Next week sees the start of work on the site where the colossal new railway post office will be built. Located close to the site of the old Delftse Poort station, the structure will be 52 metres tall, some 18 metres taller than the Groothandelsgebouw. The length, which extends for 105 metres, gives this railway post office an almost terrifyingly massive presence. It will be 36 metres deep. Inside the post office, scheduled for completion by the end of 1958, all letters and parcels will be sorted. This will be more a postal factory than a post office; deliveries in and out will be as automated as possible.
Het Vrije Volk, 20 January 1955
The railway post office was fully designed for automated postal sorting. In fact, the building is essentially a decorative shell wrapped around sorting machines. In response to the design brief, the Government Building Agency and the PTT had already developed a basic volume. But the architects, the Kraaijvanger brothers, showed verve in translating this functional arrangement into a building with the distinctive solidity of post-war reconstruction: a concrete structure finished with brick, artificial stone and glass.
Even before the Second World War, the PTT was working on buildings to house machines that sorted post. Chief government architect Bremer completed the first modern railway post office in The Hague (1939‒1949), but war delayed plans for a railway post office in Rotterdam. A design by government architect J. Crouwel Jr from 1941 was insufficiently geared to modern postal sorting systems and therefore ditched. Owing to the huge volume of work on post-war reconstruction, the project was entrusted to a private architecture firm, Kraaijvanger. The first pile entered the ground on 4 June 1955, and the building went into operation in September 1959.
Just one column
The building consists of seven levels with seven-metre-tall work areas for the sorting machines. Office volumes with ceiling heights of 3.5 metres frame both ends of these huge spaces. A minimum of columns is the aim in the work areas, and the 36-metre building depth requires just one row of columns down the middle. The top floor, earmarked for the largest sorting machines, is 9.50 metres tall and completely column-free.
Slides and chutes
Post arrived on a separate platform at Centraal Station. A tunnel connected the complex to the other platforms. Along the front of the building, a seven-metre-deep overhang sheltered a loading dock for post office trucks. Post was transported to the upper floors first, from where an ingenious system of slides and chutes sorted it as it descended.
The eastern wing housed canteens on the second, eighth and twelfth floors, with a medical unit on the ninth floor. Department heads had their offices in the western wing, which also contained and a number of conference rooms.
The organization of the building is expressed in the facade. To lend a human scale to the double-height work floors, a horizontal viewing window with teak frames extends to a height of 2.10 metres. Horizontal-pivoting windows can open. Above them is a double-metal section with strip windows. The use of transparent and translucent glass creates permanent solar shading. To allow the windows to be cleaned, aluminium ladders hang from the rails attached to the protruding floor ledges. The facades also feature yellow, grey and blue brickwork.
With the approval of the architects, Van Roode himself designed the windows. There are a total of 22, which both complement and enliven the architecture, in short becoming part of the building. It is a good example of how an architect and an artist sensitive to architecture can work together. The angled form of the window elements and the wonderful colour of the stained glass set in concrete lend a sacred atmosphere to the staircase behind this wall. They add colour and movement to the wall.
Frans Duister in De Tijd De Maasbode, 23 May 1959
Works of art
The exterior of the stairwell on the south-western side features a monumental stained-glass artwork by Louis van Roode (1914‒1964). Part of this gigantic colourful pattern is a series of bulging stained-glass windows, each with its own shape and image. The art is called 'speculaasjes' by the Rotterdam people. The building also includes a host of artworks by well-known Rotterdam artists such as Dolf Henkes, Wally Elenbaas, Kees Timmer, Henk de Vos and Gust Romijn.
The railway post office’s move to a new facility on the edge of the city in 1992 left this building without a use. Over the years, various owners and architects explored possible new uses for this post-war monument. In the end, it was property developer LSI, working with Claus & Kaan Architects, that came up with a solution that was not only commercially feasible but also satisfied both the preservationists and the city council. The post office began a new life as a multi-tenant building called Central Post. Thanks to the sturdy concrete structure, additional levels could be inserted into the tall work areas. Unfortunately, none of the distinctive postal sorting machinery could be preserved.