Until recently, many articles about post-war reconstruction in Rotterdam started with the remark that the tower of our proud Laurenskerk stood amidst fields of thistles, surrounded by a disconsolate expanse, unintentionally casting doubt on any change to this situation. Slowly, however, things are getting quite busy at the foot of our old tower. Already one can indicate various points in the city from where you can no longer see from one part of the city to another. Rising scaffolding or concrete shells of buildings under construction block the view.
Such is their number that the newspapers can publish pictures of works under construction or of building sites with captions that read: “What’s happening here?” And it occurs that we are often unable to answer the question immediately — proof that so much is going on and, hence, many objects escape our attention. Such a question concerns Botersloot, where a powerful concrete shell is gradually taking shape, on the roof trusses of which a flag recently flapped cheerfully, to indicate that this structure had reached a particular constructional milestone. Being built here next to the well-known telephone building is an extension designed by the Department of Public Works under the supervision of architect J. Koops.
Viergever, Het Timmerhuis 1948-10
The new telephone building on Botersloot opened its doors in 1951. For over a century, Botersloot was the centre of telephony in Rotterdam. Starting in 1896, the municipality itself operated the telephone network through the Municipal Telephone Service. Call between the roughly 1000 subscribers were manually connected by operators, which meant that you could literally have a ‘wrong connection’. Locating the main office in the city centre would be the most convenient situation, and so a suitable venue was found on a floor above the Meat Market on Botersloot. Renovating a number of rooms and adding two floors created enough space for a hall with switchboards. The number of subscribers rose steadily by about 500 a year, and by 1905 the building was renovated again to create space for a new battery system from Swedish company Ericsson with a maximum capacity of 18,000 numbers. Subsidiary branches opened at other locations around the city: Hoflaan, Bergweg, Korenaarstraat and Vlaggemanstraat. The installation of an automatic exchange on Botersloot commenced in 1927.
Work to extend the building started in 1930, and by mid-1932 the system had been fully automated, and the operators disappeared from the ‘signal room’. It took a very long time and various alternatives were studied before a decision to build was taken, but now our municipal telephone company will at last have improved and more spacious accommodation. For yesterday, as stated, the renovation and expansion was tendered. At the same time, the existing facade, inspired by the neo-renaissance style of the former Meat Market, above which the office was first located, will be demolished and replaced by one that matches the façade architecture of the new section, although it will be taller than the existing part. The entire front of the office will be 56.50 metres in length and, in terms of appearance, be more in line with the scale of the municipal telephone building today. Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad 14-08-1930
The telephone building had been partly spared during the bombardment, just like the nearby library and a portion of the bank building. Part of the building had been rebuilt before the end of the war to facilitate all-important telephone calls, which were also serviced by the subsidiary branches. The design by municipal architect Koops was completed in 1942. In view of the period in which it was designed, it is not surprising that it reflects the traditionalist ideas on architecture and urban design held by city architect W.G. Witteveen, and in particular supervisor A. van der Steur, who exerted a strong influence on architecture. Although the building has a concrete structure, it is dominated by large expanses of brickwork, identical windows, and a pitched roof. The first pile of the new office building was driven into the ground on 21 December 1945. The existing building on Botersloot was extended with a four-floor office section. A new, so-called machine building was built parallel to this building, forming a courtyard between the two structures. The design of the machine building was based on the dimensions of the machinery needed for telephony.
The machine building has a concrete structure and the administration building is partly concrete, partly brick. The basement, floors and staircases are also made of reinforced concrete.
The double floors contain space to run the various cables.
The structural grid was derived from the position of the machine racks in the machine building because the cable bundles had to be run through every second bay, behind every window pier. The façades are faced in red hand-moulded bricks that feature a simple terracotta motif. The whole building is supported by a basement of granite. The roofs are covered in braised tiles, and the window frames are steel.
The telephone building was officially opened on 4 December 1951, later than anticipated owing to a shortage of materials. At almost the same time, six-digit numbers were introduced in Rotterdam. Owing to pressure on the system, people sometimes had to wait a minute or even two before hearing the familiar buzz on the line.
P.T.T. in Rotterdam now possesses a well-equipped company. In the design, drawn up and executed by the department of public works under the supervision of architect J.R.A. Koops, full consideration was given to the requirements of the company. Moreover, the aim was to attach the new part to the existing as organically as possible. Rotterdam Bouwt 1951/52-4
The German occupiers had, for that matter, placed the local telephone service under the control of the PTT (the precursor to the KPN). Although the telephone building was designed by a municipal architect, the application of art meant it was soon dubbed the PTT Building. Adorning the facade, some 25 metres up, is a window ornament (Mercury on a fish) and two stones: one with a fish (product of the water), the other with a branch with apples (product of the land). Lower down, above the main entrance, is a broad strip of sculpture, featuring the letters PTT and a symbolic depiction of the role played by the PTT in the world. Het Vrije Volk 9-6-1951
In 1981 the complex was extended with a concrete office tower designed by Kraaijvanger Architects. This brutalist structure struck a discordant note on this key site in the centre. Despite initial plans to just strip the 51-metre-tall building, it was eventually demolished in 2006 and replaced by the Statendam residential tower designed by German architect Hans Kollhoff. Completed in 2009, this building was inspired by what he saw as the only valuable part of the city centre: the telephone building, the Spaarbank and the former library. Kollhoff would have preferred to replace the whole post-war reconstructed centre with traditionalist perimeter blocks in brick, but this second German assault on Rotterdam remained limited to just one building. The telephone complex was partly restored and partly replaced by a new volume, similar in form and architecture, on the northern side by Rapp + Rapp. The new building houses the municipal Department of Employment and Income. The distinctive arches from Librijesteeg were relocated to the other side of the building, where they now serve as decorative elements on the car park. Offices occupy the restored section on Botersloot. The ground floor contains retail spaces, and is currently home to, among others, the well-known children’s bookstore De Kleine Kapitein.
- Meent, Rotterdam, Netherlands