Inside this building, the builder will discover a complete and systematic overview of everything he needs. In this Building Centre he will not be assailed by advertisements of all sorts. What the builder reads and hears here is reliable and critically tested information. (…) The Building Centre will not become a dead museum but a vibrant centre of modern activity in the field of post-war reconstruction. Het Vrije Volk, 23 September 1946
Information and documentation
The basis for the Bouwcentrum (‘Building Centre’) was laid during the war years in The Hague. At the time it was called the Bureau for Building Industry Documentation. The contractor Joop van der Wal, director of the construction company BAM, and the statistician Jan van Ettinger, of the state-run statistics bureau (CBS), were the driving forces behind this institute, which was intended to support the reconstruction of the country in a scientific and systematic way. The Royal Institute of Dutch Architects (BNA) and the central board of the Bureau supported the initiative. Information and documentation on construction were considered of great importance for the post-war effort. Professionals and other interested parties could come to the centre to view exhibitions and receive objective information about construction and housing.
The Bouwcentrum was officially founded in 1946, and the young Rotterdam architect Joost Boks (1904‒1986) received the commission for the design. Boks, who was friends with director Van Ettinger, had drawn up a design for a site on Coolsingel by February 1946. Nothing is known about this scheme, apart from one facade drawing in the Boks archive. The definitive site was chosen a short time later: the former Diergaarde zoo site beside Kruisplein, close to the Groothandelsgebouw. A few months later, Boks presented his design for the new site: the distinctive 16-sided volume. Construction started in March 1947.
Rotterdam is wondering in amazement about what is rising up diagonally opposite the new Centraal Station, on the site of what is now Delftse Poort station. For a very large building is under construction there. Not a church, not a housing complex, not an office block. If that were the case, people would be pleasantly surprised. After all, housing construction is hampered by a shortage of materials. But plenty of material is available to construct the large exhibition building that the Bouwcentrum will open in Rotterdam. This will be a permanent exhibition centre for construction materials. Few people know that this is happening now in Rotterdam; few know that a small group here is diverting construction materials away from the reconstruction of the Netherlands; few know that at a time when the use of every brick and every plank has to be considered thrice over, the cost of the building under construction here is estimated at six to seven million guilders (c. 3 million euros). Certainly, these plans weren’t hatched yesterday, and people have had time to consider them. That is why they should realize that such a project is unthinkable at this time. Trouw, 8 November 1947
“It is insane to construct such a building in the Netherlands at this time.” That was the view expressed by dealers in construction materials, according to Trouw newspaper. Another daily, Algemeen Handelsblad, stated that it would be better to halt construction and use the money to import nylon stockings, since they were, apparently, in greater demand! A scarcity of materials did slow down the pace of work, but there was never any danger of halting construction. The building was completed in December 1948, and on 18 May 1949, ‘Reconstruction Day’, the Bouwcentrum officially opened. In 1950 a sculpture by Piet van Stuivenberg was placed in front of the building, the first abstract artwork in public space in Rotterdam.
The building is a regular 16-sided shape, each side measuring 9 metres in length, with a diameter of 45 metres. Wrapping around the edges were two levels of exhibition spaces enclosed by blind facades. A void in the middle of the building brings daylight deep into the interior. Set in this void is a mushroom-shaped structure with three levels, each one wider than the one below. Stairs and bridges connect this core to the galleries. The idea is that this lay-out encourages the visitor to wander around the building and eventually reach the top floor without knowing it. Crowning the central section is a bowl-shaped roof supported by eight tilted concrete columns. A dome in the middle of the roof is composed of 1025 glazed tiles set in reinforced concrete.
A number of extensions were positioned around the central volume: an entrance block on Diergaardesingel that also houses a library, conference room and 150-seat lecture theatre. On the eastern side was a café-restaurant. The floor slabs of the concrete skeleton building cantilever some distance beyond the wall. Inserted into the concrete structure are infill walls of brickwork, laid in a decorative bond to underline its non-loadbearing character. The building therefore expresses a compromise between traditional and modern construction, known shortly after the war as shake-hands architecture.
Boks and his office, EGM, extended the Bouwcentrum no fewer than three times. The round shape of the central volume offered few pointers, and the building was famous at home and abroad because of its distinctive shape. Extensions were therefore placed as separate buildings on the site. The first extension, dating from 1955, was an elongated building on Weena with a concrete structure and clean facades, enlivened by a brickwork relief measuring 8.40 by 18.60 metres by the celebrated English sculptor Henry Moore, a gift from the Dutch brick industry. The work features five organic shapes set in an ornamental frame of horizontal and vertical lines. The artwork was crafted by two experienced brick-layers and unveiled on 22 December 1955. A second extension to the Bouwcentrum, again an elongated office block, opened on Kruisplein in 1965. Between 1967 and 1970, an 18-storey structure was inserted between the two earlier extensions, and a car park was added on Diergaardesingel. The high-rise features a concrete sculpture called Sylvette by Picasso. The 7.5-metre-tall sculpture was crafted by he Norwegian Carl Nesjar, who had developed a special technique to draw in concrete.
Since late 1996 the Bouwcentrum has been housed in a former bank building on Schiekade built for the Nationale Levensverzekerings-Bank. The Bouwcentrum is now used as an office complex. The 1955 extension was demolished and replaced by an office block called First, while the brick relief by Henry Moore has been preserved. The extension on Kruisplein is also earmarked for demolition. In 2003 the sculpture Sylvette moved to the new wing of Museum Boijmans-Van Beuningen. The extensions also necessitated the relocating of the sculpture by Van Stuivenberg to Gedempte Zalmhaven. Schiller Architects restored the exhibition building on Diergaardesingel in 2000. The building has been a designated national heritage site since 2009. Housing association Vestia first occupied it, and since 2017 it has been home to Greenchoice. The café-restaurant is now the main entrance from Kruisplein. The closed walls of brickwork have windows for daylight.
Click here for more information about the history of the Bouwcentrum.
View here for the Polygone Journal in 1948 at the opening of the Bouwcentrum.