And thus it happened that the first models of the new department store showed a protrusion without any defined shape, indicating the spot where the city development department wanted this attention-grabbing addition.
That protrusion eventually became the Naum Gabo sculpture, a compromise between the wishes of the department and the views of the Bijenkorf directors concerning a modern department store. And that is how Rotterdam acquired its rhythmic Coolsingel facade.
Het Vrĳe Volk, 19 March 1957
Double building line
Marcel Breuer’s design for the new Bijenkorf from late 1953 is a clean, rectangular block. The Basisplan stipulated a double building line on Coolsingel: a recessed line starting at Hotel Atlanta and a protruding line at the corner of Van Oldenbarneveltstraat. Breuer was reluctant to change the shape of his building, however, though his office archive does contain a number of undated studies for a protruding volume with honeycomb patterns at the corner of the building. But this avant-corps didn’t satisfy the city planning requirements. The supervisory board’s working committee responsible for Coolsingel, whose members included Van Traa, Fledderus and Van Embden, proposed a protruding volume containing the stairwell or restaurant that offered a view towards the ‘Window to the Water’. After all, Breuer had also designed an addition behind the store called the Bijkorama, so he wasn’t that much of a purist. A model from the city development department, a photograph of which was published in Het Vrije Volk on 8 May 1955, showed a transparent volume that protrudes eight metres from the building. The envisaged extension looked ridiculous, but the city planners insisted that the urban design rhythm remain intact.
In the end, Breuer came up with a bright idea to break the deadlock: a large sculpture at the corner of the building. Client, architect and city planners were enthusiastic about the proposal. Bijenkorf director Van der Wal sought advice from Nelly van Doesburg on artworks for the building. Van der Wal himself was also extremely interested in visual art, even presenting the city with The Destroyed City sculpture by Zadkine. Because of the architectonic scale of the proposed sculpture, something constructivist was considered. Hans Arp, a good friend of Nelly van Doesburg, was the first artist approached, but he wasn’t interested. Next in line were the brothers Naum and Antoine Pevsner, who had been active as artists back in revolutionary Russia. Antoine wouldn’t have time for two years, so his brother Naum was approached. To avoid confusion, he had changed his surname to Gabo. Naum Gabo (1890‒1977) arrived in the United States via Paris and England in the early 1950s and became an American citizen.
In June 1954, director Van der Wal first had contact with Gabo. The latter was prepared to make a model, but wanted 10,000 dollars (about 17,000 euros at the time) to do it. And he wanted even more money to build it. Van der Wal left the decision up to Breuer, for he would have to work with the artist. According to one of Breuer’s assistants, Robert F. Gatje, it was Breuer who asked Gabo:
Lajkó’s plan for the department store was a grand travertine box, and he had no intention of adding a projecting ‘bump’, as he called it, just to satisfy the city planners. Instead, he turned to his old friend, the sculptor Naum Gabo, and asked for a heroic sculpture that would project from the wall. The final version actually stands on the sidewalk in front of the building and has been accepted as a Rotterdam landmark. Marcel Breuer: A Memoir, p. 53.
Breuer and Gabo knew each other from their time in England. In any case, Breuer and Gabo got along well together and the sculptor could start work.
In the summer of 1954, Gabo was ready with his proposal, which resembled a constructivist flower against the facade. This proposal, presented in model form, did not meet with approval from the city planners, who considered that a figurative addition to the facade plane was no solution to the urban design problem. In November 1954 it was decided that the solution had to be a large freestanding object on the sidewalk. Gabo was enthusiastic about this suggestion and designed the organic-looking structure, 26 metres tall, that was eventually built. To ensure the stability of the structure, a collar wrapped around the base, but this proved unnecessary and was dropped from the definitive model. The design was based on an earlier work by Gabo called Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, made for a 1952 competition that Gabo didn’t win. The Tate Museum in London has a model of the sculpture in its collection.
Wind tunnel test
Gabo designed the constructivist artwork intuitively. His sketches were then elaborated by engineers at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) in Delft, and safety-tested in a wind tunnel. Gabo had informed himself about local conditions before choosing the materials. The work was produced by the firm of Lubbers Constructiewerkplaatsen in Krimpen aan den IJssel. On the night of 6-7 May, it was transported on a flat-bottomed barge to Leuvehaven, where it was hoisted onto trucks and taken to the site. On the evening of ‘Construction Day’ in 1957, shortly after completion of the building, the artwork was finally unveiled.
When all the lights in the department store were switched off, the city mayor pressed the button to turn on the lamps at the foot of the sculpture. Bright beams enveloped the black wires of the sculpture’s innards, casting a fascinating pattern on the wide Coolsingel.
Naum Gabo, who listened motionlessly to what for him were unintelligible speeches, sighed with relief as the beams of light shot upwards. Hundreds of interested onlookers — artists from as far afield as Amsterdam had come to Rotterdam to attend the unveiling — saw how he spontaneously embraced Mr Van der Wal and his employees.
Het Vrĳe Volk, 22 May 1957
The name and meaning of the sculpture was a subject of discussion right from day one. Het Ding (Dutch for ‘The Thing’) was the most commonly used name, but other names included Construction, The Stylized Flower and the Gabo’s Tree. Gabo himself claimed the work was inspired by a tree and represents ‘Hope’: “I’m an optimist by nature. I like to live life to the full, and I’d like to give people the feeling that life is good after all, and that it’s good to be alive. I hope that’s what I’ve conveyed in the spirit of my vertical lines, in the ascending and upward-reaching rhythm of my monument…” In a lecture to mark the unveiling, art critic Arthur Lehning commented:
If one now asks: What does it mean? I would answer: It means nothing. It is comparable with nothing. It is itself. It stands where it stands and people have to look at it. The theme is as simple as a painting by Mondrian: the equilibrium of pure proportions, the balanced proportions of planes, colours and lines. And the same effect is achieved here with other shapes, with curves and spirals. It would not surprise me if the man in the street, not weighed down with all sorts of art-historical ballast, will find this monument natural and perhaps even beautiful.
A critic writing for De Tijd, still a daily newspaper at the time, was not particularly enthusiastic about the work:
Many Rotterdam people do their best to see in it a flower structure, with pistils and stamens at the centre, a logical ‘translation’ into something comprehensible that can, moreover, be linked to the literal meaning of ‘beehive’. One can also read the structure as a pair of rope ladders that wind around two ships’ anchors caught in a spider’s web. That’s if one really is determined to see something in it.
No, we don’t believe that Rotterdam will be easily swayed by this rather intrusive artwork in front of the Bijenkorf. At best, people will just grow accustomed to it.
De Tijd, 11 May 1957
In a 1957 review of the building in the Bouwkundig Weekblad, city architect Van Traa expressed his satisfaction with the result:
Now that Gabo’s metal sculpture has been revealed, I think we have gained much in terms of urban design. True, it is not the protruding volume prescribed by the Basisplan, but for me the huge urban design significance of this metal giant is that Coolsingel now starts at the Bijenkorf and not at Hotel Atlanta. (…) All in all, I am grateful to Rotterdam and to the support from the Bijenkorf directors, who made this risky venture possible. The all-out and unique way in which those directors have shown their desire to see this conflict resolved, and in my opinion have succeeded in that regard, will not be forgotten by all who care about the new Rotterdam.
A plague of starlings meant that the plastic coating was soon damaged, and the artwork soon required restoration. On 11 May 1960 two oxygen cylinders used for the repair work exploded, setting fire to the canvas sheets and timber scaffolding around the sculpture and turning the artwork into a burning torch. It was repaired during 1961. Maintenance remained a source of concern, however, with the coating needing to be replaced every five years.
The photography archive of the department of public works contains an image of the Bijenkorf with the sculpture wrapped in timber, which looks like an extension to the building. The photograph was commissioned by C. van Traa. Would he therefore have preferred an extension? Probably not, because correspondence about the sculpture reveals that he always supported the architect’s choices on this committee that didn’t speak in unison.
Routine maintenance work ceased in the 1980s. The artwork, now part of Sculpture International Rotterdam, looked increasingly neglected. Starting in January 2014, weekly performances were staged as a lament, and a tribute. After years of discussions between the Bijenkorf, the new owner IEF Capital and the city authorities, restoration work on the monument started in August 2017. On 19 February 2018 the sculpture once again looked magnificent.