The Rotterdam Blitz

It's true to say that a single event has largely shaped modern Rotterdam. On 14 May 1940, near the beginning of WWII, a squadron of 90 Luftwaffe (German air force) planes dropped over 1000 bombs on the city, destroying buildings and setting off a firestorm that levelled the medieval city centre and many other neighbourhoods. When the fires eventually died down, Rotterdammers were faced with an immense task: surviving the war and rebuilding both their city and their lives.

Lead-up to the Bombing

The Dutch had initially attempted to remain neutral in the conflict, as they had during WWI. However, the country's strategic location between Germany and the UK meant that the Germans had no intention of allowing this, as they saw the Netherlands as the logical launching pad for their planned invasion of Britain.

The Wehrmacht (German united armed forces) blitzkrieg commenced on 10 May 1940, dropping paratroopers at three airfields near Den Haag and starting the Battle for the Hague. Dutch forces launched a counter-offensive, preventing invading German troops from taking the city and proceeding to Rotterdam. The Germans needed to break this resistance and convince the Dutch to surrender – they decided to do this by threatening to bomb Rotterdam, the country's industrial engine room and major port, into submission.

Crossed Wires

At this point, the Germans gave Colonel Scharroo of the Dutch army, who with his troops was holding the defence line on the north bank of the Nieuwe Maas, an ultimatum: surrender Rotterdam or it would be destroyed. Scharroo initially refused but then asked for extra time to consider and consult with the Dutch high command. The German negotiator, General Schmidt, agreed but didn't realise that it was too late – the Luftwaffe's bombers were already in the air and the bombardment was soon underway.


Bombs rained down on the city for 15 minutes. Most hit buildings and triggered fires that were fanned by strong winds and soon merged into a firestorm. By the time the fires had died down, over 900 people were dead and 24,000 homes were destroyed, as were 24 churches, over 2000 shops, 775 warehouses and 62 schools. Around 80,000 Rotterdammers were made homeless. Photographs taken at the time show the badly damaged St Laurenskerk (the city's Great Church) and the Stadhuis (City Hall) as two of only a few major buildings left standing. Rotterdam's medieval city centre no longer existed.

The Surrender

After levelling Rotterdam, the Luftwaffe high command almost immediately threatened to destroy Utrecht if the Dutch Government did not surrender. Still reeling from what had happened in Rotterdam, the Dutch capitulated early the next day.

Allied Bombings

The 1940 blitz wasn't the only bombing that Rotterdammers were to be subjected to. During the time that the Germans were in control of the city (1940–45), Allied air forces carried out a number of raids, including bombing strategic installations in and around the port. On 31 March 1943, one of these raids went horribly wrong, when the US Army Air Forces mistakenly bombed a residential area, killing hundreds of men, women and children. This is sometimes referred to as the 'Forgotten Bombardment'.

Rebuilding the City

Within four days of the 1940 bombing, the city architect, WG Witteveen, was asked to draw up plans for the reconstruction of the city. His plan proposed a reconstruction of the historical urban structure of the city and when presented to the city authorities in December 1941, received a cool reception. Witteveen resigned in 1944 with very little rebuilding completed and his assistant Cornelis van Traa assumed direction of the reconstruction process.

The new city that Cornelis van Traa envisaged was very different to both Witteveen's vision and the original city, with a completely new spacial layout and an efficient traffic plan based on an orthoganal grid. Houses were to be built on the outskirts of the city in new residential areas that featured high-rise housing, parks and roads. The city centre would gain high-rise commercial and office buildings, as well as innovations such as the Lijnbaan, the global prototype for the modern pedestrianised strip-mall. The era of innovation and experimentation in urban design and architecture had arrived, and would continue until the present day.

Feature: Rotterdam's War & Resistance Museum

An eight-minute immersive multimedia experience at the small but impressive Museum Rotterdam: 1940-1945 NU outlines the terror and destruction caused by the 1940 bombardment and also has artefact-rich exhibits related to life in Rotterdam during the war, the resistance movement and the Holocaust.

Architecture City

If you're interested in architecture, you'll love Rotterdam. A walkable showpiece of 20th- and 21st-century buildings and innovative urban design, it's notable as much for its 'city in progress' and 'we'll try anything once' philosophy as it is as a repository for many truly great buildings, including a World Heritage–listed 1930s factory and a stunning, sleek vertical city designed by one of the world's best known practitioners, Rem Koolhaas.

Historical Remnants

At the end of WWII, large tracts of the city were levelled for safety reasons. Land in the city centre was acquired by the municipality so that its plans for a cohesive urban design could be implemented. One of the few historic buildings left standing was the Schielandshuis in Korte Hoogstraat, the only building in Rotterdam dating from the 17th century. Built as the headquarters of the Schieland Water Control Board, it was designed by famous Golden Age architect Pieter Post and built between 1662 and 1665. It's now home to the city's tourist information office.

The city's main Protestant church, St Laurenskerk, built in stages between 1499 and 1645, was extensively damaged during the bombardment and is now almost totally rebuilt.

Early-20th-century public buildings that made it through the bombardment included the Stadhuis (City Hall), an architectural mish-mash of Renaissance styles designed by HJ Evans and built between 1912 and 1920; and the Main Post Office, a neoclassical hulk designed by GC Bremer and built between 1915 and 1923.

In the docks area, the administration building of the Holland-America Line emerged unscathed. Designed by J Muller, Droogleever Fortuyn and CB Van der Trak and built in stages between 1901 and 1919, this art nouveau–influenced confection with its two whimsical clock towers now functions as Hotel New York.

De Stijl

The early 20th-century progressive Dutch artistic and architectural movement known as De Stijl ('The Style') didn't take off in Rotterdam to the same extent as it did in other parts of the country. One of the few buildings in this style in the city is Café De Unie. Designed by JJP Oud and built between 1924 and 1925, the vivid colours of its facade (the usual De Stijl red, blue, yellow and white) made it a city landmark. The cafe was destroyed in the 1940 bombing but its facade was reconstructed on Mauritsweg in 1986 (the building was originally on Coolsingel).

Dutch Functionalism

In the 1920s, local architects Johannes (Jan) Brinkman and Willem Kromhout established the Opbouw, an architecture club where members debated emerging architectural ways of thinking. The most popular of these was functionalism, a branch of modernism based on the idea that buildings should be designed based solely on their purpose and function and should ideally physically create a better world and a better life for the people who lived and worked in them. The Opbouw group soon collectively embraced a form of functionalism that would come to be known as the Nieuwe Bouwen (New Building), and members designed a number of buildings in the city. The most significant of these is the Unesco World Heritage–listed Van Nelle Fabriek, a concrete, glass and steel factory building designed by Jan Brinkman and Leendert van der Vlugt, built between 1925 and 1931. The managing directory of the factory, Albertus Sonneveld, was so pleased with the factory that he subsequently commissioned the architects to design a house for his family – the result was the Huis Sonneveld, built between 1929 and 1933 and now visitable as a house museum.

Post-War Reconstruction

As WWII drew to a close, the rebuilding of the city commenced. The initial focus was on rebuilding the port areas, which were the economic lifeblood of the city. New buildings of note included the Cruise Terminal designed by Jan Brinkman, Jo Van den Broek and Jacob Bakema and built between 1946 and 1949. A concrete structure with six shell roofs and a glass facade, it still looks remarkably modern.

In the city centre, the focus was on constructing commercial and office buildings. These included the Groothandelsgebouw, a huge structure near Centraal Station. Designed by HA Maaskant and W van Tijen and built between 1945 and 1952, it was the first major reconstruction project and on completion was the largest building in the country. Its stern concrete facade alleviated by glass is a familiar sight to all Rotterdammers. The building now houses businesses including the Suicide Club cocktail bar, which occupies one of the original rooftop cafeterias.

The 1950s

Reconstruction work continued at a cracking pace during the 1950s, with buildings in a variety of styles being added to the city's streets. Notable additions were the travertine-clad Bijenkorf Department Store, designed by Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer and opened in 1957; and the De Doelen concert hall, designed by EHA and HMJH Kraaijvanger and RH Fledderus and built between 1955 and 1966. The architects' use of expensive copper facing on the roof and stone on the concert hall's facade signified that the building was intended as a temple to culture.

'80s & '90s

Some of the city's signature buildings date from the 1980s and 1990s. Chief among these is Piet Blom's 1978–84 Overblaak Development (aka Blaakse Bos or Blaak Forest), with its crazily tilting yellow-and-white cube houses. Other stand-out structures include the Maritime Museum (1981–86) and the Willemswerf office tower (1983–89). Both were designed by Amsterdam-based WG (Wim) Quist. Also from this period is the first notable Rotterdam building designed by Rem Koolhaas, the Kunsthal, built between 1988 and 1992.

Urban Design

Rotterdam's urban design is as renowned as its architecture, and some of its most exciting modern developments can be credited to urban planner Riet Bakker, Director of Urban Development of the City of Rotterdam from 1986 to 1991 and director of the Rotterdam Urban Planning and Housing Department from 1991 to 1993. Bakker, who came to prominence as a planner after winning the international competition to design Paris' Parc de la Villette in 1984, was the creative genius behind the redevelopment of the dock areas at Kop van Zuid (South Bank) and the construction of the graceful white Erasmusbrug (Erasmus Bridge).

Another, earlier, urban-design triumph in the city is the Lijnbaan (1951–53), Jo Van den Broek's and Jaap Bakema's traffic-free shopping precinct in the city centre. Comprising two intersecting pedestrianised strips lined by two-storey shops made from prefabricated concrete panels, this fully pedestrianised precinct influenced retail architecture and urban design around the globe.

Currently underway and due to be completed in 2020 is the full renovation of the major boulevard in the city centre, the Coolsingel. This will provide green spaces, extra bike lanes and enhanced pedestrian walkways.

Neighbourhood Regeneration

The concept of community is important to Rotterdammers, and city planners have worked with many local communities in recent decades to revitalise and enhance liveability in a number of neighbourhoods. Significant among these urban renewal projects are Oude Westen, a residential pocket near West Kruiskade and Nieuwe Binnenweg in the Westen neighbourhood, which saw renovation of existing buildings and the introduction of affordable, small-scale built interventions between the 1970s and 1990s.

The largest urban-renewal project in the city has been the revitalisation of the Katendrecht peninsula and its linking to Kop van Zuid with the Rijnhaven pedestrian and cycling bridge. Once the city's red-light district and home to sub-standard housing, the peninsula's buildings were largely demolished and replaced with 1300 new houses and apartments, mostly social housing. The historic entertainment enclave of Deliplein was also reimagined, and is now one of the city's eating and drinking hotspots.

Contemporary Masterpieces

The 21st century has seen many important buildings added to the city's skyline and streets. These include Rem Koolhaas' 'vertical city' De Rotterdam (1997–2013) and Timmerhuis (Carpenter's House, 2009–15); MVRDV's extraordinary Markthal (Market Hall, 2004–14); and Benthem Crouwel, Meyer & Van Schooten's magnificent Centraal Station (1999–2013).

Future Projects

Projects currently in construction include a new open-access storage facility for the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, designed by MVRDV and due to open in 2019; a futuristic windmill housing a hotel, housing and restaurants designed by Doepelstrijkers and due to open in 2025; a new stadium for the Feyenoord City football club designed by Rem Koolhaas' firm OMA (due to open in 2023); and De Zalmhaven Toren by Dam & Partners, slated to be the highest tower in the Netherlands when it opens in 2021. There is also talk of a residential tower being built on top of the Fenix Food Factory in Katendrecht.

Feature: Building Nicknames

Locals have a pronounced penchant for endowing city buildings and structures with nicknames. Regularly used examples are 'The Swan' (Erasmusbrug); 'The Pencil' for the apartment tower in the Overblaak Development; 'The Tub' (Feijenoord Stadium); 'Hooker's Walk' (Rijnhaven pedestrian bridge); and 'The Banana' (the collections building in the Het Nieuwe Instituut).