Rotterdam in the spotlight: from dismal mega-port to 'Dutch Brooklyn'

Phil Hoad
Not just anywhere … the Markthal in Rotterdam. Photograph: Ping Shung Chen/Getty Images

If Unilever plc’s recent announcement about moving its corporate HQ out of London rang with the dread air of Brexodus, it was drowned out by the buzz already emanating from the company’s new home: Rotterdam. The Netherlands’ gritty second city once struggled to maintain even that ranking in Dutch hearts, as revealed by the well-worn motto: “Amsterdam to party, Den Haag to live, Rotterdam to work.” But the last decade has put paid to that dismissal, with showstoppers such as Rem Koolhaas’s De Rotterdam and the horseshoe-shaped Markthal bulwarking the city’s reputation for adventurous architecture, cheap rents pulling in the creative crowd, and the rest of the world finally clueing up to life beyond the container port. Vogue recently called the city nothing less than “the Dutch Brooklyn”.

Life after freight

Rotterdam is reaping the benefits of prescient policies set down to give it a new lease of life when its vast wharfs – once the world’s biggest port – started feeling the strain of global competition. This transit hub was to become a destination in its own right, with a revivified centre, parks and – following its 2001 stint as European Capital of Culture – beefed-up cultural assets. As a result, the unthinkable is now happening in this relatively affordable city, says Rotterdam-based bestselling novelist Ernest van der Kwast. “People from Amsterdam are desperate to live here. A friend of mine lives on a street where everyone received the same letter from someone in Amsterdam with a formula calculating the value of their house based on its size. And he was ready to buy it, blind.” But despite its new status, this city of 630,000 retains its no-nonsense character. “There is a feeling of, ‘Don’t be too proud,’” says Kwast. “Don’t scream from the roofs that we are No 1. Because we’re still No1 on some other lists, like poverty.”

Rotterdam in numbers

11th Ranking in list of the world’s busiest container ports, the highest in Europe

50.3% Residents with non-Dutch origins, the highest of any Netherlands city

€144 Average office rent per square metre in 2016 (compared with €197 in Amsterdam)

90% Amount of the city below sea level, by as much as six metres in places

History in 100 words

Hobbled from the start in the glamour stakes when it took its name from the Rotte (“muddy water”) river it reclaimed land from, the city set off towards its cargo-laden destiny in 1350 with the gouging-out of the Rotterdamse Schie canal. Jostling for position with nearby Schiedam and Delft, this linked it to the northern Dutch cities. The heftier Nieuwe Waterweg, built in 1872 to ensure steamship access to and from the Meuse and Rhine rivers, gave Rotterdam continental and – through the Dutch East India Company – global reach. The city centre was almost completely destroyed by the Luftwaffe in May 1940 in order to cow the Netherlands, but it bounced back with a stridently modern postwar reconstruction. The port was in fine fettle too – the world’s busiest from 1962 until 2004, when Singapore overtook it. Rotterdam hasn’t quite given up, though: the Nieuwe Waterweg is being deepened this year.

Rotterdam in sound and vision

Techno’s answer to the Jägerbomb, the gabber subgenre started in the 1990s as Rotterdam’s middle finger to relaxed BPMs on the Amsterdam house scene.

Icelandic 2008 big-budget feature Reykjavik-Rotterdam (remade with Mark Wahlberg as Contraband) saw the shit hit the fan against a backdrop of multi-coloured Dutch freight.