Cube Houses, Rotterdam. Picture: MADELEINE MORROW
Cube Houses, Rotterdam. Picture: MADELEINE MORROW

Although there is much cuisine and culture in Rotterdam to recommend, the city’s buildings are the astounding highlight.

Less familiar to foreign visitors than Amsterdam, over the past decade Rotterdam has emerged as a popular destination in the Netherlands. Less than an hour from Amsterdam and three hours from London on the Eurostar train service, the city is easily accessible as a day trip or weekend break.

The city centre was obliterated in a single day of bombing during World War 2, precipitating the Dutch surrender. While the historical centre was lost, including its medieval heart surrounded by 17th century expansion, the post-war local government boldly envisioned a brand-new city rising from the ruins.

Rotterdam emerged as a modernist city with a strict division of functions — residential buildings in the suburbs and the city centre given over to offices and commerce. In the 1970s the planning philosophy changed with housing projects introduced in the city along with experimental design that continues to provide architectural surprises in neighbourhoods.

Rotterdam is a city of continuous transformation that has earned a reputation for dynamism and vibrancy

Emerging from the Blaak underground station, I encountered a row of houses that seemed to be in danger of collapsing onto the street. Known as the Cube Houses, these 38 sunflower-yellow homes were designed as tilted cubes balanced on poles, like tree houses in a forest. The Dutch architect Piet Blom was inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

The hexagonal shape of these unusual dwellings represents the internal geometry of a beehive with its well organised social structure — even the pavement tiles are hexagonal as is the residential tower alongside known as The Pencil.

Inside, the décor matches the unusual exterior. The angles of walls and windows made it feel like stepping inside a geometry set, a somewhat sci-fi living arrangement. It is certainly not for people with vertigo — peering out of the windows, I was disoriented by the sight of the environment tilting. It might be hard to return to after one too many beers!

Across a piazza is another remarkable example of urban architecture where form meets fun and function. The Markthal, designed by Willie Maas and opened in 2014, inverts the classic U shape, its interior space housing an enormous food hall. The sides and roof of the structure contain apartments that have windows onto the food hall.

The inside walls contain possibly the world’s largest art work. Titled Horn of Plenty, the mural depicting fruit, vegetables and butterflies provides a riot of colour, vibrancy and quirky humour. Amid a wide range of international cuisines, I went in search of the holy grail of Dutch snacks called poffertjes, mini pancakes doused in melted butter and icing sugar.

Part of the regeneration of the southern quarter of the city, the Erasmus bridge was opened in 1996. Known affectionately as The Swan, it traverses the Nieuwe Maas waterway, linking the city centre to the Wilhelminapier, once an industrial area housing the warehouses of the Holland-America Line that transported almost 2-million emigrants to the US. Now it is home to a series of buildings by some architectural giants — like an outdoor, international exhibition except that these buildings are fully functioning as multipurpose office blocks, homes, restaurants and museums.

Even the local underground station is attractive and, having been built during the Cold War, was designed to double as an atomic shelter with space for 10,000 people to survive for two weeks underground. The exit tunnel has a light installation making the experience feel like a kinetic art show.

On the street above, Kop van Zuid, one first encounters Italian architect, Renzo Piano’s building, which has a tilting façade reminiscent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The vast glass structure next door is designed by one of Rotterdam’s great architects, Rem Koolhaas. De Rotterdam, the tallest building in the Netherlands, consists of three towers that create a vertical city, glimpses of sky in between, similar to the effect created by skyscrapers.

Further along are buildings by British architect Sir Norman Foster and another by Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza.

At the end of the pier, surrounded by vast contemporary towers, sits the three-storied, grande dame Hotel New York. Built in 1901 to house the offices of the Holland-America Line, it was refurbished as a luxury hotel retaining its original features, board rooms transformed into bedrooms. The singer Anouk once holed up here while writing an album.

Arriving by water taxi was an exhilarating experience, the hotel’s art nouveau facade juxtaposed with its ultra-modern neighbours. Its restaurant boasts a shellfish bar and seated overlooking the water with a seafood platter and a glass of bubbly was all I needed to start planning my return.

Rotterdam is a city of continuous transformation that has earned a reputation for dynamism and vibrancy. For a relatively small city to embrace such modernity and appetite for innovation sets it apart. I was not surprised to read that the world’s first floating farm is due to open there soon, 40 cows grazing and producing milk and yoghurt to be sold in the city.

Rotterdam provides the sort of visual, architectural feast that is unusual in most European cities.

One evening I walked past a McDonald’s outlet. Housed in a contemporary glass and gold box, a white spiral staircase inside, it looked as elegant as one might anticipate in a city where architectural innovation is a matter of civic pride.

When it was time to leave, I discovered that the railway station, once a rundown area filled with broken bicycles and drug addicts, is now a prize-winning, stainless steel, glass and wood structure creating a railway entrance quite unlike any I have ever seen.

After a few days in Rotterdam one expects nothing less.