It is the chiefest point of happiness that a man is willing to be what he is.
-Theologian Desiderius Erasmus, born in Rotterdam in 1466
Rotterdam is an urban planner's paradise, and I'm not alone in thinking this. The city is an exciting mix of old and new, and streets are alive with pedestrians, cyclists, and streetcars. Art work (including a naughty Santa Claus) and graffiti fill blank urban canvases, and there are plenty of large public spaces for people to gather. As a cyclist, I was excited to rent a bike and do some exploring by pedal. My report? It is so easy to get around the city and Rotterdam hands-down has an excellent grasp on how to design The World's Best Roundabout. Cycling in Rotterdam, and the Netherlands, is a dream: Not only do city planners provide separated, continuous, and well-marked bicycle lanes, but, and just as importantly, drivers are trained to watch for cyclists and pedestrians and cede the right of way to them (this involves a mix of traffic enforcement, public education, and street design). For once in my life I felt like cyclists and drivers were treated equally, meaning cyclists could navigate the city as easily as drivers could, if not more easily. Oh, Rotterdam, this urban planner loves you!
According to AtlasObscura.com, this wooden pedestrian bridge in the city center was 'built by crowdsourcing and saved a part of Rotterdam that was languishing in wait of city funding.' In today's world of urban planning, neighbors taking matters into their own hands like this is a bold, refreshing, and sustainable move. How did a community turn an urban barrier into a people-oriented, community-funded art project? First, locals developed a plan for the raised pedestrian network, then an architecture firm set up a crowdfunding system where donors could 'buy' planks for the bridge (notice the engraving of donor names in my photos). This project received attention from a design competition that awarded them enough money to complete the project and even add to it; now, the bridge has many sections and a garden (with swings) on the ground level. The roundabout, bright paint colors, and sloping tunnel-like bridge make for a delightful urban experience, especially since it has brought more foot traffic and renewed interest to this part of the city.
Upon its completion 1931, Le Corbusier declared the Van Nelle Factory to be 'the most beautiful spectacle of the modern age' and architects Roberston and Yerbury called it 'a poem in steel and glass.' This 'ideal factory' of the 1920s was built on the bank of a canal in Rotterdam's industrial area and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2014. The abundance of steel and glass façades (meaning generous application of the cutting-edge curtain wall principle) was built to have flexible interior spaces that adapted to the factory's needs. The International Style Van Nelle was designed by architect Leendert van der Vlugt and processed coffee, tea and tobacco, chewing gum, cigarettes, instant pudding and rice from tropical countries until operations ceased in 1996 (Wikipedia). While in Rotterdam, I biked over to the factory and a guard at the gate pointed me in the right direction; in the main building, there is a cafe open to visitors (cash only) and a small, free museum on the 7th floor (run by volunteers and closed when I went). Apart from this, visitors can walk the grounds and view the old machinery through the window. I forgot to get pictures from the most-photographed elevation, but had the fortune of passing the factory on a train out of town and saw 'VAN NELLE' lit up in glorious neon lights.
As much as I liked the Van Nelle factory, I couldn't help but fall in love with the quirky cube houses designed by architect Piet Blom. This tree-like complex was designed in 1977 to have 55 houses, and 38 were built. According to Wikipedia, Blom conceived the project as "living as an urban roof," or high-density housing with plenty of space on the ground level (aka the short-sighted 'tower in the park' planning theory). And although the homes were designed to "optimize the space inside," a quarter of the space's roughly 100 square meters is unusable thanks to the delightful 55-degree slants of windows and walls. (The best view in the house is at the kitchen sink, no lie.) For a mere € 3, visitors can explore a cube house on their own, but beware, the houses are tiny and a surprisingly high number of visitors will also be there. For those feeling extra spendy, an entire cube house is available to rent for $159 a night -- no pets, sorry! -- and Dutch hostel company Stayokay rents out accommodations in the largest cubes, an overnight experience that I think is worth the price tag. Fun fact: In 1974 and 1977, test versions of the cube house were built in Helmond, Netherlands.
Described as one of the best-preserved examples of Dutch Functionalist style, the Sonneveld House is one modernist house tour not to miss. Architecture firm Brinkman and Van der Vlugt designed the house in 1933 for Albertus Sonneveld, a director at the aforementioned Van Nelle Factory. Everything in the house works together, from furniture to lamps to dishes, and the villa is light and spacious. Overall, I enjoyed the Sonneveld house tour far more than the Master’s Houses of the Bauhaus in Germany, probably because this house was fully-furnished and visitors could tour the entire property on their own (with some sexy booties, of course). The entrance fee was € 10.00, about $11.00.
Markthal & Fenix Food Factory
Apart from its expanisve collection of modern architecture, Rotterdam is a great city for foodies. Two mandatory eating stops include the 2014 Markthal, the horseshoe-shaped market/office/residential facility in the middle of the city, and the smaller, cozier Fenix Food Factory 'food hub' in the former factory on one of the city's southern peninsulas. The two venues couldn't be more different and I enjoyed seeing (and tasting) Rotterdam's local, artisanal offerings.