The contrast between the two port cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, less than half an hour apart, could hardly be more dramatic. One is Europe’s largest port; the other was the largest in the world three centuries ago. Amsterdam’s canals and smoky bars are a stark contrast to the glass, steel and concrete structures that make Rotterdam a capital of twentieth-century functionalism, full of masterpieces—the breathtakingly beautiful Institute of Dutch Architecture built by Jo Coenen (1993), Rem Koolhaas’s Kunsthal (1992), Ben van Berkel’s Erasmus Bridge (1996)—and some horrors, among them the 1984 skyscraper by Piet Blom, nicknamed the Pencil. While Amsterdam has been preserved down the centuries, the old city of Rotterdam was carpet-bombed by the Luftwaffe on 14 May 1940, razing it to the ground. Yet the destruction was seen in retrospect as ‘a blessing in disguise’, giving free rein to the imaginings of the most diverse architectural utopias, which made the city into the ‘Manhattan of the Meuse’.
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