The number of buildings that make Rotterdam such a garden of delights for architects and urban designers has increased again. Besides the Groothandelsgebouw, the Lijnbaan, tall residential slabs, big office complexes and impressive shopping palaces, the city on the Maas now possesses in the Bijenkorf a department store of unprecedented luxury, a daring creation, a grandiose design that embodies the most modern architectural ideas. The reconstruction of Rotterdam will take years. Vacant spaces will remain vacant for quite some time as reminders of the war, which also hit the Bijenkorf company and its department store by Dudok. But the citizens of Rotterdam are delighted that one of the gaps on its main boulevard has now been filled. And in a truly daring, modern and artistic manner. A building highly distinctive in appearance in this new city. A building the city can rightly be proud of!
Het Vrĳe Volk, 19 March 1957
The bombardment destroyed two-thirds of the Bijenkorf designed by Dudok. All that survived was the most remarkable part, the monumental entrance. With branches in Amsterdam and The Hague, the Bijenkorf opened a third branch in Rotterdam in 1930. The ‘Bijenkorf’ began as a haberdashery store of the same name, which Philip Goudsmit from Oud-Beijerland opened on Nieuwendijk in Amsterdam in 1870. ‘Europe’s most modern department store’ was an elegantly functional building, with large glazed facades and an imposing void. After the town hall in Hilversum, it was probably Dudok’s most distinctive design. Immediately after the bombing, Dudok drew up a scheme to extend the damaged building eastwards, in the direction of Blaak. However, the only works carried out were structural alterations to the surviving piece to allow the shop to reopen on 22 January 1941. During the final year of the war, Dudok designed another alteration to his Bijenkorf: an almost blank volume with glazed walls at ground-floor level for displays. Following a study tour to the United States back in 1938, the directors concluded that department stores had to be closed volumes with artificial light. The Bijenkorf, originally a Jewish company, had a hard time during the war years. Most of the directors had fled and were replaced by non-Jews, but the Germans later took over and appointed two Nazi collaborators as directors. Of the almost one thousand Jewish employees of the Bijenkorf and HEMA stores, scarcely a hundred survived the war.
Window to the river
Radical plans were proposed for the Bijenkorf in the post-war years. While the pre-war Bijenkorf site at the end of Coolsingel was spectacular in urban design terms, the building lay beyond the core shopping area. A site closer to the new Lijnbaan shopping precinct was more logical. Of greater importance was the new road network in the Basisplan. Initially, the east-west route through the centre extended from Blaak through the narrow Oude Binnenweg and Nieuwe Binnenweg. Connecting Blaak to Rochussenstraat allowed a wide traffic connection to be created. To achieve that, however, it was necessary to clear a route through the Cool district, and that meant demolishing the surviving piece of the pre-war Bijenkorf. City architect Van Traa also wanted to open up a view of the river from the centre, the so-called ‘window to the water’.
At a meeting on 21 March 1947, Van Traa proposed a site beside Hotel Atlanta. On 30 January 1948, Bijenkorf director Van der Wal and regular architect Elzas discussed the proposal from ASRO. “The sales area is envisaged as a rectangular zone along Coolsingel and Oldenbarneveldtstraat. The recessed zone along Coolsingel is very disadvantageous for us. The ground floor (with display windows) could be pushed forward to the building line along Coolsingel, without thwarting the ASRO plan. The upper floors could then be set back as indicated on the ASRO drawing.”
In 1951 the Bijenkorf wanted to commission the celebrated architect Le Corbusier for the new building, but he wasn’t interested. Dudok was already out of the race. Next to be invited was J.J.P. Oud, but he declined. In September 1953 the Bijenkorf finally announced the architect for the new building. It was the relatively unknown Hungarian-American architect Marcel Breuer (1902‒1981). He studied at the Bauhaus but fled Germany in the 1930s. During a business trip to America, one of the Bijenkorf directors was struck by the exterior of the new Abraham & Strauss department store in Hempstead, Long Island. Another source indicated that art lover Van der Wal had sought advice from Philip Johnson at the MoMA.
In the late 1950s, Breuer was the first international star to complete a number of buildings in the Netherlands. He often travelled to Europe while working on the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Besides the Bijenkorf, he also designed and built the head offices of Van Leers Vatenfabrieken in Amstelveen (1958) and the American Embassy in The Hague (1959) during this period. In 1963 he also designed a private residence in Amsterdam for Van der Wal, with whom he collaborated intensively on the store in Rotterdam, but this house was not built. Breuer worked together with Abraham Elzas (1907‒1995), the regular architect of the Bijenkorf concern, who had designed numerous branches of the Hema store, among them the old Hema on Beursplein. Elzas was in charge of supervising construction. Responsibility for the interior was entrusted to the American designer Daniel Schwartzman (1908‒1977), a specialist in shop interiors.
Breuer had come up with the concept for the building by November 1953. In line with the latest insights into department store construction, it was not to be a glass palace, but an oblong box with blank walls. The building is about 85 metres long and 60 metres wide, and artificial light is mostly used. There are some vertical slit windows so that customers can view products by daylight. Only the restaurant and the offices on the top floor have large windows. The ground floor consists almost entirely of display windows. Inspired by the name Bijenkorf (Dutch for ‘beehive’), Breuer came up with the idea of a honeycomb shape for the outer wall. The facades are clad in travertine: front and rear facades with hexagons and the side facades with rectangles. Critics pointed out that the honeycomb is positioned incorrectly. The facade panels are finely chiselled with a ribbed pattern. Alternating the direction of this pattern lends vibrancy to the facade. Located on the top floor are offices and a staff canteen that receive daylight from three patios. To the rear is an office area with a glazed curtain wall, concealed from view by the car park built later. This facade is visible only from the courtyard behind Hotel Atlanta.
The interior contains as much freely divisible space as possible. Concrete columns at 12-metre centres support the floors. Escalators in the centre of the plan provide for vertical circulation. In addition, there are stairwells and lifts in the side facades. Escalators and stairwells feature a lot of teak.
The choice for a rectangular building triggered a conflict with the Rotterdam urban designers, who had determined a double building line along Coolsingel. Breuer was reluctant to alter his perfect shape with an extension. A compromise was eventually reached by positioning the Gabo sculpture in front of the building. The first pile of the new building was driven into the ground on 10 March 1955. Shortly before that, the Rotterdamsche Bank building, home to the ASRO, was demolished. Construction took longer than anticipated owning to the harsh winter of 1956 and a strike. But by the spring of 1957 the building was completed, and the Gabo sculpture was unveiled a short time later. That same year, after the move into the new building, the remaining piece of Dudok’s old Bijenkorf was demolished. It stood on what is now Churchillplein.
Site management hut
For the construction work, a remarkable site management hut composed of three hexagonal honeycombs was built in timber. This ‘pole house’ was later moved to Zuidplein and used as an exhibition pavilion. Located on the Lijnbaan side was a pavilion called the Bijkorama, which was demolished in 1994. On Coolsingel, a volume with a glass façade connects with the neighbouring Hotel Atlanta, which had survived the war. This volume first housed a cinema and now a restaurant. Behind it lies the delivery area. A car park was built on Aert van Nesstraat in 1974. This building, also designed by Breuer’s office, was not well received. It was initially rejected by city’s design review committee, but when Breuer in person appeared to defend his design, even throwing his almost fifty years of architectural experience into the debate, he eventually secured approval. Breuer died before the garage was completed.
Although the interior has undergone numerous alterations and refurbishments over the years, it is still largely in its original condition. The travertine facade is rather dirty, though that was partly the intention of the architects. Besides the spectacular work by Gabo, the building also featured a sculpture by Henry Moore in the strip window of the restaurant on the south facade. This work has been missing for some years now. For a time, the corridor leading to the Bijkorama featured a replica of a glass window by Theo van Doesburg, but that vanished in the 1960s. The site of the Bijkorama has been occupied since 2012 by the B-Tower, a residential structure designed by Wiel Arets Architects. The Bijenkorf building was designated a national heritage site in 2010.
Architect: M. Breuer
Location: Coolsingel 105
national Heritage Site