The pile to be shortly driven into the ground is the first pile of the new Rotterdam. We are therefore witnessing the start of reconstruction. Just as this solid concrete pile will be driven vigorously into the ground, Rotterdam will also vigorously try to maintain its trade and shipping position.
K.P. van Mandele gave this speech to mark the sinking of the first nineteen-metre-long vibrated concrete foundation pile for the new building for the Rotterdamsche Bankvereeniging. Mandele was chairman of the board of the bank until 1940 before becoming director of the Chamber of Commerce. Also in attendance on 31 March 1941, ‘Reconstruction Day’, were the government commissioner for reconstruction J.A. Ringers, city architect W.G. Witteveen and well-known Rotterdam dignitaries such as D.G. van Beuningen and A.J.M. Goudriaan. According to the German-controlled press, it will be “a powerful new structure, the first to grace the newly reconstructed Coolsingel, which more than previously will be the main artery through Rotterdam.” (De Telegraaf, 31 March 1941)
Before the war, the Rotterdamsche Bankvereeniging (known as Robaver) and Amsterdamsche Bank were located close to each other on Coolsingel, on the site of what is now the Bijenkorf department store. The banks later merged to form the Amro bank. In 1939 this branch of the Robaver was renovated and fitted with a new facade by Hermann Friedrich Mertens (1885-1960), the regular architect of the bank. The building survived the bombardment largely intact, and very soon the upper floors housed the ASRO (Advisory Bureau for the Reconstruction of Rotterdam). The bank occupied the ground floor only. Founded in 1863, the bank has its head office on Boompjes, which were extended by Mertens in 1923. This building was badly damaged by the bombing, so the bank needed a new headquarters. Incidentally, all safes inside bank buildings survived the bombing undamaged.
City architect Witteveen granted permission to the Rotterdamsche Bank to build its new head offices on a prominent city site: near the hospital on Coolsingel. Mertens drew up a design for the site. The architect had already designed branches in Gouda, Terneuzen and The Hague, as well as twenty branches for the Nationale Bankvereniging between 1917 and 1922. Mertens is best known for the Unilever head offices (1931) on Land van Hoboken and the HAKA building on Vierhavensstraat (1932). He also took part in the competition for the new stock exchange.
Once the foundations and basement were built, construction came to a halt as a result of a general suspension of building activity announced on 1 July 1942. But architect Mertens devised a trick to continue building by arguing that the metal reinforcements protruding from the concrete basement were not resistant to weather conditions. “An exemption was applied for, and a female German expert appeared on site, and this Nazi figure let herself be fooled easily. With a grand gesture, she granted permission to pour concrete over the existing iron.” (Published in the Robaver monthly magazine for employees of the Rotterdamsche Bankvereeniging NV, also the official mouthpiece of the Robaver in Rotterdam and Amsterdam.) The entire ground floor was then poured before construction halted definitively in 11 May 1943. From then on, all cement and iron were deployed to construct the German coastal defence fortifications known as the Atlantic Wall.
Recommencement of construction
Work started again straight after the war. In August 1947 the 35-ton safe arrived on the back of an American army truck that was used to transport tanks during the war. By then, sculptor Gerard Héman (1914‒1992) was working on a sculpture group for the roof and a tableau above the main entrance. Five assistants carefully chiselled and prepared the Swedish granite. The sculpture contrasts war, death and hunger with peace, fertility and welfare. Most of the building was in use by the summer of 1948, and the official opening took place on 6 January 1949. The building cost 14 million guilders (6.5 million euros), a vast sum at the time.
The elongated structure is almost symmetrical, with rounded corners. The entire site is built over at ground level, with a U-shaped structure on top. The main entrance is on Coolsingel, with a separate staff entrance on Binnenweg, and an entrance to the upper floors which were let separately on Van Oldenbarneveltstraat. The plinth also contained a number of shops. Inside the entrance was an oval hall. To the left was a counter hall and to the right the stock hall and the counter for private individuals. The ground floor also contained a double-height hall where ‘500 to 550 clerks could carry out their work at desks’. Office space occupied the three upper levels. Above the entrance was a conference room. Directors occupied an octagonal space in the curved south-east corner.
God of commerce
The redbrick facade features vertical windows, with the curved corners also fitted with fenestration, classical columns and decorative sculptures. The gently pitched roof is finished in zinc. A tableau above the entrance depicts Mercury, the god of commerce, surrounded by symbols of agriculture, fisheries, trade and shipping. Also adorning the facade are 35 stone panels featuring stylized fish and birds along the cornice. “One cannot say that no attention has been given to facade decoration!” commented Het Vrije Volk on 2 September 1947. The building contains a reference to the pre-war city in the hall windows by glazier Copier, who created tableaux inspired by a Jan Prins poem in which the latter praises the atmosphere of the destroyed city and its distinctive scents.
In his speech to mark the sinking of the first pile, Van Mandele stated that the building would be “an example of the aesthetic appearance of the new Rotterdam”. But reactions to the building upon its completion were mixed. Like the other banks constructed around the same time, the rather sombre brick colossus expressed little of the optimism of reconstruction. Rein Blijstra was particularly scathing in his criticism of the building: “It is an unforgiveable mistake by the designer of the first city plan to allow a bank building to be constructed on a site where it will turn Coolsingel into a street devoid of life in the evening. The city hall and main post office were already more than enough, the entrance to the stock exchange and the Erasmus building were barely acceptable, but the Rotterdamsche Bank is not. No matter how lively Coolsingel will be in the future, this building will remain an ugly and gloomy place in the city at night, and even during the day it obstructs the smooth passage of shoppers to and from Binnenweg.” Het Vrije Volk, 11 December 1952
An anonymous reporter from De Tijd was also damning in his assessment: “The authorities were too hasty in granting the banks carte blanche. They have had too strong a preference for sites on Coolsingel. The Rotterdamsche Bank is already finished. Massive, introvert and colossal, like a chunk of the Atlantic Wall. It is so imposing and introvert, like a giant safe stuffed with gold. And this stone-dead structure lines the grand boulevard that Coolsingel was supposed to be! Another few of these mighty strongholds and Coolsingel will be as barren as Fort Knox in America, where all the gold in the world is piled up.” De Tĳd, 18 April 1953
Finally, Jan Meijer in his column in Het Vrije Volk:
“Where is the liveliness of the boulevard? Coolsingel was already killed when they stacked up the bricks on the Rotterdamsche Bank and topped that brickwork with a copper roof. How on earth did the city planners approve such an object?”
Het Vrije Volk, 18 July 1967
Wide sidewalk with pavilions
A notable feature is that, reflecting the ideas of Witteveen, the building follows the old building line of Coolsingel, which is angled towards Schiedamse Vest. In the Basisplan drawn up by Van Traa, Coolsingel was realigned with Leuvehaven. To enhance the character of the wide sidewalk in front of the bank, four glass pavilions were constructed on it in 1957. A row of emergency shops had previously stood here. On Reconstruction Day in 1959, a replica of Monsieur Jacques, a sculpture by Oswald Wenckebach, was also placed here. The work had made a big impression the previous year at the World Expo in Brussels.
Mergers and expansion
In 1964 the Amsterdamsche Bank and Rotterdamsche Bank merged to form the AMRO Bank. In the mid-1970s the building on Coolsingel in Rotterdam became the headquarters of the AMRO Bank, and the Amsterdamsche Bank building on Blaak was transferred to NMB. In February 1979 the famous sculpture De Welvaart (‘Prosperity’) by Pieter Starreveld was attached to the facade on Coolsingel.
The concentration of all employees in one place meant that the building on Coolsingel became too cramped, and it was extended to the rear. In 1973 A.J.B. van de Graaf, in collaboration with Kraaijvanger Architects, designed an eleven-floor office tower on a low plinth. This two-level plinth containing a car park and company restaurant was designed as a continuation of the Lijnbaan. The tower is finished in brown glass that absorbs sunlight and features a striking digital clock. The building was completed in 1978. While this extension was under construction, the interior was renovated and the exterior fitted with new window frames. Another merger followed in 1990, this time with the Algemene Bank Nederland, forming the ABN AMRO Bank.
In 2007 OMA drew up plans for a large shopping centre, called Forum, inside and behind the bank building. This scheme envisaged the demolition of the office tower. The OMA design consists of a big yellow cube measuring 80 by 80 by 80 metres, with a total area of 100,000 square metres, containing shops, dwellings, offices, restaurants and the Museum Rotterdam: “a vertical city that will pull visitors inside like a magnet”. A central, inspiring meeting place, “giving Rotterdam a heart again”, with a possible roof garden, jazz café and city theatre. The Lijnbaan, Binnenwegplein and Koopgoot shopping arcade would connect with one another both underground and above ground. The proposal was quickly dubbed the ‘Koolhaas Cheese Block’.
As the property crisis worsened and internet shopping became more popular, the cheese block gradually shrank in size before disappearing completely. In May 2014 Donner bookshop temporarily moved into the vacant bank building. In 2017 the project eventually started in a slimmed-down form: the bank building is being restored by Wessel de Jonge Architects, and OMA is stripping down and converting the high-rise structure into apartments. Donner will return to the bank building after restoration, as will ABN AMRO. The redevelopment involves the demolition of the Jungerhans building, designed by in 1953 by Kraaijvanger Architects. It will be replaced by a new volume to house a branch of Primark. The four glass pavilions have already been replaced.
Address: Coolsingel 119
Architect: H.F. Mertens
National Heritage Site