In 1950 it didn’t seem likely that Rotterdam would become a physically beautiful city, where contemporary architecture would be adequately expressed. If you talk today to people who do not follow the reconstruction of Rotterdam closely, they shake their heads with pity and say meaningfully: “Those banks!"
Het Vrije Volk 11-12-1952
It seems as if banks were all they were building during the early years of post-war reconstruction. Even before the war was over the Rotterdamse Bank was under construction on Coolsingel, in 1949 the Nationale Levensverzekerings-Bank was built on Schiekade, J.J.P. Oud spent years designing the Spaarbank on Botersloot, and in 1955 the Nederlandsche Bank opened a branch on Boompjes. But the most striking of them all were the three ‘mighty financial fortresses’ on Blaak, completed in November 1950. Together with the Mees & Hope building (now the academy of art), which survived the war, they revived the pre-war reputation of Blaak as the banking street. Banks and insurance companies were the only institutions with enough resources to rapidly replace destroyed buildings with new ones without government support. And they were concentrated on Blaak and Coolsingel.
So not everybody was all that enthusiastic about these ‘fortresses of capital’. A writer for Het Vrije Volk wrote about that series of monumental strongboxes on Blaak: what a scarily solid symmetry – one does not need to be mad about asymmetrical architecture to long for a little less of this square lumpishness. In the building for the Nederlandse Handel Maatschappij (NHM), the architects succeeded in arranging the rows of windows so rigidly on the façade like the figures on a balance sheet. In the architecture periodical Forum, architect Marius Duintjer wondered whether ‘the pioneers will last very long on the dusty plains – whether they will display enough courage to survive in such an architectural environment?’
It is no surprise that Rein Blijstra, one of the biggest propagandists of new post-war functionalist architecture, expressed so little enthusiasm for the bank buildings on Blaak. But he felt they were in any case better than the other Rotterdam bank buildings: the austere rectangles of the Blaak banks compare favourably to these drab edifices which, built in stone, must have a fixed shape, but whose outline does not register clearly itself onto our minds because the proportions are so utterly impersonal.
And the sturdy solidity of the buildings perfectly reflects the function and image of banking. Even Blijstra has to acknowledge that: A bank is formal, solid, blank. If one lodges money with the bank, one should have the feeling that it is safely kept there. The building should resemble a safe, which is constructed around the real safes. One remarkable detail is that all three monumental, symmetrical buildings feature an asymmetrically placed entrance. Another uniting factor is the scant attention paid to the rear of the buildings, where the staff entrances are located.
Upon completion, three buildings will stand here, and owing to the requirements imposed by the relevant urban departments, they will stand in one row, with the same approved posture, like soldiers standing at attention, but in which the desire — commercial no doubt — for individual expression has resulted in the avoidance of an identical military uniform. Instead, they will actually parade some colourful fashion garments.
Architect I. Moerman in De Maasstad 1949.
Power and certainty of the Twentsche Bank
Please note, office clerks and depositors! From next Monday, to conduct any business with the Twentsche Bank, you must make your way to the new building on Blaak 28, diagonally opposite the ruined remains of the previous building where, thanks to the survival of the safe deposit boxes from the devastation of the bombs, the firm has continued operations to the present. For some days the bank has worked to transfer the safes and other valuables to the new building, which now stands, sturdy and strong, as a symbol of security for those who entrust their possessions to the bank. Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad 16-9-1950
Before the war, the Twentsche Bank was located on the south side of Blaak (still an inner harbour) in a building designed by Barend Hooijkaas Jr (1855-1934). The directors initially wanted to rebuild on the same site so that the safes could be reused. But the urban plan for reconstruction stipulated a realignment of the street, and after the war city architect Cornelis van Traa opted to concentrate development along the south side of Blaak. The bank was allocated a site beside the two other banks. The successors to Hooijkaas sought collaboration with the office of the former Rotterdam city architect Ad van der Steur, who tailored the colour and scale of the building to match the neighbouring NHM.
The building was intended to exude a sense of strength and certainty: The architecture itself attempted to express a character that befits a bank building. Sturdy and strong, it should be a symbol of security for those who entrust their possessions to the Bank. And thus this building attempts to appear sturdy and strong, with a substructure of polished concrete block, with blank side façades and corners on the upper levels, and finally the tall windowless frieze that tops the front façade. That’s the description offered by Van der Steur in the Bouwkundig Weekblad of 16 January 1951. The asymmetrically positioned main entrance was monumentally crowned by the coats of arms of Amsterdam, Enschede and London. A rearing horse was placed on the roof directly above the entrance. This symbol of Twente is the work of the well-known Rotterdam sculptor Cor van Kralingen. The first pile was driven into the ground on 4 June 1946, and on 15 August it was the first of the three banks to open its doors to the public.
Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij: built around the safe
The Rotterdam branch of the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij was built in 1917 on Zuidblaak and largely destroyed by the bombardment. All that survived the bombs were the safes, which remained in use during the war years. As early as November 1940 the architects Corn. Elffers and A.A. van Nieuwenhuyzen were appointed to design a new bank building on the same site. A realignment of the street and enlargement of the site meant that the ruins ended up in the middle of the building site. But no construction took place during the war years.
On 24 September 1945 the first pile was driven into the ground. A complicating factor was that the building had to be constructed around the ruins containing the safes. First the basement was constructed, then the eastern portion, and after that the western portion with the new safe and, finally, the central volume. None of this sequence is reflected on the exterior. The building looks solid but in fact consists of four standard office wings around a glass-covered courtyard. Only the tall ground floor covers the whole site. In addition, part of the building consisted of rentable office space. The building opened on 2 October 1950.
The exterior is fairly sober, but the public hall, the stock exchange, the conference room and the boardrooms are sumptuously appointed with white marble and wood panelling in oak and walnut. To the left are the public hall and counters. These spaces are detailed with veined Calacatta marble. This, no doubt, is the representative part of the building, but it is as bleak and sterile as frozen snow. It is certainly the most expensive but, to us, most unsuccessful part of the interior, which doesn’t invite imitation. Het Vrije Volk 28-11-1950
A striking feature of the front façade is the asymmetrically positioned main entrance, with a flight of steps and bronze portico bearing a bronze relief with the emblem of the NHM designed by Nel Klaassen. Adorning the canopy are two groups of mermaids, also by Nel Klaassen.
Incassobank: open-plan office avant la lettre
The building for the Incassobank was also designed during the war. E.H. and H.M. Kraaijvanger received the commission to design the new building at the corner of Leuvehaven, Schiedamsedijk and Blaak. In the Basisplan, however, this site was earmarked as a so-called ‘window to the river’, so in 1946 a new design for the site had to be drawn up. The 1947 merger between the Incassobank and the Amsterdamsche Bank, and their resulting decision to jointly occupy one building, meant that the design had to be amended again, increasing in width from 28 to 38 metres. Moreover, the design took into account the construction of the American consulate next door, which is why the western façade is totally blank. The consulate was never built, however. Instead, it rented a number of floors above the Huf shop. In the design of the plan, the architect has made grateful use of the unique setting by positioning the main entrance at the corner, a fully justified decision in terms of urban design. The main entrance in the rounded corner is clearly marked by a tall portal with wall embellishments by artist Nel Klaassen. On the roof is a circular staff canteen.
Construction started on 18 November 1946. The magazine Rotterdam Bouwt, a monthly celebration of the rebuilding activity, was naturally enthusiastic about the building: It will be a monumental edifice, striking in its simplicity and showing good taste. And once completed, it will exude courage and faith in the future. The building was festively opened on 22 November 1950.
A notable feature is the large, open workspace at the centre of the building, an open-plan office before the term was even coined. Banks do not break easily with tradition, though that has happened here, for nowhere are there bars that close off counters. Instead there are open tables, topped with dark marble, which greatly enhance the sense of space of this ground floor, where over one hundred bank clerks type away on countless typewriters, telephoning and talking at the counter. Even so.... it is not noisy here, even though a first floor gallery extends around all sides. That is because of the extensive use of sound-absorbent material, incorporated into the glass ceiling in the form of honeycombs. This acoustic material is also the reason why the directors and staff from other departments who work on the first floor of the Blaak building often adopt an open-door policy. For in their rooms it is so quiet – one sees the traffic racing past but do not hear it – that they open their doors just to hear something. Het Vrije Volk 20-11-1950
Three years later, on Construction Day 1953, the sculpture Welvaart (‘Prosperity’) by Pieter Starreveld was unveiled. The artwork was relocated in 1979 to the bank building on Coolsingel.
Concrete skeleton on Coolsingel
The new building for the merged bank left the city with a thorny problem. For the Amsterdamsche Bank was already constructing a new building and abandoned an unfinished concrete skeleton, on a very prominent site on Coolsingel, opposite the post office on the corner of Aert van Nesstraat. This shell was a ‘thorn in the side’ of many people in Rotterdam, to gauge by the numerous newspaper articles and questions raised in the city council.
In 1952 the shell was sold to another bank, the Bank for Trade and Shipping, who finally moved into the completed building in April 1957.
Three listed monuments in a row
In the late 1990s the three buildings on Blaak lost their banking function. In 1964 the Incassobank and Amsterdamsche Bank were incorporated into the AMRO bank, and in 1977 it relocated to Coolsingel. The building was sold to the NMB, which had the white glazed brickwork spray-cleaned, revealing an ordinary brick façade. The Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij merged with the Twentsche Bank and became the Algemene Bank Nederland (ABN). In 1965 the two buildings were connected by a footbridge on the third-floor level. The buildings were sold after the merger between the ABN and AMRO in 1990. The three buildings had lost their function and seemed destined for demolition. The first bank in particular stood on a site ideal for high-rise development. The threatened demolition of this building prompted the founding of the Comité Wederopbouw, which strove for the preservation of the most valuable monuments from the post-war period. In 1993 Herman Meijer, a city council member for the Groen Links party, submitted a motion to compile an inventory of works of post-war reconstruction architecture, and as alderman in 1995 he was able to add the three bank buildings on Blaak to the municipal list of protected monuments. The three buildings acquired new functions. Since 2002 the AMRO bank has been occupied by the Chamber of Commerce, and the two other buildings by notary firms. Between 1999 and 2001 the three buildings were renovated by Kraaijvanger Architects. Since 2010 the three buildings have been listed as national monuments.
Since the former Incassobank has acquired a public function as the Chamber of Commerce, many visitors can still enjoy the magnificently renovated central hall, which looks even more resplendent than before. The two other bank buildings have become less accessible unfortunately. The former Twentsche Bank has been modernized completely and now houses the office of Ploum Lodder Princen. The NHM building has housed a local authority tax office for a long time, which kept the beautiful public hall and waiting room completely intact.
In 2016 v8-architects from Rotterdam started with the renovating of the NHM building into a flexibel and classy officebuilbing. Many original elements have stayed intact and the atrium has been restored. The renovation has been finished februari 2018.
Architects NHM: Elffers & Van Nieuwenhuijzen
Architect Twentsche Bank: Van der Steur
Architect Incassobank: Kraaijvanger
National Heritage Sites
- Twentsche Bank: A.J. van der Steur i.s.m. W.A.C. Herman de Groot, B. Hooijkaas en B. van Veen, NHM: Corn. Elffers en A.A. van Nieuwenhuyzen, Incassobank: E.H. en H.M. Kraaijvanger
- Twentsche Bank 1950, NHM: 1945-1947, Incassobank: 1946-1950
- Blaak 28, 34, 40 Rotterdam, Netherlands
- Buildings National Monuments