Rotterdam's history is one of creation and destruction, with generous doses of innovation and experimentation thrown into the mix. The Netherlands' second city has come a long way since its establishment as a fishing village: from being one of the bases of the Dutch East India Company, the world's first multinational corporation, to developing into Europe's busiest shipping port, and being a global leader in the fields of contemporary architecture and urban design.
Once part of a wetland, the first settlement here dates from around the turn of the first millennium, when settlers built on reclaimed land next to a tributary of the Rhine River delta that they called Rotta or Rotte ('Muddy Water') – the derivation of the modern city's name. The settlement developed as a fishing village and was chartered in 1328. Early on, a large flood wrought havoc, and the locals responded by building protective dikes and dams including the Schielands Hoge Zeedijk (Schieland’s High Sea Dike) along the northern banks of the present-day Nieuwe Maas river.
Count Willem IV of Holland granted Rotterdam city rights in 1340. Shortly afterwards, a shipping canal, the Rotterdamse Schie, was completed. This linked Rotterdam with the larger towns in the north, positioning it as an important port on the trading routes between the Netherlands, England and Germany. The port's importance was acknowledged by it becoming the seat of one of the six kammers (chambers) of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), the Dutch East India Company, in the early 17th century. The kammers were responsible for raising the start-up capital for the company, which was to become a huge multinational corporation; Rotterdam contributed 173,000 gilders, an investment that was to pay off in spades over the ensuing centuries.
Its role as a successful VOC port led to the city expanding its harbours and housing stock in the 17th century. City development boomed, and the local population did the same. Before the end of the century, it had become the second merchant city of the country, only beaten in importance by Amsterdam. However, unlike nearby towns such as Delft, Leiden and Dordrecht, Rotterdam didn't become a centre of culture – none of the major artistic or literary figures of the great Dutch Golden Age were based here.
Most trade stopped during the French occupation between 1795 and 1815, but the situation changed when, between 1866 and 1872, the Nieuwe Waterweg (New Waterway) was dug from Rotterdam to the North Sea to accommodate larger oceangoing steamships. This, combined with the opening of a railroad crossing the Maas River In 1877, which connected Rotterdam to the southern Netherlands, caused the city to boom again. A bridge was built connecting the city centre with the south bank of the Maas, where extensive harbour facilities were constructed at the end of the century.
The 20th century opened with construction of Waal Harbour between 1906 and 1930, giving Rotterdam the largest dredged harbour in the world and cementing its position as one of the world's great ports. Construction of the 11-storey Witte Huis (White House) office block, which was inspired by American office buildings and built in 1898, provided further evidence of Rotterdam's rapid growth and success. When completed, it was the tallest office building in Europe, with a height of 45m (147.64ft).
Rotterdam's strategic location in between Great Britain, Germany and German-occupied Belgium made it an intelligence centre during WWI. Both British and German secret services used it as their forward base for espionage operations in each other’s territory. The British secret service MI1 (‘C’), that we now know best as MI6, had its Rotterdam office on de Boompjes on the north bank of the Nieuwe Maas. The German Imperial Consulate General was located nearby.
The war brought dark times to Rotterdam. On 14 May 1940 the invading Germans issued an ultimatum to the resisting Dutch government: surrender or cities such as Rotterdam will be destroyed. The government capitulated; however, the Luftwaffe's bombers were already airborne and the raid was carried out. Over 90 bombs were dropped on the city, which started a fire that subsequently left the city centre almost razed to the ground. Over 900 Rotterdammers were killed, and 25,000 houses destroyed. The Stadhuis (City Hall) and main post office were among the few public buildings to survive.
On 31 March 1943, Allied (US) bombers accidentally bombed a residential area of the city while targeting the docks area, killing hundreds of locals.
The city was liberated by Canadian troops on 5 May 1945.
Faced with the daunting prospect of almost rebuilding their city from scratch, the local authorities made a brave and visionary decision: they would build a modern city that looked to the future rather than one that emulated the city of the past. An exhilarating building boom ensued, with innovative initiatives such as the Lijnbaan, the world's first modern pedestrian shopping strip-mall, bringing the city to the world's attention.
The Interwar Period
The 1920s and 1930s ushered in another economic boom, with the port ever-busy and trade going from strength to strength. Successful companies such as Van Nelle, a company that grew tea, coffee and tobacco in Java and processed these in Rotterdam, commissioned local architects to design factories and offices throughout the city. Many of these were homages to the ultramodern Nieuwe Bouwen (Dutch Functionalist) architectural style. The Van Nelle Factory in the city's industrial northwest was the best known; it's now Unesco listed as an internationally significant example of 20th-century industrial architecture.
The Building Boom Continues
When it comes to city construction, things haven't slowed down much since the post-war boom. Port areas of the city have been revitalised as a result of inspired urban planning, with Kop van Zuid (South Bank) and Katendrecht being notable successes that are home to a slew of important architect-designed buildings. This exciting architectural program has in turn led to the city becoming one of the Netherlands' tourism hotspots, with visitors attracted by the city's world-famous design culture.