Shell Tankers is constructing a skyscraper in the centre of Rotterdam. Set to cost about eight million guilders, this modern office building will occupy a site on the corner of Schiekade and Hofplein. Although smaller in size, the building will be somewhat comparable to the United Nations building in New York. It will be 40 metres tall, with a facade 85 metres wide and a depth of 16 metres.
Algemeen Handelsblad, 27 September 1956
The Shell building was designed by the company’s in-house architect, C.A. Abspoel (1899-1970). Around the same time, he also designed a large office building for Shell in Hoogvliet. In addition, he designed company laboratories, installations and housing close to refineries all over the world. The initial plan was for a building with just five floors for Shell Tankers at Hofplein. In the design phase, however, the programme increased to include other Shell divisions, resulting in a substantial nine-floor building. Floors one to four were occupied by Shell Tankers, five and six by Shell Nederland, and seven and eight by the regional office for the Dutch gas company (Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij). The building could accommodate 600 employees.
The city authorities insisted that Delftsestraat extend beneath the building to ensure a fast connection between Centraal Station and Station Hofplein. A clearance of five metres was required. Accordingly, the office volume is supported by freestanding concrete columns, which taper towards the top and are positioned at 10.50-metre intervals. The design is based on a grid of 1.75 metres, determined by the dimensions of a standard writing desk (0.75 x 1.50 m). Located beneath the building was a glazed main entrance, a petrol station and a low brick volume with a service entrance and spaces for the petrol station.
The building will consist of a reinforced concrete structure, and prefabricated components will be used wherever possible. (…) The complex will be fully ‘sound-proof’ so that staff are not troubled by the noise of passing trains. The minister for reconstruction expressed a wish that the building, wherever possible, be constructed of materials that are not needed for housing construction. That is why a so-called curtain wall of anodized aluminium is being considered for the facade. Its construction will not require any specialist construction workers.
Algemeen Handelsblad, 27 September 1956
The first pile was driven into the ground on 17 December 1957, and the building was officially opened on 13 August 1960 by Mayor Van Walsum. He welcomed the building as an urban enhancement. Moreover, it demonstrated that the standing of Rotterdam as a port and centre of the chemical industry had significantly increased.
To ensure the stability of the concrete structure, the building features concrete lift shafts and cable ducts, a concrete north facade and two concrete piers on the short facades. Like the north facade, the blank sections of the long facade are faced in slabs of Italian travertine. The north facade features hexagonal windows and slabs of travertine, the sides of which have the same angle as the stairs inside. The function of the aluminium curtain wall is to insulate the interior while admitting natural light. Cylindrical vertical beams of aluminium can withstand the wind load. Behind them, in a single plane, are rows of double-glazed windows and sandwich panels of aluminium sheets.
Offices were arranged along both sides of a central corridor, with lifts and stairwells located at both ends. Management offices were positioned at the southern end of the building. On the top floor was a staff lunchroom with a capacity of three hundred, as well as a kitchen, a coffee room for eighteen people and a cinema with seating for fifty visitors.
Apart from the works of art inside the building, the Shell logo near the top of the facade was an important distinguishing element.
The south hall features a blue-tiled pool, out of which rises a mermaid crafted by sculptor Corinne Franzen-Heslenfeld. Pieter A.H. Hofman decorated the eight stepped landings on the south side of the building with sgraffito scenes. Two of these landings depict signs of the zodiac, while six sgraffito scenes express maritime or shipping themes.
Het Vrije Volk, 13 August 1960
In 1971 Shell decided to expand the complex with office space for another 800 employees. The Amsterdam architect Piet Zanstra (1905-2003), known for his preference for reinforced concrete, designed a 95-metre-tall tower. Measuring 25.20 by 44.20 metres in plan, the tower is arranged around two cores containing lifts, toilets and stairwells. The office portion is supported by freestanding columns set on a large base that also houses a garage for 300 cars. This low volume is 25 metres wide and 52 metres long and contains a spacious entrance hall, a canteen, meeting rooms and a media room. A bridge extends from the top floor of the old building to the new tower. The building is completely clad in concrete panels measuring 5.40 by 3.40 metres. The glass is not set in frames but fixed directly to the concrete components.
The architecture of both buildings is, to put it mildly, mediocre, and it is incredible that such a nationally and internationally important company should employ such incompetent designers and have drawn up such an unimaginative and paranoid programme. How can a company of this size erect a building that makes no contribution whatsoever to the attractiveness of the city as a whole?
Kenneth Frampton in Wonen-TABK 1979-16/17
The plans provoked protests and objections, but the project simply went ahead, with the first pile driven into the ground in December 1973. Two concrete shafts were rapidly poured using sliding formwork. Construction was completed in November 1976. After this ‘final erection by big business’, alderman Mentink called for an end to high-rise construction. But some years later, the city once again embraced high-rise, and Mentink even joined the Dutch Council for Tall Buildings (Stichting Hoogbouw). At a conference organized by the Rotterdam Arts Council in 1979, the celebrated architecture critic Kenneth Frampton voiced his strong disapproval of the buildings.
Shell moved out of the buildings in 1999, marking the start of a difficult period for them as rentable office space. The Shell logo also disappeared. The old building was occupied by, among others, Zadkine College, while the tall Hofpoort building was let floor by floor. The innovative curtain wall of Hofplein 19 had already been replaced in 1989 by a fashionably blue, mirror-glass facade. In 2018 this facade was in turn replaced by a transparent glass facade designed by OZ architects. They also transformed the interior, replacing the traditional cell structure with an open layout. Starbucks opened a café in the low volume on the northern side. The main entrance acquired a contemporary look in the shape of a new glazed pavilion.