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How Rotterdam became a center of architectural experimentation


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: And now to a city in the Netherlands where experimentation in architecture has become a way of life.

Jeffrey Brown visited Rotterdam amid some colder weather earlier this year, as part of Canvas, our ongoing coverage of arts and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: Arriving at Rotterdam's central train station, you experience at once one of the things this Dutch city is best known for, its architecture, quirky, lively, in-your-face.

Most cities have a signature style. This one celebrates a kind of mash-up. Its style is many styles overlapping and evolving over time.

Reinier De Graaf: This is the mess that is Rotterdam, and Rotterdammers are proud of it, including myself.

Jeffrey Brown: Renowned Dutch architect Reinier de Graaf was born in Rotterdam, and has worked here for decades.

Reinier De Graaf: You have a tower there. I think that's late '90s, early zeros. There's this green thing here. That is the 1980s.

Jeffrey Brown: And then there's the building we were standing in that de Graaf had designed, the Timmerhuis.

Reinier De Graaf: The building starts to recess with roof terraces the moment it peeps over the attics of neighboring buildings, so the style is very modern and individual.

Jeffrey Brown: It merged a 1950s office building with a new steel and glass structure that houses city offices, shops and apartments.

Long known as a great and gritty industrial port city, Rotterdam today has a made a reputation as one of the world's leading laboratories for architecture and design, a place where you can find buildings and structures of all kinds.

One reason? Its particular history.

Narrator: Flights of unopposed German bombers flew low over the center of Rotterdam and methodically bombed it into a heap of rubble.

Jeffrey Brown: What was once a traditional European city was destroyed by the Germans early in World War II, flattening the city center, forever changing its landscape.

Narrator: One of the most ruthless exhibitions of savagery the world has ever seen.

Reinier De Graaf: The interesting thing in Rotterdam is that its reconstruction really took place without any sentimentality toward was what was gone, and the emptiness that is left in the wake of the bombing was used to really make a new beginning.

Jeffrey Brown: That new beginning became an ongoing experiment as architectural styles changed, as well as a source of pride and identity for the city.

Among much else, there are 1970s era cube houses designed by Piet Blom and his 1980s Pencil Building right next door. The asymmetrical Erasmus Bridge, known as the Swan, opened in 1996.

And the enormous six-year-old De Rotterdam Building, stacks of cubes that look different from every direction by powerhouse architect Rem Koolhaas and his Rotterdam-based design firm, OMA.

Reinier de Graaf is a partner.

Reinier De Graaf: You feel a tremendous amount of freedom. I'm hesitant to verbalize even an answer to the question of what's the style or character of Rotterdam, because I think, once that is defined, then there will be pressure to conform to it. And then the very freedom that's the essence of the city will be gone.

Jeffrey Brown: You can see it in another of the city's newest iconic buildings, the Market Hall, designed by architect Winy Maas, horseshoe-shaped, with huge glass windows onto the city on both ends, its curved walls containing offices and apartments. A giant mural floats above a lively indoor food market.

Winy Maas: You have a kind of nice intimate atmosphere, because the market is, say, for people. So you want -- when you sit on the terrace and you can look up and, ah, this one is going to dinner. That one is going to a bathroom. That one is going to take a bath. So I think that makes it also more intimate, as such.

Jeffrey Brown: It's interesting because it's intimate, but also in a very large public space here, right?

Winy Maas: Exactly. Exactly.

But I think our cities need that, to have like spaces where you don't feel so distant to each other and that you can see each other more close. I think that encourages safety, actually, and encourages more collectiveness.

Jeffrey Brown: A short ride away, a very different kind of experiment in creative and sustainable ways of living, a new small neighborhood built on a former field hockey arena.

Stefan Prins: There were some rules in kind of the way you had to design your house, and let's say the way -- how big it can be, and in your appearance, and where you position it.

Jeffrey Brown: Otherwise, it could look crazy.

Stefan Prins: Yes, exactly, exactly.

Jeffrey Brown: Architect Stefan Prins lives here with his partner, Diana, and their young daughter in a home he designed, an open floor plan, large windows positioned to provide maximum light all year. The home runs entirely on electric and solar power, no gas.

His neighbors, too, were all invited to come up with their own designs, making for a mix of styles, like Rotterdam itself, but all with sustainability in mind.

Stefan Prins: All these houses, they look sustainable because of the materials. So it's not only about energy reduction. It's, of course, also about the materials you choose to work with, right?

Even in the big projects in Rotterdam, you see -- you will see this change in being more conscious about how you design it, with sustainability as a very integrated part of the design.

Jeffrey Brown: And then there's this, an even less likely mix of sustainability and design, a farm in the waters of Rotterdam's famous harbor.

Minke Van Wingerden: It's not a farm as we ever have seen a farm.

Jeffrey Brown: No, it doesn't look like anything I have seen.

Minke van Wingerden is one of the designers of the world's first floating dairy farm, a way to bring farming back to the city and to design for a future that may include more flooding.

Minke Van Wingerden: We think that the agriculture sector is not so sexy anymore, and we want to make it sexier again. And we want to attract young people. Food is such an important thing, and it should be popular to be a farmer.

Jeffrey Brown: You're saying the design makes it more sexy?

Minke Van Wingerden: Yes, because it's so strange. It's a future design. And it's an open design. That's also important for us, because we think it's important that everybody can see what's going on, where your foods comes from, and how do we process the milk, and do how we process the manure?

So that's why it's iconic, it's open, it's transparent.

Jeffrey Brown: We were there before the cows arrived, but they're on board now, and milk is being delivered to local supermarkets. The short delivery distance, plus the solar panels, reduces energy use.

You have seen Rotterdam change quite a bit?

Minke Van Wingerden: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Where does something like this fit into the changes that you have seen?

Minke Van Wingerden: Because Rotterdam, it has a vibe of doing things, making things happen, and it's never strange enough.

Jeffrey Brown: Even a floating farm, huh?

Minke Van Wingerden: Even a floating farm, yes, indeed.

Jeffrey Brown: All part of a cityscape that's ever-changing and redefining urban living.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

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