The director of the Municipal Technical Department, the engineer Willem Gerrit Witteveen, has been appointed by the Mayor and Aldermen to draw up a plan for a completely new city centre. Various experts have been assigned to assist Mr Witteveen in this major undertaking. He is released with immediate effect from his regular duties so that he can devote all his time and energy to this major project.
Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad 20-5-1940
The bombardment of Rotterdam city centre on 14 May 1940 and the ensuing inferno claimed an estimated 850 lives. This catastrophe also destroyed 25,479 homes, 31 department stores, 2320 smaller shops, 31 factories, 1319 workshops, 675 warehouses, 1437 offices, 13 banks, 19 consulates, 69 schools, 13 hospitals, 24 churches, 10 charitable institutions, 25 city and state buildings, 4 stations, 4 newspaper headquarters, 2 museums, 517 cafés and restaurants, 22 party venues, 12 cinemas, 2 theatres and 184 other commercial buildings. About 80,000 people, 13% of the population, were left homeless. The fire boundary of the destroyed city, which covered an area of 258 hectares, has been marked in the city since 2007. The Netherlands announced its capitulation on 15 May.
The bombardment of Rotterdam city centre on 14 May 1940 and the ensuing inferno claimed an estimated 850 lives.
Clearing away the rubble and drawing up plans for reconstruction started immediately with a sense of purpose so typical of Rotterdam. On 18 May 1940, four days after the bombardment, the city council appointed city architect Willem Gerrit Witteveen (1891-1979) to come up with a plan for a completely new city centre. The first task was to clear all the debris, so Witteveen had to quickly decide which buildings were worth keeping. Rubble clearance was tackled rigorously. A new city had to be created, and existing buildings could not restrain the new urban planner. The only structures eligible for preservation were: the Delftsche Poort, Schielandshuis, and perhaps the spire of Laurenskerk, though not the church itself.
The first task was to clear all the debris, so Witteveen had to quickly decide which buildings were worth keeping.
Removing all the debris took until November 1940. The land in the centre was expropriated. Engineer Johan Ringers was appointed government minister with responsibility for reconstruction, which was organised through two government agencies: the ASRO (Advisory Office for Rotterdam City Plan) and the DIWERO (Rotterdam Reconstruction Department).
Witteveen and his staff had a floor of the library on Nieuwemarkt at their disposal. They even slept there on camp beds so that they could work day and night. As the building occupied by the Department of Public Works had been destroyed, the city needed to be mapped again. The speed of response was prompted in part by a fear that any delay might allow Nazi sympathisers or Germans to take the lead in the reconstruction process. The greatest fear was the spectre of a ‘Greater Germanic Port’ built according to the urban ideas of Albert Speer.
The plan by Witteveen
Witteveen had his proposal ready within weeks. In his Reconstruction Plan, the main features of which had been defined by July 1940, he remained faithful to the pre-war situation. In particular, he tried to find solutions for the current problems in the city: better traffic circulation along broad parkways, a higher aesthetic quality of development, and the clearance of slums around Goudsesingel. In terms of urban design, he stuck to perimeter blocks and monumental streetscapes. Architectural elaboration was traditional; elevations featured individual properties and warehouses with gable-end façades. In September 1940 he presented his proposals to government commissioner Seyss-Inquart, who viewed the plans for a city with a million inhabitants as rather cramped. Nonetheless, the City Plan for the Reconstruction was officially adopted in 1941, and the plan was exhibited at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in October of that year.
In September 1940 he presented his proposals to government commissioner Seyss-Inquart, who viewed the plans for a city with a million inhabitants as rather cramped.
Grain and crops
Reconstruction work didn’t get underway because of the wartime situation. Once the rubble had been cleared and buildings beyond repair had been demolished, emergency dwellings and emergency shopping complexes were built. Little substantial building work was carried out, however. Projects that were already under construction, such as Blijdorp Zoo and the Maas Tunnel were completed, but the office for the Rotterdamsche Bank on Coolsingel remained half-finished. In the end, the only project completed was Wereldhaven on Goudsesingel. A halt on all construction came into effect on 1 July 1942. Grain and crops were grown on the vacant sites in the city.
Once the rubble had been cleared and buildings beyond repair had been demolished, emergency dwellings and emergency shopping complexes were built.
During the war, ideas about rebuilding the city changed. From 1942 on, a group of Rotterdam businessmen led by the director of Van Nelle, Cees van der Leeuw, united in the Club Rotterdam, and progressive architects from Opbouw, a society of architects and artists, began to voice criticism of Witteveen’s plans. They considered the reconstruction of Rotterdam much more of an economic matter than an aesthetic one. Moreover, most of these industrialists had more affinity with the ideas of the architects Willem van Tijen and Jo van den Broek, set down in the publication Housing Possibilities in the New Rotterdam. Witteveen became disillusioned and overworked, and on 1 April 1944 he took sick leave.
They considered the reconstruction of Rotterdam much more of an economic matter than an aesthetic one.
He was succeeded by his assistant Cornelis van Traa. On the basis of Witteveen’s ideas, Van Traa drew up a new Reconstruction plan, which was a radically functional city plan and called the Basic Plan. Witteveen would stay away from Rotterdam for the rest of his life.
Scarcely any of Witteveen’s ideas are visible in the reconstructed city. The bank building on Coolsingel follows the original building alignment along the street, which is repaired somewhat by the siting of the shopping pavilions. Just like the telephone building on Botersloot, the bank was built in a traditionalist style. A few examples of incremental, site-by-site urban development with picturesque architectural details were completed on Oude Binnenweg, on Hoogstraat close to Vlasmarkt, and on Pannekoekstraat. In addition, the quay walls, bridges and bridge houses along the Rotte and Delftsevaart waterways reveal the polished, traditionalist architectural style favoured by Witteveen.
- Rotterdam, Netherlands