Zalmhaven Tower is the tallest in Rotterdam, but it has an incredible design

‘Ksick skyscraper‘was the title of Rem Koolhaas’ call twenty years ago to ban the skyscraper as an outdated building type. For half a century, “not a single new thought or ambition had been invested” in the skyscraper, wrote Holland’s most influential architect in the book contents† Koolhaas’ assassination attempt was accompanied by a picture of the Twin Towers in New York, destroyed by terror by plane in 2001, in which a huge knife was stabbed. The blood drips down the facades.

Koolhaas is certainly not alone in his rejection of the skyscraper. Renowned American sociologist and urban planner Richard Sennett also considers the skyscraper a type of building that has had its time. “Towers are boring, unsustainable, and they do not create good neighborhoods where communities can be formed,” he explained in a 2019 interview in NRC† “The skyscraper is a type of building from the twentieth century, and it is long gone.”

Yet the era of skyscrapers is still not over. At the beginning of the 21st century, residential and office towers are still being built at a rapid pace in all cities around the world – from New York to Beijing. The reason is simple: most property developers and commercial builders believe that a tower is the simplest and therefore most profitable ‘machine that makes the land pay‘s, as the American architect Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) once described the 241-meter-high, neo-Gothic Woolworth building in New York, which he designed in 1913.

‘Manhattan by the Meuse’

In Rotterdam, the prominent Dutch high-rise city that proudly calls itself “Manhattan on the Maas”, many residential towers have been built over the last decade. With the now almost completed Zalmhaven tower with a height of 215 meters, Rotterdam even has the highest of the Benelux countries.

Close to the Zalmhaventoren, which the owners of the apartments are now moving into, it is easy to see why the Danish city planner Jan Gehl once advised Rotterdam to stop building skyscrapers. There, on Gedempte Zalmhaven and near the Erasmus bridge, Hoge Heren, are two residential towers designed by Wiel Arets with facades of pocket concrete slabs that were black when they were finished in 2000, but have now faded to a dingy gray due to weather and wind.

Also read: The madness of the housing tower ends in Rotterdam (finally)

The towers with apartments and facilities such as swimming pool, sauna and gym accessible to residents only are located on a wide, four-storey four-storey car park. This, in turn, is placed on top of a layer of space for offices and other use with glass fronts that are largely blinded. The High Lord is a vertical fenced residential area where the inhabitants have entrenched themselves high and secure in faded towers on top of a dilapidated bunker.

To prevent catastrophic residential towers such as Hoge Heren, the municipality of Rotterdam in 2011 prepared a high-rise building vision with rules for new high-rise buildings. One of the rules is that newly built residential or office towers must be part of a building block that also includes publicly accessible spaces for eg catering and shops. The Rotterdam high-rise vision also prescribes a common entrance, and it must be impossible for residents to take the elevator from the underground car park directly to their apartments unseen.

Zalmhaventoren seen from WestpleinPhoto by Walter Autumn

‘French cutter architecture’

The Zalmhaventoren, built on behalf of the project developers Amvest and AM, does not stand alone, but is part of an extensive complex between Gedempte Zalmhaven and Houtlaan, which includes a total of 461 owner-occupied and detached apartments and 33 so-called ‘mansions’ on Houtlaan. 196 of the apartments in different shapes and sizes are arranged in two towers with a height of seventy meters, which like the ‘mansions’ were designed by Kaan Architects.

With their monotonous lattice facades, the two low, clumsy towers are a taste of ‘chipboard architecture’, the architectural fashion that has spread like a plague over all major cities in the Netherlands in recent years.

The 33 ‘mansions’, which are not located on the construction line in Houtlaan, but are located slightly to the rear, have the same facades with lattice of metal rectangles as the two towers. With glass doors that are almost indistinguishable from the adjoining windows, they look more like minimalist, shabby townhouses than ‘mansions’, as the Kaan architects call the dwellings on their grounds.

Zalmhaventoren was designed by Dam & Partners Architecten, the Amsterdam office that previously built Coopvaert (104 meters, 2006) and Maastoren (165 meters, 2010) in Rotterdam. Diederik Dam, son of Cees Dam, who among other things (co-designed Stopera in Amsterdam in the 1980s, called the Zalmhaventoren a ‘primitive skyscraper’ in an interview in NRC† In this, the Benelux’s tallest residential tower was compared to ‘classic skyscrapers’ like the Empire State Building from 1931 in New York.

From trees (New Leuvenbro).
Photo by Walter Autumn
Zalmhaven Tower can be seen from almost every corner of the city. Clockwise: from the west side, at Park Schoonoord
Photo by Walter Autumn
Photos Walter Autumn

Torch or tesel

But anyone who sees the Zalmhaven Tower must conclude that the comparison with classic American skyscrapers is misplaced. The Empire State Building architects – Shreve, Lamb & Harmon – knew exactly how to erect a 1,000-foot (443-meter) tower. They made a stairwell that rose like a torch or tessel from a building block. In addition, they made the outer parts of the widest facades of the then tallest building pop out, so those eyes are like super-slender towers that make the Empire State Building appear even taller than it is. Zalmhaventoren is basically a simple, thick beam with four identical facades, consisting of long rows of identical windows and balconies directly above each other. The only thing remarkable about the clumsy Zalmhaven beam is the glass corners.

The top of the Zalmhaventoren, where on the 57th floor there is room for a restaurant with a vantage point, cannot stand in the shadow of the Empire State Building. While the top of the skyscraper in New York forms a floating and natural closure of the soaring building and is crowned with an impressive round tower with a long needle with a height of 63 meters, the tallest residential tower in the Netherlands ends with two simple, banal towers Stacked glass boxes on which stands a thick flagpole resembling a chimney.

High, bare walls

The publicly accessible hall in the basement of the Zalmhaven Tower does not even resemble the palace-like, richly decorated art-deco lobby of the Empire State Building. With its high, bare walls lined with travertine and mailbox blocks and the reception located in the main room, the entrance to Zalmhaven Tower looks like a failed Italian post office from Mussolini’s time, built in an easy way – expensive natural stone! – wants to be smart. The latter also applies to the entrances to Kaan Architecten’s low towers. Here, not only the walls but also the floors are clad in black-veined, white natural stone.

That the Zalmhaventoren is no more than a monotonous beam plus a few glass boxes is not only a result of the poor design, but also of the unusual construction method. The tallest tower in the Netherlands was not built using traditional cranes, but with a construction shed with two overhead cranes around the building under construction. In this construction machine, which in recent years has slowly climbed up the beam it produced itself, construction workers were able to pick up the prefabricated parts hoisted up in a tower in all kinds of weather.

The entrance resembles a failed Italian post office from Mussolini’s time

Bernd Schönherr, project manager for the construction company BAM, proudly called the Zalmhaventoren the “tallest prefabricated building in the world” in an interview in property journal† But building with prefabricated elements has a backside, as the tower now shows. The construction machine limits the flexibility and is not capable of more than monotonous box office architecture.

Therefore, the Salmon Garden Tower is not so much related to the classic, richly decorated American skyscrapers from the interwar period as to the uniform. Slab contraction joints should intersect at the openings for columnsapartments that were factory-built between 1960 and 1989 in the GDR and other Eastern Bloc countries with a small number of concrete construction systems. For example, 33 years after the fall of the Wall, Rotterdam has not only acquired the tallest tower in the Benelux with the Zalmhaven Tower, but also the first Slab contraction joints should intersect at the openings for columnsskyscraper in the world.

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