Groot Handelsgebouw: Built For Eternity
TARA LEWIS | PHOTOGRAPHY:
“The funny thing about this building is that a large part of its future lies in its past”, tells Marius Meurs. In September, he celebrated thirteen years as director of the Groot Handelsgebouw. Under his supervision, this national monument with its collective workspace grew into the place to be for a new way of working. The decision to build the Groot Handelsgebouw was made in 1946. Meurs explains: “It was a joint initiative by two hundred wholesalers from Rotterdam. Previously, these wholesalers were located in the city centre. With the bombings in 1940, they lost everything. It was then, during the war, that they agreed they would build this new office space together.” The initiators financed the building, each becoming both shareholder and tenant. Since building material had become scarce during post-war reconstruction, they pooled their resources and contributed what they could. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to build at all.”
Rotterdam architect Maaskant came up with the design. “He was aiming for a building that would last an eternity, that could be used for anything and everything.” That Maaskant had his sight set on the future was clear by the parking alone: he created enough space for 220 cars, while at the time there were no more than 150 cars in the
whole of Rotterdam. At the spot where the Blijdorp Zoo once stood, the Groot Handelsgebouw arose and, in 1957, Central Station opened directly next to it.
Over the past decades, wholesalers have moved from this downtown location area to industrial parks or the outskirts of the city. By 2005, the last wholesaler had left the building. In that same year, Meurs began as director of what has become a collective office space.
He knew that the office market was in transition. “Many young, flexible and fast-growing businesses were coming, who were eager to rent something right away. Who wanted more than a simple office unit, but also common spaces, for example, where they could come together. There had to be something to do before and after office hours, but also to take a break during the work day without having to leave the building.”
Previously, the Groot Handelsgebouw was occupied by ‘traditional’ tenants. “We really had to reinvent ourselves, but as soon as we got the green light, we began with Kleinhandel and the Cambridge Innovation Center joined us two years later. Currently, a fifth of our building is filled with young, creative and innovative entrepreneurs.”
Overall, we have about two-hundred companies, distributed over 20,000 square metres. It is precisely these kinds of creative collaborations that are so well suited to how the building was originally intended, tells Meurs. In that respect, it was convenient that Maaskant had designed the Groot Handelsgebouw as a multifunctional building. “For the wholesalers, it meant having their offices, storage space and showrooms all in one place. That the spaces can now so easily be given a different function, is more evidence of
the value of the Groot Handelsgebouw. Even today, it continues to be a completely timeless building.” A perfect example of this is found in the Kleinhandel, a creative co-working space. This space was formerly used as a warehouse and, after that, as a bicycle parking area.
In recent years, the Groot Handelsgebouw has shifted its focus outwards, to connect with the city. “This is a robust, concrete, postwar, sturdy building and organising activities here is a way to make the space dynamic. In December, for example, we decorated the building with festive lights, something that you’ll see at the end of every year. With things like this, we aim to give something back to the city and to make the area more enjoyable.”
Already during the design phase, the building was given a clear public function, with the Kriterion cinema in the ridge and the canteen on the rooftop. Even the ground floor is especially designed for welcoming visitors. “When you see videos from the building’s early days, it resembles a beehive. That’s how busy it was with the comings and goings of people and cars. This was one of the few spots you could come for an evening out, there were no less than nine restaurants! Over time, there were more and more places to go in other parts of the city, and so the public function of the Groothandelsgebouw became less prominent.”
Slowly, but steadily, this is changing. “This is such a large building, it is much like a giant tanker. When you change course, it takes another five kilometres before it becomes noticeable.” By now, the building is home to hip places like The Suicide Club and Altijd in de Buurt. During the manifestation: ‘75 jaar wederopbouw’ (’75 years of reconstruction’), the highlight was the steps of Winy Maas, that were set up against the Groot Handelsgebouw. “During the three monthperiod, it was expected that 100,000 people would climb the steps. In the first five weeks, we had already received 368,000 visitors.”
From the positive reactions they received on the steps, Meurs explains that it has become apparent how important the building is for the people of Rotterdam. “Anyone can build a building made of concrete, glass and stone, but creating a building with soul is far more challenging. More than eighty percent of the people that use the building are proud to be here. So, whatever the future holds for the office market, this building will always maintain its function. For eternity, just as Maaskant had intended.”