Unesco world Heritage status for Van Nellefabriek

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UNESCO World Heritage status for Van Nellefabriek
Background to (the designation of) this architectural icon

  1. Van Nellefabriek in brief

Location: Spaanse Polder industrial zone, city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Built: 1926-1931

Architects: J.A. (Jan) Brinkman and L.C. (Leen) van der Vlugt

Commissioning party: C.H. (Kees) van der Leeuw
Production of: initially coffee, tea and tobacco; later also other products

Production stopped in: 1995

Redevelopment: 1998-2006

Current use: inspiring working space for businesses and events venue

Interesting facts:

  • First industrially prefabricated curtain wall in the world.

  • Location of the first discussions on the reconstruction of the city centre following the bombing, a few weeks after the bombardment on 14 May 1940. The meeting was held in Kees van der Leeuw’s office.

  1. The property


The Van Nellefabriek is located in the north-west of Rotterdam, in the Spaanse Polder industrial zone, along the banks of a canal. The factory complex as a whole occupies a surface area of roughly 10 hectares. The property placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List consists only of the northern and eastern half of the complex, comprising the main historic buildings dating from the late 1920s. This area forms a single block with a surface area of slightly over 5 hectares. Used for the processing, packaging and dispatching of tea, coffee and tobacco, the factory comprises an ensemble of buildings that are side-by-side or close to each other, with extensive traffic areas and access to the waterway and road.

The main ensemble consists of three factories side-by-side, each one with a different volume, in alignment along the internal street. The three buildings have large flat roofs at different levels. This ensemble is laid out along a grand north-west/south-east axis. The largest and tallest of them, the tobacco factory (built in 1926-1929), is in the centre. To the north of it is the coffee factory (built in 1928-1930), which is slightly less tall, followed by the tea factory (built in 1928-1929), whose height is in turn lower. To the south, the alignment of the curtain wall facades is continued by the office building (built in 1928-1930) which forms a concave line in the perspective. The run of glass curtain walls is some 220 m long. It is dominated by horizontal lines, which are punctuated by three vertical stair well blocks, the tallest of which culminates in the rotunda-shaped tea room which provides a panoramic view of the factory and the surrounding area and the city centre.
Opposite the main architectural ensemble, a series of functional buildings is arranged along the other side of the internal street: the boiler house and its lofty chimney (built in 1927-1929), the large dispatching hall (built in 1929-1930) with four overhead bridges linking it to the factories, the warehouses (built in 1942-1943 and 1967), and finally along the canal and closing off the space to the north, the workshop building (built in 1929-1930).
In addition to the main factory street, the premises include a green space close to the entrance and the porter’s lodge.
The load-bearing structures of the main buildings form an interior skeleton of concrete and steel. The exterior facades are covered with large windows in metal frames, following the curtain wall principle. The extensive use of glass, not only on the outside but also inside, particularly in the offices, allows the passage of daylight and improves visibility. The factory spaces are designed to receive as much natural daylight as possible, and also to provide spaces that can be quickly adapted to changes in production needs. The interior octagonal columns are strong enough to bear the weight of the concrete floors necessary for industrial equipment. The boiler heating system, initially coal-fired, was later converted to oil and eventually to natural gas. The conveyor system connecting the buildings via the overhead bridges was part of the original design. It is completed by a port area with cranes for the direct loading of cargo vessels opposite the warehouses.
In addition to the architectural and functional qualities specific to each building, which are typical of the inter-war period, the ensemble provides a series of perspectives of a complete and well-preserved industrial complex, engaged in an industry that processed, packed, stored and commercially distributed industrial food products after the great tradition of the Dutch port-based economy.

History and development

Long-distance trade in spices and other overseas products was the basis of the wealth of the Netherlands, particularly through the VOC (Dutch East India Company) and the WIC (Dutch West India Company) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Alongside Amsterdam, the port of Rotterdam grew substantially during this period. It specialised very early on in the processing of food commodities and in warehouse trade, reselling the goods in Europe and later throughout the world. The Van Nellefabriek was founded by Johannes van Nelle in 1782 to trade in tobacco, coffee and tea. A family-owned firm developed after him, carried on during the 19th century by the Van der Leeuw family, under the original company name. Benefiting from its river links to the European hinterland, Rotterdam became one of the largest ports in the world. In the 19th century, it continued to grow steadily, as the port developed and industrial and commercial companies were established.

The eldest son of the third generation of the Van der Leeuw family, Kees van der Leeuw, conceived the vast project of the Van Nellefabriek, to be built on an undeveloped site on the Spaanse Polder, on the banks of a canal. Kees van der Leeuw was also a philosopher and an artist. His interests strongly influenced his approach to industrial architecture, as he wanted the new factory to embody his humanist and social convictions. He was determined to foster good social relations in the working environment. The project began to take shape in the second decade of the 20th century. After extensive design studies, the plans for the new factory were drawn up in 1923 by the architect Michiel Brinkman, who died during the initial planning work in 1925. His son Jan, a young civil engineer who had already been involved in the project, took over, alongside the architect Leen van der Vlugt. They completed the plans, and over the following years carried out the construction work of the project, designed as an organic and functional whole.
The aim was to organise an industrial production complex that was spatially coherent, to enable large-scale storage and dispatch using all methods of transport. The complex was laid out around an internal street running parallel to the canal which also forms a major visual axis. It takes the form of a series of grand facades in a line along one side, facing the warehouses and boiler house with its great chimney lined up along the other side. The visual concave arc of the office block, at the entrance, directs the eye towards the main perspective. The completed complex is an early example of industrial urban planning, successful both in functional and aesthetic terms.
In the years 1910-20, the Spaanse Polder was an ancient agricultural polder on the edge of the rapidly expanding city of Rotterdam. It was linked to the navigable waterways by various canals which were then extended and deepened. The soil, which was soft and flooded, was topped with a layer of sand some 2.5 metres thick (1925). The foundations were supported on numerous long reinforced concrete piles, which consolidated the stability of the ground. The piles were prefabricated on-site from 1926 onwards, and were inserted by a steam pile-driver. This was a foundation technique pioneered in the Netherlands at the time, and is still today considered to be a remarkable technical achievement. The load-bearing structure for the buildings is in reinforced concrete, using mushroom-shaped vertical columns directly supporting the floor. This is a technical variant, devised by Michiel Brinkman (1913), of a reinforced concrete column and girder construction system.

  1. Social legacy of commissioner Kees van der Leeuw

As already outlined above, the person who commissioned the Van Nellefabriek, Kees van der Leeuw, was not only seen as a great builder, but also as an employer with a concern for the physical and mental well-being of his workers. The choice of architecture characterised by light, airiness, space, purity and fluidity was definitely not only prompted by aesthetic considerations. The idealistic pursuit of a fundamental improvement in the working and living conditions of the factory workers was just as much a starting point.

It all started with the choice of location. The relocation of the company premises from separate locations in the densely built-up and less safe centre of Rotterdam to a large, new complex at the edge of the city close to a waterway, railway and roads and housing for workers immediately led to improved working conditions.
A pure, unadorned style of architecture was deliberately chosen for the whole complex, as well as a pallet of materials and colours that radiates light and cheerfulness. The rhythmically arranged curtain walls of steel and glass incorporate partially rotating pivot windows and as few horizontal subdivisions as possible, so that the factory workers had an uninterrupted view either sitting or standing. This also avoided the sense of being closed in. Due to the limited depth of the building and the smooth, beamless ceilings, daylight was able to penetrate everywhere. In the US, Van der Leeuw made a special study of suitable artificial lighting. Another feature of the pursuit of a ‘light factory‘ were the green borders and the garden with lawns for relaxation, colourful flower beds and a pond where workers could spend their breaks and look out over during their work. Ap Strik worked at the factory from 1975 to 1995 as lathe operator and looks back on a happy time: “It was a wonderful factory! You could look outside everywhere and there was plenty of light to work by”.
The socially committed character of the company was also evident from the good social facilities for staff and the opportunities to develop culturally and in sport (via company clubs). Wim Rambas worked in the factory’s dispatch centre from 1965 and remembers the many activities: “All sorts of things were organised: drama, sport and travel too. It was great!”
Characteristic of the tea and coffee processing was the large number of female employees. As women tended to stop work in those days when they got married, the factories were populated by a large number of young factory girls. The company felt a great sense of responsibility towards them and, in the 1920s, Van der Leeuw visited organisations in America which were concerned with the social consequences of ‘women in industry’. The combination of men and (young) women was monitored carefully particularly in the washrooms, which were linked to the stair wells. The factory had plenty of washrooms because most workers’ houses did not have showers at the time. A socially acceptable solution was found by making the stair wells women-only and men-only alternately.

  1. Exceptionally universal values which make the Van Nellefabriek a World Heritage Site

In order to be eligible for World Heritage status, a building, a place or an area must be of exceptional universal value. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee decides if a nominated piece of heritage is unique and irreplaceable on the basis of 10 criteria (www.whc.unesco.org/en/criteria). At least one criterion must be applicable. The Van Nellefabriek has been placed on the World Heritage List on the basis of the following two criteria:

Criterion (ii): to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design

The Van Nellefabriek brings together and makes use of technical and architectural ideas originating from various parts of Europe and North America in the early 20th century. It is exceptionally successful both in terms of its industrial setup and its degree of architectural and aesthetic accomplishment. It represents an exemplary contribution by the Netherlands to the Modernism of the inter-war years, and has since its construction become an emblematic example and an influential reference throughout the world.

Criterion (iv): to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history

In the context of industrial architecture in the first half of the 20th century, the Van Nellefabriek is an outstanding illustration of the values of relationships with the environment, the rational organisation of production flows, and dispatch via the nearby communication network, maximum admission of daylight to the internal spaces via the widespread use of a glass curtain wall with metal frames, and open interior spaces. It expresses the values of clarity, fluidity and the opening up of industry to the outside world.


Throughout a long industrial history devoted to the same activity of industrial processing and packaging of food products, the various factories and their functional relationships with the logistical spaces (warehousing, dispatching, transport) have remained unchanged. The ensemble of buildings was preserved when the premises underwent an economic conversion in the late 1990s. The conditions of integrity in terms of composition (location and organisation of territory, functional relationships, panoramic views, etc.), and in architectural terms in its various aspects, have been met.


The restructuring and restoration of the property undertaken for economic reasons from 2000 to 2006 was carried out on a property which had been generally well maintained, and had never undergone principle reconstruction or conversion after its original construction at the end of the 1920s. The refurbishment works have been carried out with great care, as part of a model project. The property’s authenticity has thus been appropriately preserved in each of its aspects, and this is clearly perceptible both to the visitors and to the new business users of the Van Nellefabriek.

Management and protection requirements

The Van Nellefabriek enjoys the highest level of state protection as it has been a listed national monument since 1985. A large buffer zone has been established to ensure good visual expression of the property in an open environment. The overall protection of the whole ensemble will be guaranteed by the new Municipal urban development plan (Bestemmingsplan Spaanse Polder), whose drawing up is nearing completion, and by the inclusion of environmental preservation measures in the urban development plans for the five zones of its urban environment. (The World Heritage Site is located in one development plan, namely Spaanse Polder. The buffer zone in which the site is located covers a total of five development plans, including Spaanse Polder.) The property is managed by its current owner and operator, the private group Van Nelle Design Factory.

The management of the conservation of the property’s architectural, urban and environmental values is based on the cooperation between the heritage departments of the City of Rotterdam and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed). They jointly drew up the property’s management plan (January 2013) and their cooperation has been made permanent in the form of a Joint Management Committee which has been enlarged to include new experts. The property’s prime purpose is to accommodate economic activities in industrial, commercial and service fields. It is already open for visits, but this is seemingly not a major objective; frequency of visits could however increase over the coming years, giving rise to a need for specific facilities, which in turn must not be allowed to adversely affect the property’s integrity and authenticity.

  1. Nomination process Van Nellefabriek

1992 The Netherlands ratifies the UNESCO convention

1995: Van Nellefabriek placed on tentative list, with other Dutch sites

1998: Original production process terminated; start of search for new use

2003: The Netherlands undertakes not to submit any nominations until 2006 due to candidacy for World Heritage Committee

2010 Appointment of Leemhuis-Stout and co. to review tentative list

August 2011 Van Nellefabriek officially placed on new tentative list

November 2011 Official start of nomination team

December 2012 Approval of nomination by Dutch government

January 2013: File presented to the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science and to the Rotterdam Alderman for Culture

January 2013 File presented to Dutch ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, and subsequently by him to World Heritage Committee employee in UNESCO office

October 2013 Technical evaluation by ICOMOS

January 2014 Supplement presented to UNESCO following ICOMOS report

June 2014 Decision of the World Heritage Committee

  1. Conversion and restoration

The conversion of the factory complex got off the ground at a time when such an operation was still anything but self-evident. In 1995, the owner at the time, the American-Dutch concern Sara Lee/DE, decided to sell the complex within three years, after the phased relocation of production operations to another site. The owner felt it had a moral obligation to transfer the architectural heritage in a responsible way and to guarantee that the Van Nellefabriek would be converted well and would be preserved as a functioning monument. In connection with this, Sara Lee/DE cooperated fully in a unique consultation structure with the municipal and national government to find a way of changing the building’s use whilst preserving the transparent architecture of the Van Nellefabriek. To this end, it took the unique – and exemplary – decision to have the Cultuurhistorische Verkenning (1998) drawn up by the Department for the Preservation of Historic Buildings and Sites (Rijksdienst voor de Monumentenzorg) at the time, with instructions for allowing or disallowing future alterations, an obligatory part of the terms of sale. The complex was sold on this basis and it was redesignated, together with an extremely conscientious restoration of the main company buildings, as the Van Nelle Design Factory (VNOF).

Eric Gude, from the Property Conversion Group, was the first to develop ideas for the empty Van Nellefabriek. Nick de Boer/René Werger from Kondor Wessels Projecten (KWP) and John van Lit/Remko Overdam from its subsidiary POB (Project Ontwikkelingsbureau Bouwnijverheid) set themselves up as fellow (draft) developers and financially capable partners. Together, they founded the partnership the Van Nelle Design Factory, which took charge of the actual development.

New models also had to be developed for running the Design Factory. On the basis of a creative financing concept from Nick de Boer in conjunction with Huub de Heij, a Limited Partnership (CV) was set up. This was an unusual construction for such a project and, at that moment, the biggest CV in the country. The equity capital of the CV was raised through 780 private investor participations. On this basis, the NIBC bank was prepared to provide the rest of the funding. In this way, the CV Van Nelle Design Factory became the owner of the whole complex. As a result of this financing structure, the capital yield objectives per participation were easily met, despite competitive m2 prices.

To supervise this challenging project to convert and restore an architecturally extremely sensitive ensemble, a coordinating architect with sound expertise in the restoration and conversion of monuments of the ‘Modernist Movement’, Wessel de Jonge, was appointed in 1999. He is one of the co-founders of the international organisation DOCOMOMO, which has been working hard since 1990 for the worthwhile preservation of this young heritage (www.docomomo.com). De Jonge was also involved in the restoration of Sanatorium Zonnestraal in Hilversum, which will shortly also be nominated for the UNESCO list. “This comprehensive conversion project really was a collaborative effort”, says Wessel de Jonge. “Fellow design agencies Claessens Erdmann, Joris Molenaar and Bruno Doedens were indispensable here.” The main challenge was to create the right conditions in the old factory buildings for use as offices and design studios. “Fortunately, Sara Lee/DE, as a good landlord, transferred the buildings in good condition”, continues De Jonge. “It proved possible to integrate a new use smoothly into the innovative and rational design of the 1920s. With a second glass curtain wall on the inside, it was possible to create good indoor conditions without affecting the monumental curtain walls.”
In 2008, the Van Nelle Design Factory received the prestigious Europa Nostra Award, the prize awarded by the European Union for cultural heritage, for the quality of the renovation and exemplary re-use of the European Cultural heritage. The status of World Heritage is a second, even greater acknowledgment.

  1. The current Van Nellefabriek: business inspiration events

In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Van Nellefabriek has also been an inspiring, energetic office space and events venue since June 2000. And certainly not only for architecture enthusiasts. Whereas Van Nelle used to process coffee, tea and tobacco, now more than 80 businesses are established there; both large and small. The Van Nellefabriek is the stage for large, public, cultural events such as Art Rotterdam and exhibitions featuring internationally famous artists such as Li Wei, as well as exclusive dance parties like Must and the family festival Speelrijk. A wide range of unique spaces can be rented; for a dinner or meeting in the tea room with views of Rotterdam to a large conference or concert.

In the Branderij, the restaurant, the connection between the Van Nellefabriek and Gispen is clearly reflected in the interior. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has superfast internet and the Golden Green Key, an international quality mark for sustainability. Due to its location close to the A4 and A20 motorways and the very spacious parking facilities, it is easily accessible.

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