A 60-metre-tall, checkered building on Lloydpier zigzags upwards, culminating in a large cantilevered auditorium overlooking the harbour. This Rotterdam landmark was built in 2005 to house Scheepvaart & Transport College (STC College), a maritime vocational school. We talk to architect Michiel Riedijk about this icon of the Rotterdam skyline.
Words by: Irene de Vette
Together with Willem Jan Neutelings, Michiel Riedijk founded Neutelings Riedijk Architects in 1992. Since then, the duo has established the firm nationally and internationally, mostly through complex public buildings such as the STC College. Other works include the Institute for Sound and Vision (2006), Naturalis Biodiversity Center (2019) and City History Museum Mas (2011). Riedijk also works as a professor of architecture at Delft University of Technology.
You are known for saying: “We give clients what they want, but not what they expect.” Did this apply to this building as well?
“I think the essence of our pitch – a vertical school – is a perfect example. Back in 2000, STC College was going to be formed by merging five maritime colleges. Management had already reserved a large lot to create a voluminous, horizontal building. We had a few reasons to propose a vertical building instead. First of all, it’s such a prominent location (right by the river) that we thought it was only logical to create a landmark here. Secondly, the building was going to bring different nautical fields of study together. You study here whether you want to become a captain, a dredger or a nautical engineer. By going vertical, we created stacked schoolyards around which the separate schools were grouped, and a pathway of escalators pass by all these different schoolyards. It created a sense of community (“We’re on this ship together”) but at the same time, sub-communities around each schoolyard kept a sense of comfort and familiarity, which is important because the students vary widely in age, from 12-year-old children to students in their early twenties. Schools are often designed horizontally because students need to be able to reach another classroom within five minutes. The escalator path helped solve this problem as well – it enables 2,400 students to move around seamlessly, almost like a buzzing ferry system. The remaining land in front of the school was transformed into a park. The school was thrilled with this solution, even though it was not at all what they’d had in mind.”
How does the STC College fit in with your firm’s signature?
“We often participate in European design contests. We like doing this because it forces us to really think about the specific location and the building’s purpose and come up with a precisely calibrated answer. In this case, designing specifically for this spot and for this purpose, resulted in a sizeable, robust-looking landmark. It fits in with the DNA of Rotterdam. Its interior is robust as well, designed and made to be used by 2,400 students each day.”
There are many references to the nautical world. The blue and silver-grey corrugated metal panelling recall stacked shipping containers, for instance.
“It’s a direct metaphorical layer, almost banal perhaps. There are maritime references inside as well, such as the red plastic material lining the walls of the auditorium that recall life jackets, and the schoolyards that are decorated with light boxes with maritime images. We believe architecture needs to offer identity, and we establish that in our public buildings, sometimes in a more direct way than others. It’s important that a city is readable. Instead of living in an anonymous surrounding, you should immediately understand: this is the station, this is a hospital, and this is a school. In this case a maritime school, even. When we design houses, we steer clear of metaphors, because we believe that the intimacy of private life shouldn’t be expressed in the public domain.”
You often use ornamentation to establish this identity.
“Ever since modernist architect Adolf Loos published his essay Ornament und Verbrechen (Ornament and Crime) in 1908, architects have shied away from ornamentation, creating a serene and functional architecture. Now, more than a century later, it is our belief that giving expression to a place is a way to combat the alienation that we experience in contemporary society. The metal panels of the STC-College aren’t ornamentation in the truest sense, because they form the actual walls, but you could say the references to container ships or nautical flags are. Iconography or ornamentation is a way to create a place we can identify with. Since this is a school where young students go to every day, it should offer that sense of familiarity and comfort even more.”