29 Dec 2017

Is Leeds Really up for Jan Gehl?

Whoa, Jan Gehl signs for Leeds ...

Leeds is a great city. I say this since it undoubtedly is, but also because as I am now almost a resident – well I have a Leeds postcode - it would be churlish of me not to. But as we explored in Cities of the North Leeds, despite its rich inheritance of Victorian, Edwardian and Modernist buildings, and its broadly based economy making it one of the most successful cities in Britain, is often complacent about the quality of its new buildings and especially its public realm. The civic psyche still seems stuck in the ‘Motorway City of the 70s’ mind set and outside the pedestrianised central core the highway kit dominates; the car is king. But despite its urban motorways and insanely over-engineered expressways, peak hour in Leeds is always gridlock. As I write First Leeds has tweeted that congestion is delaying buses by up to 1 hour 25 minutes. No wonder they now carry only a fifth of Leeds city centre commuters as against nearly half who drive, an astonishingly high percentage compared to other big cities. Leeds is locked into an extremely vicious circle of worsening congestion making its already poor public transport ever worse.

...  but so far it looks like Cloughie's 44 days; Bridgewater baffles

For a long time Leeds has been timid in tackling car dependency and the dominance of highway infrastructure over the public realm. Yes I know that the city tried to get a tram and was thwarted by central government. But there hasn’t really been the vision or the political will for change seen in other cities like Manchester, Birmingham or Nottingham. Nevertheless there are some moves in the right direction, the catalyst being the anticipated arrival of HS2 in 2033. 

Where HS2 meets a deferred HS3

Of course HS2 is hardly a priority for Leeds, or indeed for the rest of the North. Yes, trains to London will be quicker but the service to King’s Cross is already fast, and will be faster still when planned improvements on the East Coast line are completed. HS2 does nothing to speed up the lethargic Trans-Pennine and Northern services through Leeds. New longer trains and a few extra services are promised giving 40% more seats to relieve today's gross overcrowding, but trains will remain pitifully slow. And whilst Leeds gets HS2 as well as King’s Cross expresses, Bradford, a city with a population of 500,000, will still lack main line services. It all falls far short of the expectations for a Northern Powerhouse and aspirations of a trans-Pennine ‘HS3’. Now electrification is casually deferred by Grayling, who says that the North was getting its fair share of transport investment. Actually train services in the North are a national disgrace and a real problem for both productivity and sustainability. Leeds draws its workforce from a wide area. It cannot hope to kick its culture of car dependency unless it has efficient and attractive public transport and a regional rail network such as you would find in its peer cities, like say Lyon. This is where investment should be going, but a Faustian pact between mendacious Tory Westminster and the braggadocio of Labour’s big city leaders has made vanity grands projects the priority. 

Bauman Lyons introduce some style and fun to City station

However, rather in the same way that non-stick pans were a useful if accidental outcome of the wasteful space race, the HS2 juggernaut gives Leeds an imperative to develop a more sustainable transport policy. Leeds rightly rejected HS2’s initial plan for a separate terminus out in the Southbank styx. It commissioned a plan by Jan Gehl and Arup of how HS2 could be integrated with City station and help deliver the wider regeneration of Southbank. Gehl, the guru of people-friendly cities, is often used as a ‘green-wash’. Glossy masterplans are full of images of his schemes in Copenhagen, New York and other cities, replete with smiling, happy people cycling, strolling or sipping cappuccino. But after the promotion and planning permission developers usually quietly shelve the promised urban goodies because, well, this is England where planning is emasculated, the public sector skint and developers know they can get away with it. 

The future?

But to Leeds’s credit the Gehl/Arup study has been translated into a ‘Supplementary Planning Document’ (SPD) which means it will have the status of being part of the immensely complicated statutory Development Plan. Of course this does not mean that its recommendations will actually be implemented. And a cynic might point out that, whilst the generic design advice is very good, it is only reiterating the sort of things we thought we had adopted ten or twenty years ago in ‘Towards an Urban Renaissance’, ‘By Design’ and the ‘Manual for Streets’. This guidance had little effect on how Leeds dealt with schemes like Bridgewater Place, the Opal Tower or the East Street expressway. Nevertheless the SPD is promising.

The former entrance to the Tetley Brewery and Southbank vernacular

The ‘Southbank Leeds Regeneration Framework’ SPD covers that vast no-man’s land southward of City Station to the M621. The area is billed by regeneration boosters as ‘doubling the size of the city centre, a development area ten times bigger than King’s Cross’. But with the important exception of Holbeck Urban Village, Southbank has thus far singularly failed to produce good architecture, coherent urban form or any sense of place. Separated from the city centre by the huge physical and psychological barriers of railway viaducts and the river Southbank comprises a miscellany of low grade offices, vast open car parks, sheds, depots and dereliction all cut up by motorway slip roads, dual carriageways and racetrack one-way systems. Heseltine set up a UDC for the area which left a pitiful legacy, notably the dreadful ASDA HQ sitting on a prime waterfront site surrounded by an ocean of car parking. The Royal Armouries museum and The Tetley gallery are important assets for Leeds, as are Leeds City College and the College of Building, but they are not part of a coherent city centre. Towering over all this is the execrable Bridgewater Place, a testament to and standing reproach of what went so badly wrong with Leeds’s laissez-faire planning in the noughties. Note the strange new baffles and screens to try and mitigate the tower’s lethal wind tunnel effects. Meanwhile the historic fabric around Bridge End and Crown Point, which should be the starting point for the regeneration of Southbank and its integration with the city centre, remain sadly neglected.

Welcome to Leeds; watch this become a space

The proposals for an integrated station in the Gehl/Arup study, developed further by Atkins as a masterplan, are imaginative. The HS2 terminus is to be grafted onto the existing station at right angles, like the long stem of a T. Given that City Station is built on a labyrinth of arches above the rushing waters of the Aire this is going to be one hell of a difficult engineering project. The integrated station will have a new concourse over the existing platforms and the new HS2 terminus, providing much more space for passengers and hugely improving circulation. An overall glass roof is planned to flood the station with light, replacing the existing Stygian gloom. From the new concourse a new piazza will be created stepping down to Bishopsgate Street, removing the clutter of dismal New Station Street. Traffic is removed from City Square. Neville Street under the arches will be pedestrianised and can be re-imagined as a Leeds arcade leading to shops and restaurants in the underused ‘dark arches’ beneath the station.

Potential in the 'dark arches'

All this is very good, but there are big problems too. The masterplan has to accept the alignment of HS2, which slashes across Southbank on a viaduct. The HS2 platforms will be at a high level and immensely long. The masterplan proposals to mitigate its impact with ‘active’ streets and open spaces beneath the station structure seem optimistic, even fanciful. Look at the impact of St Pancras International on Pancras Road for a more realistic impression than the masterplan sketches. And whilst City station would undoubtedly be massively improved for passengers, the plans do very little to increase the track and platform capacity required for an effective ‘HS3’ and expansion of other services; a couple of additional bay platforms hardly does the business. A further problem is that the plans are predicated on building two new multi-storey car parks, including a giant 1500 space long stay for HS2. This will obviously just worsen the existing traffic congestion. Meanwhile there are no real plans for public transport improvements; the ‘interchanges’ turn out to be bus stops dotted around the periphery and there is ‘passive provision’ for a future tram through Neville Street.

Jan Gehl has got his work cut out

It is the job of consultants to illustrate exciting opportunities but the reality often turns out very differently. The entrances to the new London Bridge station, for example, are based on a similar grand concept to the Leeds plan but are a value-engineered disappointment. The designs for Birmingham New Street too were dumbed down and the station ends up as an adjunct of a shopping mall and food court. Talk in the masterplan of City station becoming not just a station but a ‘destination’ with large scale retail and leisure opportunities fuel fears that the new Leeds will go the same way as Birmingham New Street, sorry Grand Central. And look at the ranks of ticket barriers at London Bridge and New Street which will rather restrict the promised permeability of the new City station too.

Birmingham New Street Station, full of tat ... 

... and tacky details

Notwithstanding these reservations, the imperative of HS2 and the new station gives the potential for radical changes to the highway network and public realm, changes which hitherto Leeds has been too timid to implement. The existing highway network in Southside has to be fundamentally rethought, both to enable construction of HS2, and also to create the major developments that justify building it at all. 

Good ideas

There is much to like in the new SPD based on the Gehl/Arup precepts of ‘Life First … Then Space … Then Buildings’. This is certainly the right philosophy and the preamble uses warm phrases like ‘create streets and public spaces that are attractive for all people’, ‘use heritage as a catalyst’ and ‘stitch disparate parts of the city together’. It says that Leeds needs to position itself as a ‘walkable city’ and proposes the transformation of the existing streets with ‘pedestrian and cycle friendly high quality people-focused design’. 

The seventh circle of hell; Meadow Lane and Dewsbury Road

The SPD envisages a new hierarchy of roads for Southbank. An ‘improved’ M621 and city centre motorway will form an inner ring road. Within this the arterial roads of Southbank will be re-designed as ‘City Boulevards’. Gehl imaged these as people-friendly streets with wide pavements, cycle ways, landscaping and a two-way single carriageway, although illustrations show Meadow Lane and Dewsbury Road still as major highways, not quite the people-friendly places of the design rhetoric. The concept of a ring of ‘City Boulevards’ is also flawed in that it is likely to replicate the problems of the City Centre Loop in attracting through traffic, causing gridlock and delays to public transport. What is required is a system of access only loops from the ring road, something that Nottingham pioneered in the 1970s. 

Ok, get this: Leeds is planning green routes

The SPD also includes plans for a network of ‘green’ pedestrian and cycle routes through Southbank and linking across the barrier of the M621 to inner city Holbeck and Hunslet. This ‘green network’ will be complemented by a ‘blue’ network of waterways, the Aire obviously but also other watercourses which are largely hidden at present. There are plans for new squares and green spaces including ‘Yorkshire Square’ by the river at Neville Street bridge. The proposed City Park looks rather smaller than its star billing implies and has Meadow Lane running through it but there is also an interesting concept for a ‘Southbank Arbour’ on an axis from Temple Works to the Royal Armouries. However talk of a ‘world class’ waterside along the Aire sounds like typical consultants’ hype given the abject failure to deliver in previous regeneration schemes. 

A vision of Leeds from Northern Europe (hiding Bridgewater Place)

Beyond generic design aspirations the SPD is coy about the sort of development to be expected for an area which, as the plan boasts, is ten times bigger than King’s Cross. Within this vast and formless area the key focus must surely be that around the HS2 terminus. Neville Street largely disappears under this new station which will make it very difficult to create the promised attractive new streets. Relatively recent buildings, including presumably the ASDA HQ, will have to be demolished but what will replace them is unclear. Form, massing and uses are all left opaque; the SPD does not want to be prescriptive. This is understandable given the realpolitik of Britain today where developers are (literally) in the driving seat and public agencies have to work ‘in partnership’ with the owners of the land. But given the huge investment of public money here – £500 million for the new City station alone – surely the public sector should have a much bigger role in determining the built environment outcomes.

Good things: Holbeck Urban Village

Attention to detail

However, in design terms things seem to be looking up in Leeds. Holbeck Urban Village is an outstanding example of small scale conservation-based renewal with a real sense of place. Now plans have been submitted for the development on 3.5ha of adjacent land, mostly open car parks and derelict land, to a masterplan by Feilden Clegg Bradley, the architects of Broadcasting Place. This certainly talks a good game with its concepts of modern reinterpretation of mill style buildings using brick, terracotta and industrial metalwork. It promises landscaping to tie together the impressive railway viaducts and watercourses and evokes a network of real streets and squares linking to City Station and the city centre. The architects have an excellent track record and the images are seductive. However whilst the two tall towers proposed, described as ‘modern chimneys’, are infinitely better than Bridgewater Place they don’t so much ‘echo’ the sublime campanile of Tower Works, but eclipse them.

Temple Works, big love

Not far away is Temple Works, a stupendous factory which looks like a Pharaoh’s country house and is one of the greatest structures of the C19th. After decades of neglect by the owners, the infamous Barclay brothers, and Burberry backing out of the hoped for renovation as a factory, Temple Works has now been sold to CEG, the developers of Holbeck. Leeds really needs to be proactive now to avoid a tragedy like Glasgow’s Egyptian Halls. 

Tetley Brewey car park, bigger than the Vatican City

The other big development scheme currently for Southbank is on the vast Tetley Brewey car park site. This is being promoted by the property arm of Ikea and includes 850 residential units, hotels, offices, vibrant everything. The masterplan illustrations suggest a brickier version of the shiny blocks  Leeds already has in profusion, but importantly the plan does deliver two hectares of land for the new City Park.


City Square, currently isolated by traffic

There are wider spin-offs from the Southbank SPD too. The remodelling of City Station demands the severing of the crazy one-way ‘City Centre Loop’ traffic system which is either a roaring race track or completely gridlocked. This enables City Square, already partially reinstated to its Edwardian concept, to be redesigned as a handsome and dignified arrival space for the city. 


Same with the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Replacing the City Centre Loop with a City Boulevard requires streets to be redesigned as places for people, walking and cycling, not just traffic. This gives the opportunity for much improved settings for many important buildings. Simplifying the ridiculous tangle of highways and slip roads around Quarry Hill along St Peters St, Duke St and Crown Point Road will help connect Leeds’s de-facto cultural quarter with the city centre and complement current plans for a new entrance and public space at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 


The environs of Leeds Minster should be so much better ...

... start here!

And the setting of Leeds Minster can also be radically re-thought. Kirkgate will no longer be part of the City Centre Loop racetrack and this opens up the opportunity to remodel the existing run down park north of the Minster. The park could be greatly enlarged by incorporating redundant carriageways including the north bound branch of Duke St, concentrating two way traffic on the present southbound route. 'Minster Park' would provide a new focus for an area pretty much destroyed by highway and high-rise mania, but one which still retains key elements of Leeds’s townscape, heritage and attractions for visitors. It must be as important a priority as Southbank Park. 


Woodhouse Lane crossing the inner motorway

But the biggest priority is to redesign Woodhouse Lane, between those two great icons of Leeds’ municipal pride - the Town Hall and the Leeds University. The universities are of course one of Leeds’s greatest assets. The tower of the Parkinson Building at the top of Woodhouse Lane is a hugely powerful landmark and symbol whilst the Chamberlin, Powell and Bon campus is one of the finest ensembles of post war architecture in Britain. Add to this Broadcasting Place – far and away the best modern building in Leeds. Upper Woodhouse Lane provides an attractive approach to Leeds University, reinforced by some decent new infill in the Laidlaw Library. However Lower Woodhouse Lane is ground zero. The disconnect created by the inner ring motorways is horrendous even though here in a cutting; the noise, the dislocating spaghetti of slip roads, the lack of enclosure and streetscape. In a sense you have to admire the motorway's design; it is such an extravagant, full blooded example of its genre and its time. Maybe it should be listed, but major urban repair is required to re-establish a connected ‘walkable city’.


Where success is uglier than failure

Out of this urban chaos Leeds could conjure a new environment to be proud of. By decking over the motorway, new streets and development sites could be created around a major square that would provide a focus for Beckett University. Woodhouse Lane could be transformed into a new green spine between the city and the university for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. The convoluted motorway slip roads and complex one way systems would need to be simplified and the vast Woodhouse Lane multi-storey car park demolished, an important symbolic act for a new sustainable transport policy. A similar approach of building over the motorway void at the apex of New Briggate and Vicar Lane could give the Grand Theatre the dignified setting it sadly lacks today, creating a new public square as well as development opportunities. Cities like Hamburg are doing this sort of thing already.

Deserves a better street setting

The key thing about these suggestions is that they can all be achieved by re-allocating existing road space. Although developers call nearly all the shots with new buildings, the City controls highway land. Gehl noted that this comprises 80% of public space in the Southbank area and similarly in other fringe areas of the city centre. Transforming highway space into public space - people space - civic space does not really depend on HS2 at all; that just provides the impetus for change. What it does depend on is civic vision and will – and funding of course, but the vision and the will come first. You don’t have to go abroad for examples of how to do it - look at what Sheffield has achieved with the Heart of the City project. 


Is Leeds too proud to learn from Sheffield?

Leeds desperately needs a city-wide strategy for sustainable transport and within this a serious plan to reduce car use and car parking. But the City is still supporting more road building like the East Leeds Orbital, a 7.5km dual carriageway scheme to 'provide the capacity to support increased traffic’ generated by an urban extension. It will cost £165 million. Leeds and the Highways Agency also want to spend £55 million on constructing extra traffic capacity for the M621. The argument, which sounds reasonable, is that this will allow through traffic to be removed from the city centre but actually it is encouraging more traffic overall in a city which is already far too car dependent. Nearly all the funding in the West Yorkshire ‘Transport Plus’ investment plan is for highway schemes, or dressed up highway schemes. This money needs to be focused on public transport. 

or Nottingham?

Leeds does now have a Public Transport Investment Programme (PTIP) as Whitehall, which turned down the tram and even the proposed trolleybus, has been shamed into giving funding to improve Leeds’s abysmal bus services. Many cities think they have the worst bus service in Britain, but Leeds has to be a serious contender. The problem however is that Leeds is way behind the curve even for British cities in its public transport planning. First Leeds announces that it is trialing an electric bus; big deal. Nottingham already has the biggest fleet of electric buses in Europe as well as lots of new biogas buses and of course a tram network. With smart card ticketing, an ‘Oyster’ card, contactless payment, ubiquitous real time information, Nottingham is a public transport success story achieved in spite of deregulation. But it is the result of more than 20 years of planning and a political focus on public transport that required brave decisions like introducing a Workplace Parking Levy. Leeds with its much bigger commercial base would raise serious money for public transport investment with a WPL. But in Leeds responsibility is divided between the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (Metro) and the City so that public transport just hasn’t been a priority. And with de-regulation the bus companies hold most of the cards – they decide what services to run and the fares and the terms of ‘partnership working’.  Given First Leeds’s previous record you can’t have much confidence that it will deliver the quality of public transport to which the PTIP now aspires. Leeds needs to follow the example of Greater Manchester in going for a London-style franchise system – a big decision but one Leeds needs to take.

Coming Soon, a new HBO Box Set 'Leeds', a dystopian drama set in the 1970s

Indeed, Leeds should be going further. It should be planning for real metro lines like Newcastle. Rotterdam, a smaller city than Leeds,  has 5 metro lines and innumerable tram lines. A great city like Leeds needs to have a big vision for sustainable transport. It needs an ambitious and holistic plan for  public transport in the short and longer term. But is Leeds really up for this, or is it still Motorway City?

18 Oct 2017

Dutch Modernism, De Stijl & Rotterdam Bling

Contrast & reflection

Of all our continental neighbours the Dutch seem most like the English, or at least what we thought the English were like until recent events. Countries on the periphery, the national identities of both were forged in opposition to Latin and Catholic Europe, and imperial Spain and France. From their seafaring traditions both developed formidable commerce and extensive maritime empires. Both evolved early bourgeois societies characterized by traditions of pragmatism, understatement and toleration; a bit stolid and dull.

Historical theme: the Dutch lead the way

There are big differences of course. The Netherlands is much smaller than Britain, although with a population of 17 million it has a larger economy than most Brits realize. There seems to be more of a sense of societal cohesion which may result from centuries fighting together to keep the sea at bay, much of the Netherlands being below sea level. The industrial revolution came late to Holland – a century after England, and so in the C20 its industrial structure was relatively modern.

Can we revive the Amsterdam school please? It's amazing. No questions necessary.
De Bijenkorf store, Den Haag

But for urbanists the most obvious difference between the two countries is that in Holland the tradition of modernism is everywhere predominant. Britain was notoriously backward between the wars in every aspect of modernism. Even today outside city centres most new housing is attempted cosy nostalgia. The Dutch too toyed with garden city ideas and in the early C20 the Amsterdam School of Michael de Klerk, Piet Kramer and others produced the most marvellous terraces of workers’ housing. This drew on the traditional Dutch excellence in brickwork and the design invention of the housing fronting its many canals. It was inspired by Jugendstil and the Arts and Crafts movement. But in the late C19 Berlage was already radically re-thinking space and form in architecture, drawing on an eclectic range of influences from Viollet-le-Duc to Frank Lloyd Wright. His most famous building is the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, a celebration of brick craftsmanship with its load bearing and explicitly bare walls. In London he built Holland House (1916) behind the Gherkin on Bury Street, here employing a steel frame and clad with greenish tiles above a black granite plinth – a truly stylish building.

Berlage discovers visual hierarchy and controls ornamentation

Gemeentemuseum, hmmm... not that impressed

Berlage’s last building was the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag, completed after his death in 1934. It reflects new ideas about the purpose and accessibility of the art gallery and museum. It expresses itself as a series of low, modest, almost random cubes and lanterns and is clad in quite lurid yellow brick - the structure is concrete. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright is very obvious. It is viewed across a reflecting lake and you enter the building via a long, low key corridor isthmus into the much more expansive reception hall which employs brightly coloured tiles, marble, bronze and oak paneling. The layout of the galleries is deliberately complex, intended to slow down visitors and help them ‘lose themselves in art’. This ethos may explain the hopeless signing today. The galleries are all naturally lit and arranged round a central courtyard, now glazed in a low key way. The Gemeentemuseum is a strange, unsettling, almost shocking building. It is arresting but its massing seems confused, no doubt reflecting Berlage’s focus on the interior dynamics rather than creating a sculptural composition. It is building which refuses to conform to expectation.

Local government is cool

An essay in visual language: form, proportion, movement, detail ... 

This cannot be said of Dudok’s magnificent Hilversum Town Hall, the ikon of Dutch modernism. His design was presented in 1924 but the city was not ready for such a radical project, and it was only because of pressure from Berlage and the architectural establishment that it was eventually approved and completed in 1930. The building is in a park like setting and its key south elevation is viewed across a lake. The monumentality and cubic form is awe inspiring - it looks as if could be a turbine hall rather than a Town Hall. The magnificent tower and other vertical emphasis is beautifully balanced by long vertical pavilions with strip windows and by covered walkways. The load bearing yellow brickwork is staggeringly crisp but its sobriety is leavened by beautiful detailing, especially the projecting flat roofs. Then there are carefully rationed glimpses of colour, mostly blue tiles and beds of red geraniums.

.... grid, angle, texture, rhythm ...

.... alignment, symmetry, material ...

Dudok insisted on designing everything in the building including the furniture, typography and upholstery; it is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk. The integration of natural and electric lighting is a brilliant touch. One of the very few things he did not design himself is the symbolic chairs in the Wedding Room, which are by Mackintosh. A touching aspect of the scheme is the extent to which this was seen as a ‘citizens’ building, with many groups across social classes donating gifts to the Town Hall; Dudok of course insisted on designing these himself. How different from the suspicious and parsimonious attitude towards local government today.

... contrast, light and colour ... 

... have we forgotten the joy of looking?

Hilversum Town Hall had a huge international impact, even in Britain, and was the inspiration for town halls like Hornsey and Greenwich, amongst others. The bastardised influence of its bricky simplicity can also be noted in the ubiquitous ‘Odeon’ style found across Britain. Dudok became the city architect of Hilversum and built many schools and other civic buildings, as well as residential areas on garden city lines. His major department store in Rotterdam was destroyed in the war, although a later office building survives, now the Café Dudok. The ingenuity of Dutch architecture between the wars can be seen in the city centre of Den Haag, most extraordinarily in the multistory car park designed in 1928 by Jan Greve on Torenstraat, one of the main streets, based around elliptical ramps providing five floors of parking circling a wedge shaped light. The De Bijenkorf department store, designed in 1923, is a Piet Kramer masterpiece with a façade of curved bricks and faceted strips of glass. But perhaps the most interesting is the De Volharding Socialist Co-operative store of 1927, designed by Buijs and Lürsen. This has a five storey reinforced concrete skeleton covered in black granite, aluminium edged frosted glass and prism black tiles. The light boxes on the façades were designed for advertising, transforming the building into a luminous billboard at night. The design is heavily influenced by Cubism, Russian Constructivism and of course De Stijl.

The De Volharding Socialist Co-operative store of 1927

The joy of looking is endemic in Dutch culture

The De Stijl movement, founded in Holland one hundred years ago, involved architects and artists (including Mondrian). Heavily influenced by Cubism it advocated the abstraction of design to the universal elements of form and colour. Naturalistic forms were eschewed for straight horizontal or vertical lines. Planes were separated so that each element is seen independently. Colour was restricted to black, white, grey and primary colours.

Nearly 100 years old

The De Stijl movement had an influence way beyond the relatively few works it produced. Indeed the only building which fully illustrates the principles of the movement is the famous Rietveld Schröder house in Utrecht. Rietveld was a furniture and interior designer but was commissioned by Mrs Schröder to design a house for herself and her children. She was very closely involved in the evolution of the concept and detail of its design. The tiny house is at the end of a conventional terrace and overlooked open polders (until a motorway and urban expansion in the 60s). The exterior is composed of horizontal and vertical lines and planes in black, white and grey with a few bars of primary colour and it looks jewel-like. The inside is more magical yet. Everything is carefully designed to maximize space and flexibility. This is best seen on the upper floor where the living room and bedrooms all have sliding or revolving doors allowing the space to be fully opened up or divided into private space as required. The space has a strong sense of the Japanese. The lack of division between inside and out is emphasized by an ingenious fully opening corner window. Rietveld’s skill as a cabinet maker is shown in the clever built in furniture, and also his famous chair.

Dear big British house builders, you are all morons 

Although a one-off, the Rietveld Schröder house had a huge influence on housing design in the Netherlands, which is apparent from any train journey across this densely built up country. There seems to be an inherent sense of order and design expressed in Modernism but also reflecting older societal and architectural traditions. (Of course there is another side to the Dutch character too – hedonism and vulgarity, which we explored in our blog on self build in the Netherlands.)

See caption above

In the port area of Rotterdam you find an early modernist estate for the working class designed by Oud, a key architect of the De Stijl movement, in 1925. The Kiefhoek estate plan is long rows of two storey terraces rendered in white with a base of yellow bricks, red doors and grey ground floor window frames with a continuous band of yellow window frames at the first floor. The tiny front gardens have yellow walls and blue steel railings. The houses were meant for big families but seem small, still lacking bathrooms or running hot water – tenants carried this from a special boiler house. But there was a church, playgrounds and two shops strikingly at the angle where terraces join. The original estate was demolished in the 90s because of poor foundations, but meticulously rebuilt. The De Stijl principles continue to inform Dutch housing design, like the estate of low rise terraces at Ringvaartplas Rotterdam, designed by Mecanoo in 1989. The value of long term planning is clearly seen here too with the Metro which efficiently links this peripheral estate to the city centre.

Match of the Day: Van Nelle v Boots

The train from Schiphol to Rotterdam speeds past the Van Nelle factory on the city’s northern outskirts. This is one of the most thrilling examples of modernist industrial architecture, designed by Van der Vlugt in 1925 and completed in 1931. Le Corbusier said ‘the visit to this factory has been one of the most beautiful days of my life’. It was clearly the inspiration for Owen Williams’ awe inspiring Boots D10 factory in Nottingham, built in 1932. The Van Nelle complex was designed for optimum functioning and the completely integrated flow of production from the arrival of raw materials to the dispatch of finished product. It was also intended to provide much improved working conditions for employees.

Concrete mushroom columns: 1 - 1

The building has concrete floor slabs with mushroom columns, leaving the façade free for continuous metal framed windows, so the building is flooded with light. With commendable pragmatism the architect specified cheap standard glazing used extensively in Holland for greenhouses. The structure is divided into main three sections; eight floors for tobacco, five with a double height mezzanine for coffee and three for tea. These are linked to storage and dispatch areas by exquisitely angled glazed bridges making the complex look like something out of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. This was in fact a happy accident; the introduction of larger canal barges and development of road transport meant the original plan for delivering raw materials had to be changed. Freestanding offices at the entrance follow the curve of the road.

Curtain walling: 2 - 2

Overhead walkways: 3 - 2, Van Nelle wins in extra time!

The nature of the work required high standards of cleanliness and facilities for the staff were outstanding for the time including the first sick pay in Holland. Men and women were however segregated into different jobs – the women left when they got married. The workers’ entrance leads to a double staircase, one for each sex, leading to showers and other facilities. The Van Nelle company excelled at advertising and promotion and were particularly good at brand recognition with distinctive typography and design. The Van Nelle signs on the roof are iconic. Closed as a factory in 1995, it has been refurbished as space for exhibitions and conferences and offices for architects.

A sanatorium designed for TB patients 

Now visited by suffering design enthusiasts from Britain

Sanatorium Zonnestraal (by Duiker and Bijvoet 1926-31) is another seminal Dutch modernist building. It was part of an idealistic social programme rather than a statement of style and was commissioned by the General Union of Dutch Diamond Workers. The sanatorium was intended as a temporary expedient awaiting the development of a cure for tuberculosis, which was (rightly) expected within 30 years, and this pushed economy in construction. The buildings are located in extensive woodland and were designed around principles of maximum access to sunshine and fresh air, and with complex separate circulation systems to avoid cross infection. Patients arrived beneath the main block by car and were symbolically led up into a light filled upper floor social centre and restaurant with sun terrace. There were flanking pavilions for the wards and medical facilities. The buildings have concrete frames and columns but the walls are plaster on a wire mesh with an outer layer of (originally unpainted) cement. Fenestration is maximized. The 3 metre module was for cheapness and speed of production. Zonnestraal was very much admired and strongly influenced Aalto in his later and possibly more famous Paimio Sanatorium. Zonnestraal became neglected and unused but the main building was restored in 2001 and the other blocks are also being restored.

Rational and creative – Delft station

Rotterdam, with a population of about 650,000, is only slightly smaller than Amsterdam. Den Haag, the seat of the Dutch government is almost part of the urban area and is linked to Rotterdam’s Metro system. Rotterdam is also the largest port in Europe, its docks occupying a vast area along the Maas to the North Sea. So Rotterdam is very much a rival to Amsterdam but its character and function is entirely different. It is a much harder place. Rotterdam was insignificant compared to nearby towns like Delft until the industrial port was developed in the C19. In 1940 the city was bombed in a devastating Blitzkrieg which took only 15 minutes to flatten the city centre. The ‘fire line’ of total destruction can be followed today in a thin red line in the pavements, devised by Adriaan Geuze in 2010. The monument to the Destroyed City by Zadkine, unveiled in 1953, is a figure without a heart. It is at least arguable that the ‘Basic Plan’ for rebuilding, drawn up by the City Architect van Traa, created a city without a heart.

Het Steiger Church 

Coventry Cathedral vibes

The city’s rebuilding was as radical, symbolic and celebrated as that of Coventry but there was no emblematic building like Coventry Cathedral, unless it is the Euromast of 1958, but that was erected for fun, not commemoration. Some churches were restored or rebuilt, like the impressively austere Het Steiger Church (1959 by Kraaijvanger Architects). Here in a side chapel the Virgin Mary shelters the City of Rotterdam beneath her cloak, an odd icon in the circumstances.

Van Traa abandoned the idea of reconstructing the old centre and instead designed a completely new spatial layout with radical separation of functions. The new centre was dominated by commercial buildings and shopping. Housing was mostly, but not entirely, pushed to the outskirts in a radical shift in the city’s structure. The dominant feature of the new city centre is its massively wide new roads which, now mostly flanked by tall buildings, create Rotterdam’s reputation as ‘the windy city’.

Lijnbaan, twinned with Coventry & Stevenage

Rotterdam Kunsthal (Rem Koolhas 1987)

The architecture of the post war rebuilding seems very familiar from British experience. It is mostly decent, modest and cheaply done. The set pieces like Lijnbaan, the first pedestrian shopping precinct in Europe designed by Van den Broek and Bakema in 1951, still impress. There are attractive flats and gardens behind. The Huf Shoe Store by the same architects (1952) represented modernity but the Bijenkorf Department Store of 1955 by Marcel Breuer, an almost sealed box with a honeycomb cladding of hexagonal travertine panels with only narrow slit windows predicted our retail futures. Many of the offices of the 50s and 60s were traditional brick buildings with careful detailing, that provide a foil and visual relief to the very many shouty new buildings of today. And such has been the scale of development in the last decades that Rotterdam does not really seem like a post war city but a very modern one. Whereas Amsterdam is like a sunflower, as our waiter explained, with a compact centre and the suburbs spreading out like petals, Rotterdam is more like a constellation. It has many of the right components but they are disjointed. There are lovely parks and a whole district of excellent museums like Boijmans van Beuningen, completed in 1935 and designed by the municipal architect in the Scandinavian style. Nearby is the Kunsthal (Rem Koolhas 1987), a bit lost fronting a busy dual carriageway. It is deceptively simple, divided off centre by a ramp down to the Museumpark. He jokily employs expensive travertine next to corrugated plastic.

Didn't see that coming

An imaginative cityscape 

Rotterdam is often eccentric. Oud’s de Stijl façade for the Café de Unie, which enraged opinion in 1925 and was destroyed in 1940 was reconstructed in 1986 although in a different place. Next to the neo-renaissance City Hall and in front of the main Post Office on Coolsingel, both imposing from the early C20 and which survived the Blitz, a ‘pavilion’ for MacDonald has recently been rebuilt to make the street 'more convivial'. Piet Blom’s yellow cube houses from 1984 form an intended ‘Ponte Vecchio’ bridge across a dual carriageway to link the market area to Oudehaven and, if not functional, have become a tourist attraction. The strange stubby 'pencil' tower is also part of the scheme. The spectacular new Markthal by MVRDV has only recently opened. It is a horseshoe structure with great glazed ends. It includes 200 apartments within the skin of the horseshoe structure and all have a view of the market hall. The great hall is filled with stalls, often with cafes above where you can admire the vast artwork ‘Horn of Plenty’ covering the entire roof.

What's going on? – Markthal

Better than flats overlooking a Tesco (see Gateshead, Woolwich)

Rotterdam is today known for its adventurous new architecture like the Markthal. The skyline too has been transformed and whilst many of the new buildings seem to be trying too hard, desperate to stand out with silly motifs and lurid materials, there is overall a sense of confidence which is infectious. A good example is the ‘Red Apple’ apartments towering above the inner harbour at Wijnbrugstraat. The fenestration looks crazy at first, but there is a clear logic. Office buildings cantilever for no obvious reason but look cool, especially ‘The Bridge’ seen across the harbour hovering over a Unilever factory.

The Red Apple, image by Przemysław Turlej (Creative Commons)

The Harbour 

In a sense the harbour is the heart of the city, its raison d’être and most dramatic feature. A ferry trip in the grey light of dusk is extraordinarily evocative with its skyline of cranes, bridges, silos, towers and vast hulks of shipping. The scale of the dock operation is amazing, and we saw only the inner docks, not Europoort. The cluster of tall buildings around the waterside is impressive even if some are pretty ordinary in themselves. In the old red light district of Katendrecht, Maccreanor Lavington have added two elegant blocks of flats alongside the water. A walk to the old dock workers area through the streamlined Maas tunnel is highly recommended. It was completed in 1940 (separate tunnels for cars, cycles and pedestrians). In the working class district of Charlois there are interesting examples of ‘homesteading’ in the run down terraced streets, like the ‘Black Pearl’ on Pompstraat.

More appealing than their essays

The absolute star of the waterside is OMA’s De Rotterdam, a mixed use 'vertical city' designed in the late 90s but not completed until 2013.  Above a massive plinth three interconnected towers rise, but about half way up they are displaced in different directions. This excitingly articulates the building mass. Otherwise the building is very serious and restrained, beautifully detailed and entirely satisfying. What is so brilliant about it is the relationship to the Erasmus Bridge (Van Berkel and Boss 1996) with its diagonal stays and expressively angled pylon.

Bit like Birmingham Station, but less shallow and more thorough

The scale of new infrastructure in Rotterdam astounds. New road bridges and railway tunnels span the Maas. A vast new Centraal Station was completed in 2013. The concourse is a triangular structure with a dramatically cantilevered and angled roof – and it is not entirely given over to shops and eateries either. Other new stations like Blaak stagger in their scale and style. Rotterdam has 5 Metro lines and innumerable tram lines. This in a city with a smaller population than Leeds, a telling- really quite horrifying - comparison.

Integrated design thinking: how the parts relate to the whole

Where design education is integral  – Delft Technical University

This being in the Netherlands cycles, cycle lanes and stacked up cycle parks are everywhere. However there is still a sense that traffic is far too dominant. This is the legacy of the Basic Plan with its network of dual carriageways which traffic engineers made into expressways. Pedestrians are fourth class citizens after trams, cars and cycles, all with their segregated tracks and traffic lights. So walking about the city centre is a bit of a pain, waiting endlessly for the green man to let you cross the road. The pavements often seem quite empty with little street life. It is sometimes difficult to find even a cup of coffee or a sandwich as neither the post war rebuilding or the big new new developments cater much for small shops..

Rotterdam is impressive, lively, dynamic, confident. It is a great city but one which needs more fine grain, human scale attention. Maybe it needs to emulate Hamburg, its nearest rival as a port, with an ambitious new green agenda. This could start by redesigning its city centre expressways as green boulevards.

This blog is largely based on the C20 Society guided tour ‘100 Years of De Stijl’ led by Susannah Charlton. I have relied heavily on her expositions and quote from her notes. Check out the website https://c20society.org.uk for forthcoming trips.

‘Rotterdam Architecture City’ by Paul Groenendijk et al and recently published is an indispensible guide to recent architecture in the city.