what they really mean is that their city is always innovating, changing, and looking forward. The cranes, diggers, and workman are the paint brushes of the contemporary Dutch masters of design, and Rotterdam continues to be their canvas upon which to add light and shade.

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Ramy Salameh is an award-winning freelance travel writer based in London and a member of the National Union of Journalists.

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