Rotterdam’s UNESCO Van Nelle Factory

Stuart Forster heads to the Netherlands and reports from Rotterdam’s UNESCO Van Nelle Factory.

On 21 June 2014 the Van Nelle Factory, located in Rotterdam’s north-western Spaanse Polder district, became the Netherlands’ tenth UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the inscription took place on the longest day of the year as one of the key considerations during the building’s protracted design phase was for the interiors make optimal use of natural light.

Dutch Functionalist design principles

The factory complex was built to process and package coffee, tea and tobacco, a purpose it fulfilled for 64 years, from 1931 to 1995. The company, whose name it bears, was founded in Rotterdam by Johannes van Nelle in 1782.

What makes the site truly remarkable is the careful planning that went into every aspect of the design, by Leendert van der Vlugt of Rotterdam’s Brinkman and Van der Vlugt architectural bureau. The factory was commissioned in 1923 and is regarded as a leading example of Dutch Functionalist design.

A thoroughly modern workplace

When the Van Nelle Factory opened it was seen as an ideal workplace. Conditions for the 1,200 employees were good. The workplace was brighter and more spacious than most factories of the inter-war period.

Employees could make use of changing rooms and washrooms with showers before starting work – facilities we now take for granted but were then progressive. These factors helped make Van Nelle a popular employer while simultaneously facilitating a hygienic environment and enabling high quality products to roll off the production line.

An icon of industrial architecture

“The site is one of the icons of 20th-century industrial architecture,” according to UNESCO’s description as to why the building was selected as representative of our planet’s cultural heritage. The elegant design was effusively described as “a poem in steel and glass” by Howard Robertson, who travelled through Europe and North America during the 1920s and 1930s to document contemporary architecture with the photographer by Frank Yerbury. The factory’s aesthetics meant it was soon regarded as archetypal of international Modernist architecture.

The significance of the building has long been recognised within the Netherlands. Since 1985 it has been a listed national monument. Nonetheless, after the production lines closed in the mid-1990s questions were raised about how best to preserve the complex, whose structure was constructed using reinforced concrete by the civil engineer Jan Gerko Wiebenga.

In 1998 plans were drawn up use the former factory as business premises. It now provides office space for more than 80 companies and is a conference and event venue. Up to 5,000 delegates can attend events held in 12 rooms with more than 10,000 square metres of floor space.

Long-established environmental credentials

Extensive renovations were carried out to the property between 2000 and 2006. The environmental credentials of site were enhanced but the integrity of the original structure was retained. Even before green thinking became fashionable, practical considerations for maximising efficiencies had a strong influence on Leendert van der Vlugt’s design.

Form and function were intrinsically interlinked. The areas once used for processing tea, coffee and tobacco have different heights. Each floor of the factory was utilised for a different step in production. Blending tobacco had more steps (eight) than packaging coffee (five) or tea (three). This explains why the tobacco packaging zone is the highest in the Van Nelle Factory, with eight storeys.

The Van Nelle Factory's neon sign in Rotterdam.
The Van Nelle Factory’s neon sign in Rotterdam.

Aspects of the factory’s design

Among the first things visitors to the site notice are the sloping bridges, containing a conveyor mechanism, for transporting wares through the factory – they are practical yet aesthetically integrated into the building’s form. Another corridor, wide enough for just one person, runs along the factory, enabling coffee to be quality controlled without exposing the olfactory senses of the tester to the aroma of tobacco.

Male and female employees used separate staircases, with chrome handrails, to climb to their workplaces. Equality awareness means we now frown upon systems that accentuate gender differences. The staircases sweep past each other within airy wells.

They gave the men and women of the factory a chance to cast their eye over colleagues heading in the opposite direction. It’s said numerous romantic relationships began on the staircase, helping foster contentment and stability in the workforce.

Rotterdam’s UNESCO Van Nelle Factory

By contrast the Van Nelle Factory’s three directors – Kees van der Leeuw, Bertus Sonneveld and Matthijs de Bruyn – could drive into garages directly below their offices. That’s something many people today take for granted but it was ground-breaking in the 1930s, when few people owned cars. The directors’ office windows provide an overview of the site, which is surrounded by lawns.

From the upper storeys of the factory workers could look down to the Delfshavense Schie canal, whose proximity is no coincidence. Raw materials, imported from the Netherlands’ colonies, were transported along the waterway from Rotterdam’s docks. In cold weather water from the canal was heated then piped around the factory.

On warm days the factory’s greenhouse-style windows still open in either direction, depending upon the breeze. Swivelling on their hinges, only half of the glass’s weight hangs outside the building. This minimised the cost and weight of the frames, and helped engender an airy workspace. Off-set, north-facing rooftop windows above the coffee sorting floor maximised the natural light available to workers selecting beans according to their colour.

Neon lighting from New York

The roof bears a neon which sign reads ‘VAN NELLE’ in red capitals. It was shipped from New York City in 1932 and is symbolic of the international modernism of the factory below. The architect Michael Brinkman, who first sketched that now feted form to paper, died suddenly, in 1925.

Considering the functionality of all aspects of the design resulted in the factory’s construction taking six years. An example of this is the presence of wedge-like curves next to doors with rollers on their underside, ensuring the heavy doors closed in a controlled manner with the aid of gravity, minimising both noise and the risk of fire. The simplicity of such a solution is part of its ingenuity.

Further information

Tour the Van Nelle Factory with Urban Guides.

Find out more about the city on the Rotterdam Partners and Visit Holland websites.

Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.

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Getting there

Rail travel is a viable option of travelling between the United Kingdom and Rotterdam. The city has a direct Eurostar connection from London.

Spiral staircase in the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam.
Spiral staircase at the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam.

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