Rotterdam: a Tale of Two Cities

Anyone who studies a street map of Rotterdam before 1940 gets confused. Rotterdammers today would have a hard time finding their way in that pre-war city. Not only the buildings are different, also the street plan has changed beyond recognition.

There are in fact two different cities. Those two cities share the same location but are separated by time. With a breaking point at the day of the bombing: May 14, 1940. Of course, other cities have also changed enormously since, say, the 1930s. But nowhere are the differences as dramatic as in Rotterdam.

The destruction of the street plan

Not only buildings were destroyed by the bombing and the fire that followed. The disaster was also seized as an opportunity to completely mess up the street pattern of the city. In the Basic Plan for the Reconstruction only a few historical lines were still recognizable: Coolsingel, Binnenrotte, Goudsesingel. And also that reconstruction plan was modified many times in the course of the years. A Rotterdammer from 1939 that would suddenly be beamed up to our time would be completely disoriented.

To my surprise I could not find a map that compares those two streetplans. So I decided to make such a map myself:

Double plan of Rotterdam: the cities of 1939 and 2014 juxtaposed
Present day street map of Rotterdam on top of the situation before 1940

The city as a campus

On this map it’s easy to see that the new city is much more spacious than prewar Rotterdam. That was also the intention of the reconstruction plan. But one might still wish all that extra space to be a bit less stony. The whole city center could be one big park, or at least a kind of campus: buildings scattered among the greenery. Fortunately, the last few years we’ve seen a slow development in the right direction.

The city blocks of post-war Rotterdam within the area that was destroyed in May 1940
The space between the blocks

Lost water, drowned land

Also interesting is the change of the watercourses in the city. After the bombing, Schie (1), Part of the river Rotte (2), Nieuwe Haven (3), Blaak (4), Schiedamsevest (5) an d kolk (6)were filled up with debris. A crying shame, but new water was created as well: the side harbours of Leuvehaven, (7), the Stokviswater, parallel to Meent (8), and the water in the Heliport “gnome village” (9). Too bad Rotterdam is not always using its banks in an optimal way; too often you’ll find rear facades and ugly 1970’s architecture there.

Comparing the pre-war and post-war rivers and canals in Rotterdam inside the destruction zone of the 1940 bombing
Water, before 1940 and now

The shifting of Hofplein

If we zoom in on the area surrounding Hofplein we see how dramatic the differences are. The square has moved quite a bit to the west. At the location of the roundabout with the fountain there used to be a housing block at the end of “Zoo Avenue” (Diergaardesingel). And the (former) Shell tower actually turns out to be in the middle of the Schie. Only a few pre-war buildings are still there: the town hall (1), the old Luxor Theater (4), the police office (6) and a small building on Goudsesingel (15); attachment points between the old and the new city.

Dubbelplattegrond Rotterdam 1939 / 2014 - fragment Hofplein
Hofplein and vicinity, before 1940 and now

The bend in Hoogstraat

Also in the eastern part of the old city triangle the differences are spectacular. I’ve always thought that at least Hoogstraat (just above the centre of the map below) was still in its original location. But that street appears to be making a subtle bend near the library and as a result no building line has remained the same in this area. In the upper right corner we see that also Oostplein, like Hofplein, moved considerably in western direction. And of course the disappearance of the Nieuwe Haven (lower half of the map) is appalling. At the site of this former canal now runs a tiny residential street with architecture from the 1980’s, still bearing the name Nieuwe Haven.

Double plan of Rotterdam: the cities of 1939 and 2014 juxtaposed - fragment Hoogstraat and Nieuwe Haven
Hoogkwartier and surroundings, before 1940 and now

The dam

Let’s also zoom in on the junction of Hoogstraat and Binnenrotte, the place where once the dam was built that gave Rotterdam its name. In this neighborhood we see four still existing buildings: Saint Lawrence’s church (13), the Willem de Kooning academy (14), the White House with the Wijnhaven buildings (15) and the former Municipal Library, nowadays the Erasmus University College (17 ).

Other than that, little has remained the same. Blaak, now a busy traffic road, was in 1939 partly water, partly Beursplein square. Another water ran at the site of Blaak station: the Kolk. A street called Middensteiger ran right through what is now the library. And Nieuwstraat, at the time a narrow alley, ran right through the Markthal.

It is striking that Binnenrotte is now more than twice as wide as it was before the war. The Luchtspoor (the Aerial Railway) once ran here, which gave the market below an almost Parisian allure. The viaduct was demolished after the railway tunnel’s completion in 1993.

Part of the Double Street Map Rotterdam 1939/now, focussing on Binnenrotte and Hoogstraat, comparing the pre-war street plan with the current layout
Around Binnenrotte, before 1940 and now

Recycling of street names

It’s funny to see so many old street names are still being used, although the street itself is often only in the vicinity of its prewar namesake. Kruisstraat, Kipstraat and Zandstraat, for example, used to run more or less perpendicular to their current direction. Some names were reborn in a completely different appearance: before 1940 the name Weena, now one of the most important traffic arteries, was found in a couple of small streets and a square north of Hofplein. I can understand that the name Slagveld (Battlefield) did not return after the war. But can’t we find a new use for names like the Farmer’s Jetty and the Cheese Market?

Comparing the street map of Rotterdam before 1940 and nowadays in the area where Dudok's Bijenkorf used to be, which is now Churchillplein
The old Bijenorf department store and its surroundings

Unique selling point

It is a pity that the old city is so poorly visible in the new Rotterdam. I think the fact that under the current center a totally different city is hidden is a unique selling point. It should be possible to do more with our recent history. This is possible in various ways: by rebuilding some old buildings (yes, the Bijenkorf and windmill De Noord), or at least relocating the elements that still exist (indeed, the facade sculpture). Or by bringing the prewar water back on some locations (Schiedamsevest perhaps?) But it can also be done more subtly, like showing the old building blocks in the pavement, planting or lighting. Or even by information panels or commemorative tiles: “Here was formerly the Boschje”.

Wallsize print in a modern museum of a double street map of downtown Rotterdam with the situation from before the second world war compared with the current state
The double street map in a museum…

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