Will Alsop is justifiably proud of the CalypSO mixed use development, not least because it comes at the end of an arduous road, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Ben Blossom
Pity the lot of your typical Joe Architect: seduced by the phantasm of a creative profession into signing up for five years of crits by self-important ‘educators’ and, then, the apprenticeship, the scramble for design opportunities, meddlesome planning and conservation officers, poorly informed clients and judgement by media critics with timid, conservative, literary values who want everything to look like a cosy little writer’s retreat. Even the most talented are also expected to welcome peer review processes. Not surprisingly, few hatchlings escape the predators as they scurry across the beach. Alsop Architects, whose CalypSO mixed use development was completed in March, is a notable exception.
‘Wey hey! Laissez-faire, tolerant, liberal playground for architectural creativity,’ you might say as you spot CalypSO’s motley get-up when you hit the concourse of Rotterdam’s new central railway station. Nee, as the Dutch say. It took 13 years to complete this odyssey, by fits and starts negotiating an obstacle course of political change, receivership and commercially driven vicissitudinous brief development and funding. Leaving aside Centraal Station, completed by three collaborating Dutch architectural practices, it’s the only built manifestation of Alsop Architects’ Rotterdam Centraal Masterplan, developed in more propitious times, when it even had an office in town.
As it happens, the site is bordered by one of the few historic districts in Rotterdam which survived World War II. The city planners consider the site and its environs an urban and cultural nexus, crossed by a shopping thoroughfare and Mauritsweg, running alongside the Westersingel from the central station to the city centre. To CalypSO’s east lies Schouwburgplein, or Theatre Square, with its giant, hands-on, red anglepoise lamps, bordered by the Schouwburg theatre, the Pathé cinema and De Doelen, a concert hall; to the west is China Town. So CalypSO was subject to unusually high levels of scrutiny by the planners, as well as a peer review panel. ‘They tended to talk in millimetres,’ says practice director Will Alsop. There was also extensive public consultation.
As you approach from the station, passing a robotic high-rise and De Doelen, with its squinty-eyed fenestration, there’s no mistaking the crimsons, reds and oranges of CalypSO as Will Alsop’s work. It’s close enough to his original ‘Rotterdam rocks’ sketch, whose name doubles as a word picture and a statement about the city. The faceted grouping of four towers, with the more rotund, copper-clad Pauluskerk nestling against it, are the crystalline rocks. How fortuitous it were if this Dutch Reformed church, the reincarnation of a 1960 structure demolished to make way for CalypSO, had been called the Peterskerk.
Alsop Architects was commissioned on a wave of architectural optimism as Rotterdam transcended its corporate grey Modernist post-war legacy. ‘They wanted the big names,’ says Freek Speksnijder, Alsop Architects’ project co-ordinator. Rotterdam practice Royal Haskoning’s earlier proposals for the site were abandoned, explains CalypSO’s project director Stephen Pimbley (who left Alsop to form Spark) although it continued to be involved in the project. But this climate changed dramatically after national election candidate Pim Fortuyn, who had outspoken views on multiculturalism, immigration and Islam in the Netherlands, was assassinated in 2002. Speksnijder remembers it as a stressful period and during this time of political uncertainty the project stalled.
The planners criticised Alsop Architects’ proposals as alien. Also, for various reasons, including input from a local architectural practice at the later stages of the project and changes of client, CalypSO hasn’t turned out exactly as Alsop Architects envisaged, although it was involved throughout. Alsop wanted more pronounced gradation in the heights of the towers. The northernmost was intended to be higher, but was capped at 22 stories. The melting, tessellated surface geometry remains, but the massing is now more homogeneous, with less contrast. ‘Parochial’ is Alsop’s verdict on Rotterdam planners’ modus operandi.
Certain British practices look to Continental, especially Dutch, models of high-rise volume housing as a panacea, embracing as it does high-density urban development and optimising its potential for better space standards, construction quality and public realm design, liberated from the notion of low-rise housing with private gardens.
But there’s also an abrasive brass tacks pragmatism to this volume housing which, compounded with a clinical strain in the Dutch psyche and high population densities, makes for relentless, uncompromising architectural outcomes, oblivious to subtleties of scale. Despite, or perhaps even because of its architectural animation, CalypSO feels like a termite colony. A woman with storey-high face posted on the entrance facade eyeballs me across her bare shoulder. Apartments ranging from 50m2 to 221m2 are available to rent or buy, says the poster.
There are also 500 parking spaces for the 407 flats, occupying the lower floors of the east side of the development. The name CalypSO was devised by the project’s marketeers. There used to be a cinema called Calypso on the site and the name also plays on its ‘SO personal, SO convenient, SO close’ slogan. With its balconies and glassy curtain-walled facades, the incarceration of Odysseus is the last thing that comes to mind.
Alsop Architects wanted to tunnel three stories of circulation space through the lower floors, running along the main north-south axis terminated by the church, but this never happened. There is, however, a five-storey entrance atrium providing access to the flats and offices, with a transparent roof, tessellated like the tower facades, but no through-route. Above this is a 13 storey-high chasm between residential blocks, so the Mauritsweg facade is rent by a dramatic sliver of sky.
The church gives the commerciality at the north end of the site a wide berth and is distinguished by its more compact massing, copper cladding and pumpkin’s eye punched-in windows. The standing seams on each of its triangular facets are variously orientated to form an appealing basketweave pattern and the church bell sits neatly in a tetrahedral void pressed into the cladding. Geometrically, it’s similar to Spark’s Rihan Heights in Abu Dhabi, just as the tower facades echo Alsop Architects’ 151 City Road project in London. Alsop Architects had nothing to do with the interior of the church, although, standing inside its main hall, you’re very conscious of the geometry of its shell and it’s a satisfying space to be in. This sits above a double-height space used in the church’s rehabilitation for drug addicts and outreach to refugees and the homeless. There’s no social housing at CalypSO and this is as close as it gets to a tangible community asset.
Things begin to unravel as you continue around the perimeter towards the back. The basketweaving abruptly cuts to columns, mullions and spandrels and there’s a dark, echoey, tapering space between the Hartsuyker apartment block to the east and the external wall of CalypSO’s low-level parking, clad in concrete panels with large embossed circles. You eventually reach the unoccupied ground floor retail units around the entrance atrium, optimistically festooned with Chinese lanterns when I visited, with an arcade of colossal inclined columns. It’s a gutsy piece of architecture, sometimes bordering on crude, which would have been a lot better if Alsop Architects had been allowed more freedom. But how would CalypSO have fared in a typical British town planning context? Maybe we expect too much of Holland and find it difficult to understand a planning system which is so political and where everyone has their say. Alsop is justifiably proud of the result, not least because it comes at the end of an unexpectedly arduous road. His ‘Rotterdam rocks’ sketch was eerily prophetic.