Rotterdam: Innovation bobs on the water

Toronto Star, June 24, 2016: ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS — Twenty skinny trees are bobbing in the harbour like it is the most natural thing in the world. As their roots stretch into the colourful recycled buoys that keep them afloat and their branches reach up and out, the new Bobbing Forest is a green work of art.

While Rotterdammers quip they now have a place to “take your seal for a walk,” the floating trees speak to the coastal city’s adaptation to climate change, innovation and sustainability.

The forest — created by Dutch art production company Mothership and inspired by artist Jorge Bakker — was unveiled in March and is already popular with camera-toting, design-minded tourists who want to see how Rotterdam is building on the water.

The Floating Pavilion, an eye-catching, solar-powered event space that looks like bubbles sitting on the water, is next to the floating forest.

Recycled Park, a green space floating on upcycled plastic garbage from the river, is coming soon.

“You can stand on it, jump on it and pick a flower on it,” says Ramon Knoester, the architect who came up with the park idea after reading about plastic soup in the oceans. The park will help clean up the river, provide a green space for humans, and an underwater surface for aquatic plants and fish and their eggs.

A floating subdivision of 18 houses is underway. So is a self-sufficient floating dairy farm with room for 40 cows (billed as a “transfarmation”). A floating 80-room hotel is scheduled to open next year at the Innovation Dock, deep in the harbour.

Once home to one of Europe’s largest shipyards, the dock now houses RDM Centre of Expertise, a campus where students work with researchers and industry to solve “new problems, wicked problems,” says Bert Hooijer, director of the school.

“Land scarcity is a problem,” he says. “Water is our only escape.”

There is certainly plenty of water in Rotterdam.

You hop on the water taxi at the Innovation Dock and head out into the river, passing stacks of colourful containers piled up like Lego. Cranes and industrial equipment poke up on either side of the water like fields of steel weeds.

Long one of the busiest ports in the world, as vessels have become bigger much of the loading and unloading of ships has moved west toward the North Sea. Which means the Nieuwe Maas River is no longer “a highway for boats” and offers plenty of liquid real estate in Rotterdam’s inner harbour.

“We want to make nice spaces with parks and all kinds of things on the water; floating forests, floating hotel, a floating farm,” says city project manager Marcel van Blijswijk.

The floating building boom is the latest instalment in a long history of innovative construction and landmark structures in Rotterdam.

From the vast silver triangle of the Central Station to the yellow Cube Houses sitting askew — the city is an orgy of shapes, textures and colours. You don’t have to be an architect — or even have flipped through a coffee-table book on architecture — to enjoy Rotterdam’s skyline.

You don’t have to be much of a historian to know how it got that way.

In May 1940, the Nazis started dropping bombs on the medieval city in the middle of Rotterdam, pretty much levelling the inner city. The Nazis moved in and four days after the bombing stopped, Rotterdam started rebuilding. Working with a big blank slate — along with the maxim of “light, air and space” — a spirit of experimentation was fostered that has only grown since the Second World War.

You can see it in the office tower that appears to be tipping only to be propped up with a giant white pole or the graceful curves and wild colours of Markthal.

The Erasmus Bridge almost evades description. Some call it “The Swan.” Maybe it’s more like a bizarre reverse harp — a giant instrument a giant Lady Gaga might play.

While categorizing unique structures in Rotterdam can be a bit blurry, this city has a deep culture of curiosity, courage and hard work. And with all that, you can see the innovation rising with the water.

When You Go

Get there: KLM flies direct to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. You can take the train straight from the airport to Rotterdam in about 30 minutes.

Stay: For a great view of the Erasmus Bridge, terrific breakfast buffet and other amenities, try Inntel Hotels (inntelhotelsrotterdamcentre.nl/). Because it’s Rotterdam, the hotel also has an interesting roof.

Bring: A raincoat, just in case. And while you’re in the Netherlands, you may want to download the popular app that tells you — to the minute — when it’s going to rain.

Do your research: en.rotterdam.info, holland.com

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