This extraordinary concrete colossus, the scale of which completely dominates the city centre, is essentially a totally corporate structure. It is, at all times, a workplace for the busy businessman, its clean lines exuding a down-to-earth sense of realism.
From idea to reality, 1953
The Groothandelsgebouw is the ultimate symbol of post-war reconstruction in Rotterdam. Superlatives were numerous upon its completion in 1953. The scale of the building was also imposing: 220 metres long, 85 metres wide and 43 metres tall. It contained no fewer than 445,000 square metres on eleven storeys, three courtyards, and 1.5 kilometres of roadway on three levels. At the time, it was the biggest building in the Netherlands. The first pile was symbolically driven into the ground on 17 May 1947, but work did not really get underway until April 1948. And on 3 June 1953, Queen Juliana festively opened 'the symbol of the combined forces and indestructible faith in the vitality of Rotterdam'.
The bombardment had destroyed 388,000 square metres of commercial space in Rotterdam. For many people in the business community, building new premises of their own was financially out of the question. In 1944, entrepreneur Frits Pot posited the idea of a multi-tenant building for wholesalers, a ‘wholesalers beehive’ as he called it, in the Groenendaal neighbourhood. Franz Lichtenauer, from the Chamber of Commerce, and Kees van der Leeuw, driving force behind post-war reconstruction, endorsed the idea. Those plans took shape shortly after the war, and the commission was entrusted to the architecture office of Van Tijen and Maaskant.
A multi-tenant structure offered numerous advantages. Companies shared a building and therefore amenities. It gave them a better presence and better facilities (shared conference rooms, canteens, entrance, lifts and staircases) for a lower price. Moreover, commercial space could be rented flexibly, and installations and services could be built and used efficiently. Multi-tenant buildings also contained a number of service apartments so that there was always a caretaker on hand. The Groothandelsgebouw had four apartments on the seventh floor.
This was the third multi-tenant building designed by Maaskant. His two earlier industrial buildings on Oostzeedijk (1941‒1946) and Goudsesingel (1949‒1952) were finger exercises. He completed a fourth and final building in 1961 at Zuidplein. Writer Leo Ott praised Maaskant for his ‘vision, courage, perseverance, flexibility, adaptability and energy.’
The genesis of the concrete colossus close to Centraal Station formed the most spectacular element on the route that would lead to this bastion for Rotterdam wholesalers. Nothing of the fragile network of financing, or the operating concerns, was visible. Just the endless stacks of formwork and soaring concrete columns, the bustling activity in and around a complex of unprecedented dimensions. Everybody could see it with their own eyes.
Leo Ott, an luchtkasteel tot koopmansburcht
The building features a reinforced concrete structure, with concrete also dominating the external appearance. Maaskant’s previous multi-tenant buildings combined concrete and brickwork in their facades. The concrete structure and prefabricated concrete components such as solar shading components on the exterior determined the design of the building. Office facades were deliberately kept neutral in design because of the collective use and flexible character of the spaces. Expressively designed entrances, staircases and parapets enliven the composition. A combination of five contractors — Van Eesteren, Dura, HBM, BAM and De Kondor — constructed the building.
Apart from the main entrance on Stationsplein, there are four additional entrances. Besides 100,000 square metres of commercial and office space on the nine floors, the building contained showrooms along the streets and stockrooms and forwarding offices around the courtyards. Two large communal canteens were located on the roof. Notable facilities included a bank, post office, hairdressers, café/restaurant and a rooftop cinema called Kriterion. Before the cinema opened in 1961, a concrete shell was all that stood on the roof. After the film, the screen slid away to reveal a wonderful view of the city. Architects Van Tijen and Maaskant occupied a unit inside the new building, although they were no longer formal partners in practice. Located on the ground floor right from the start was Grand-Café Engels, which initially ran the emergency canteen.
Architecture office Van Stigt restored the building between 2001 and 2005. The shiny entrance hall and rooftop air ducts on the roof disappeared, the facade was cleaned, and the distinctive decorative brickwork in the corridors reappeared. Relocating the ventilation boxes to the basement allowed the architects to restore the roof terraces. In 1996 the building changed its name from Groothandelsgebouw (‘wholesalers building’) to Groot Handelsgebouw (‘big commercial building’), because there were no wholesale businesses left by then, only offices.
Before its restoration and designation as a national heritage site in 2010, the building, like many other structures built in the post-war years, was a potential target of modernization plans. One such plan envisaged attaching a ‘contemporary’ glass facade to the building. A colourful mosaic above the lifts in the entrance hall by Johan van Reede was replaced by black tiles.
To mark the festival Rotterdam celebrates the city! 75 years of post-war reconstruction, MVRDV designed a spectacular temporary flight of steps reaching to the top of the building. This structure attracted more than 100,000 visitors and enhanced the iconic status of the Groothandelsgebouw.
Address: Stationsplein 45
Architect: H.A. Maaskant, W. van Tijen