We are told that preparations for a National Merchant Navy Memorial have advanced to such an extent that its completion can be expected with certainty. Subject to approval by the relevant authorities, a definitive site has been chosen in the heart of Rotterdam, overlooking the water. A commission to construct the memorial has yet to be issued; further consultation is needed before that can happen. No further details concerning the form of the memorial can be revealed at present. We have been assured, however, that the intention of this memorial is to express the gratitude of the entire Dutch population for the efforts of the Dutch merchant navy during the Second World War, while also honouring the memory of those who lost their lives.
Het Vrĳe Volk, 24 February 1949
Merchant Navy Memorial
The Prow memorial commemorates the 3,500 seamen who lost their lives in the Second World War. It is the work of sculptor Fred Carasso (1889‒1969), originally from Italy. Countless problems had to be overcome during the design and construction phases. The Prow was unveiled on 10 April 1957, but wasn’t completely finished until a sculpture group was added in 1965.
In order to prevent a proliferation of memorials, a National Memorials Committee coordinated the erection of memorials after the Second World War. In the spring of 1947 it advised to allocate the national merchant navy memorial to Rotterdam. The city authorities earmarked a prominent site at the tip of Leuvehaven. The ‘National Merchant Navy Memorial’ foundation raised 180,000 guilders (c. 80,000 euros) for the structure.
In 1950 it was decided to organize a competition for its design. A jury was appointed to assess the entries, made up of ship-owner Anthony Veder, city architect Kees van Traa, Boijmans director Coert Ebbinge Wubben, sculptor Hildo Krop, architect Hugh Maaskant and art critic Bram Hammacher. Since the scale of the artwork would position it at the intersection of art and architecture, both sculptors and architects were invited to submit designs. The memorial had to honour the memory of those who died at sea, and ‘to express a sense of liberation as a crowning motif’. Invited to take part were the sculptors Fred Carasso, Wessel Couzijn, Teun Roosenburg and Willem Reijers, and the architects Frits Peutz and Joost Boks.
The six submitted designs did not produce the desired result, so a second round was held with three sculptors: Carasso, Couzijn and Reijers. The entry by Reijers, a 35-metre-tall work entitled Ruggegraat (‘Backbone’), was the jury favourite. The design by Couzijn finished in second place, because it seemed difficult to construct. (Couzijn’s work was nevertheless erected in Vlissingen in 1974, albeit at a smaller scale. Carasso ended in third place with his entry, entitled De Boeg (‘The Prow’). Over forty metres in height, it is an aluminium prow that powerfully cuts through stylized concrete waves. The competition entries were exhibited at the Schielandshuis in the summer of 1952.
This ‘backbone’, which indeed calls to mind a skeleton, a carcass, stands up out of the concrete mass shaped like a breaking wave. The ‘wave’ is positioned on the side of the river.
The idea by Reijers is, as a whole, admirable, his solution courageous yet forced. The open, spatial, very active skeleton supported no ‘load’, and certainly not a ‘load’ in the form of a suspended globe, which weighs down the upward momentum. But it is possible that these reservations will weigh less at the indicated height and in white metal.
Whether the ‘simple seaman’, of which the jury speaks, will be moved when passing this memorial is a question that we would rather leave unanswered.
Pierre Janssen, Het Vrĳe Volk, 28 July 1952
Critic Jan Engelman was also damming in his review in the Katholiek Bouwblad. He thought that Reijers ‘had put minimum thought into a weak, affected, abstract shape’, yet he was equally scathing about the other designs, which he described as impoverished, lacking and schematic. The design by Reijers was poorly received by not only art critics but also the public at large. Letters to the newspapers called it a hideous sculpture and a monstrosity. Various figures involved opposed the jury verdict, among them the Association of Dutch Merchant Navy Captains 1943, the liaison committee of the various organizations of seamen, the Princess Margriet Fund and even the Dutch Ship-Owners Association. This dispute reached a surprising denouement on 28 October 1952, when the National Merchant Navy Memorial Committee rejected the advice of the competition jury and chose the third-placed design by Fred Carasso. The non-winning participants received a fee, and Reijers was awarded additional compensation. The committee stressed that the protests played no decisive role in resolving the issue in this way.
In explaining its decision, the committee would first like to emphasize that the competition brief placed a very difficult task on the shoulders of the competitors. For they had to design a memorial that not only expressed many ideas such as the spirit of sacrifice, devotion to duty, courage in battle and delight after liberation, but also had to be comprehensible for large sections of the population. The committee fully acknowledges that the entrants could scarcely address every aspect, and that they had to emphasize just one of these aspects. On the other hand, this did not make the task of the jury any easier, because it made it extremely difficult to compare the entries.
The committee fully appreciates that the jury, in its assessment, considered the aesthetic meaning first, and then the general comprehensibility of the designs. The committee itself stresses the requirement of general comprehensibility and concludes that the design entitled ‘The Prow’ meets this, unlike the design that the jury recommended be erected. Discussions with Mr Carasso concerning the construction will now commence.
Het Parool, 28 October 1952
Carasso elaborated his design further in collaboration with a building committee made up of Van Traa, Maaskant and engineer Aronsohn. Because his design lacked the elements of sacrifice and struggle, the idea arose in 1953 to add to the work a sculpture group made up of a steersman, three sailors and a drowning victim. The altered situation at the tip of Leuvehaven complicated matters. The water defence line along the Nieuwe Maas needed to be raised to the level of the delta, and the Maasboulevard was constructed for that reason. A floodgate was built at Leuvehaven, and the memorial became part of a plaza next to this floodgate. The city authorities had decided to cover the costs of memorial’s foundations and the raising of the site. The cylindrical pedestal of reinforced concrete on concrete pile foundations cost 73,500 guilders (c. 35,000 euros). Because the project suffered significant delays, the available budget proved insufficient and an additional 40,000 guilders (c. 18,000 euros) was raised.
Construction started in September 1955 at the Rotterdamse Droogdok Maatschappij (RDM).
The Prow will weigh almost fifty tons and reach a height of over forty metres (excluding the base). No less than forty tons of that weight is accounted for by a frame of steel tubes, to which are fixed 8.5 tons of 3-millimetre-thick aluminium sheets. A total of 160 sheets measuring 5 x 1 metre are required. Fastening the carved aluminium skin will require some 90,000 rivets.
Work to construct the trusses started in September last year at RDM. Plenty of engineering ingenuity was needed to create the right ‘flowing’ form, and even more significantly, the effects of wind and temperature also needed to be considered.
Another concern was that the steel could not touch the aluminium, for if it did, the latter would corrode (‘rust’). That’s why aluminium rivets were used and various structural elements were carefully inserted into tubes.
Het Vrije Volk, 2 July 1956
On 27 August 1956 the sculpture was towed to Leuvehaven, where it was positioned on the concrete base so that further construction could begin. It wasn’t until 10 April 1957 that The Prow was officially unveiled by a youthful Princess Margriet, more than ten years after the idea was first mooted. The work still stood isolated on an island owing to the construction of the floodgate. The sculpture group was added on 15 July 1965 without ceremony.
A bout of flue couldn’t keep Princess Margriet from unveiling The Prow, the national merchant navy memorial, in Rotterdam. She missed school in the morning, but in the afternoon she stood at the tip of Leuvehaven — albeit pale and silent — to perform the unveiling under the watchful eye of officials and invited guests.
With four resolute pulls, the patron of the merchant navy instructed the ship telegraph, which was placed at the foot of the memorial — a prow rising out of the waves: full speed ahead.
Thus fell the flag draped over the proverb carved into the base: ‘They stayed on course’. At that moment, the national flag and the flags of all Dutch shipping companies, which were flying at half-mast, were hoisted to the summit.
Het Vrĳe Volk, 11 April 1957
The Prow memorial still stands as a proud symbol beside the Nieuwe Maas, although its immediate surroundings have changed. A car park occupied the plaza around the memorial for a long time, and it also served a city beach for some years. In 2012 landscape architect Piet Oudolf redesigned the area as part of a scheme to make the banks of the Maas greener.