Public Building Public Green Rotterdam

A Rooftop for the People?

When urban public space is sacrificed in favour of a new building it is generally agreed that this must be done in a careful manner. This goes for any new structure in an urban context, whether its function is private or public, housing or offices, mono-functional or hybrid, the way it relates to its surroundings is crucial, especially at ground level. It goes without saying that in case of a public building, this is even more pertinent. Meaning public functions placed in the plinth, behind glass facades or, in case of closed walls, punctuated with openings permitting visual contact between inside and outside, well designed entrances which mark the transition from public to semi-public, no dead spaces or dark corners, and so on. You could even argue that apart from a careful implantation in an existing urban context, a public building should give back something in return in terms of ‘publicness’, to compensate for the loss of public space. Give and take, quid pro quo.

So what about the newest architectural icon of Rotterdam, the Depot Boijmans van Beuningen in this regard? How does this striking public building relate to its urban context and what does it give back to the city in return?

Designed by Dutch architectural firm MVRDV, the Depot was built to house the extensive art collection of the adjacent Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. It claims to be the first fully publicly accessible art depot in the world. A dazzling number of art works and artefacts – 151.000 in total and valued at approximately 8 billion euros – is stored inside, behind 50 centimetre thick concrete walls. For a mere 20 euros you gain access to the impressive heart of the building – the 40 mtr. high atrium, an amazing canyon-like space intersected by staircases, allowing glimpses of the vast collection.

Most striking feature, besides the unconventional bowl-like shape, is the mirroring facade that reflects the surroundings in a fragmented way, reminiscent of a disco ball. Visitors enter through huge outward sliding doors. But with the doors in closed position, the building becomes enigmatically hermetic, with no indication of what goes on inside whatsoever.

The main entrance of the Depot Boijmans van Beuningen

This is compliant with its main function to safe-keep the fragile treasures inside, stored in climatically conditioned compartments and shielded off from any harmful influence from the outside, including daylight. The Depot is a Fort Knox in disguise, a huge concrete bunker, clad in a pretty shiny coat, dressed to impress.

Resuming, judged in terms of ‘publicness’ as meant above: on the downside, hardly any (visual) relations between inside and outside. On the upside, obviously no dead spaces or dark corners on the ground level, due to the bowl-like shape.

So far so good, in balance so to say, but what about giving something back to the city, in return for the formerly public space it occupies? Since the Depot has landed in a prominent but sensitive location, in the former first ‘chamber’ of the Museumpark, designed in the nineties by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in collaboration with landscapearchitect Yves Brunier, Vintage O.M.A.

As one of the few large green spaces in the centre of Rotterdam, the Museumpark is much appreciated, not only by the residents of the surrounding neighbourhood but also by most ‘Rotterdammers’. So the plan for the Depot met a lot of opposition, including adjacent public instutions like The New Institute and the Erasmus Medical Center. The main arguments against the project: the ‘erosion’ of the original concept of the Museumpark and loss of green space and trees.

To counter the last argument MVRDV pulled an ingenious, houdini-like trick. The loss of public park space was to be compensated with a larger area of green space on top of the building, publicly accessible all day, for free. In their own words:

“The occupied park space is replaced with even more open public space in the form of a rooftop forest populated by 75 multi-stemmed birch trees standing several metres tall, alongside fir trees and grasses…The rooftop is situated on the sixth floor at a height of about 35 metres and is also accessible via an express lift. It offers visitors breathtaking vistas across the city of Rotterdam.”

(Source website MVRDV)

Scheme illustrating the ‘transplantation’ of green public space, source website MVRDV

“The Museumpark is accessible to the general public; visits to the depot’s roof garden using the express lift will be free as well.” (Source Depot Journal #01)

But now the building has opened to the public the situation turns out to be slightly different. Yes, the rooftop terrace is open all day, to take in the magnificent view, but for free only after 6 o’clock at night. Furthermore, the built structure on the roof, which houses a cafe-restaurant and an event space, has taken on such proportions that the so-called ‘rooftop forest’ has been reduced to residual space. Impressive for sure, but by no means the promised public space, free for all, all day through.

So was the promise to bring back even more public space on the rooftop mere architectural rhetorics? A trick card pulled to neutralize public resistance, smoke and mirrors?

It turns out that this decision was taken by the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, the precise reason remains unclear. Because of Corona? Logistically too complicated, not able to control the total amount of visitors, risking violation of the rules that dictate a maximum amount of people per square meter? Or fear of the risk that non-paying visitors would enter the building anyway, by visiting the rooftop restaurant, under the pretense of going in for a coffee but with the ultimate goal to sneak into the atrium?

Is this limitated access for the general public to be temporary or permanent? Hopefully it is temporary and when Corona, and with it restricting visiting measures have subsided, the Museum will keep its promise and open up the Depot rooftop unconditionally, all day, for both paying and non-paying visitors. A truly public rooftop for the people, freely accessible to all.

An actualized Dutch version has been published on Rooilijn, a platform for debate in spatial planning and the built environment. To read click here.