Image: Office of Nationale Nederlanden in Rotterdam
Bas Czerwinski  /  AP
A girl walks in front of the towering office of Nationale Nederlanden in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. On May 14, 1940 a Nazi bombardment flattened buildings and sparked an inferno that destroyed most of downtown Rotterdam, creating an architects' playground during post-World War II reconstruction.
updated 5/30/2007 2:27:14 PM ET 2007-05-30T18:27:14

Walking out of Rotterdam's central rail station, you have to weave your way through a giant building site just to catch a tram or reach a cafe.

Is this any way to arrive in a city celebrating a year of architecture that aims to showcase its urban landscape?

Well, actually it is.

Wrecking balls and scaffolding are as much a part of this city as the kinked pylon of the Erasmus Bridge, which towers over the River Maas, and the water taxis and freight barges that ply its murky waters.

"If a building doesn't work, we tear it down and build a new one," said Ossip van Duivenbode, a Rotterdam resident, architecture student and guide.

World War II also played a role. On May 14, 1940, a Nazi bombardment flattened buildings and sparked an inferno that destroyed most of the city center, creating an architects' playground during postwar reconstruction.

"The bombing was good for the architects," said Van Duivenbode. "They said, 'finally, we can realize our dreams.'"

The result is a Dutch city totally different from the Golden Age houses that teeter like drunken sailors over Amsterdam's canals or the stately palaces and parliament of The Hague.

While most of the country's cities are resolutely low-rise, Rotterdam reaches for the sky.

The Kop van Zuid, on the banks of the Maas river that carves the city in two, is known as Manhattan on the Maas. Its towering office and apartment blocks flanking historic brownstone warehouses have been turned into swanky homes.

The mix of buildings that survived the bombing, and modern residential and office blocks like Renzo Piano's "leaning" KPN tower, combine to make Rotterdam a magnet for building buffs.

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And, this being the Netherlands, the best way to see it is by bike.

Picking up rented green bikes near central station, a group of reporters recently set off led by Van Duivenbode to see the city's architectural highlights.

One of the first stops was De Unie, a cafe with a Mondrianesque facade designed in 1924 by Dutch architect J.J.P. Oud. The original building, a classic example of the Dutch movement De Stijl, was destroyed in the bombing, and a reconstruction was built in 1986.

As part of its "City of Architecture" year that has just kicked off, Rotterdam has launched a Web site - packed with information such as the "Sites and Stories" interactive map that is linked to MP3 files with descriptions and anecdotes about 40 of the city's most interesting buildings.

The sound file for De Unie includes Oud's wife recounting how she was once asked if her husband, a municipal architect, could get rid of the cafe, which was considered a monstrosity by some townsfolk.

"I said, 'I don't think so - he designed it,'" the architect's wife says.

The strangest buildings in the city must be the Cube homes designed by Amsterdam architect Piet Blom in 1978.

Intended to look like a futuristic forest linking the old harbor with downtown, the neighborhood's homes are all yellow, white and gray cubes perched at an angle on top of a central column and stairwell.

Inside, most of the walls slant away from the floors, creating a giddy feeling even when you're standing still.

"Living here is a challenge," said Ed de Graaf, sitting in one of the homes that is open to curious visitors.

But he concedes they are not to everybody's taste: "Like with all extreme things, you either love them or you hate them."

Cycling over the Willemsbrug across the Maas and turning right you reach Wilhelminapier on the Kop van Zuid.

The street could be renamed Pritzker-pier, in honor of the prestigious architecture prize.

First there is the KPN tower by Piano (Pritzker Prize winner in 1998) and at the other end of the street is the World Port Center by Britain's 1999 Pritzker winner Sir Norman Foster. Between the two, construction is planned for The Rotterdam, a multifunctional tower block featuring apartments, a cinema, restaurants and a hotel. It has been designed by Rotterdam-based 2000 Pritzker winner Rem Koolhaas.

Piano's tower features a facade that leans forward at a six-degree angle and is propped up by a giant stake. The facade is covered with green lights that can be programmed to create patterns and messages so that it can - says the telephone and Internet company that owns it - communicate with the city.

Farther down the road is Foster's imposing World Port Center, with its curved face seeming to point like a ship's prow down the Maas toward Rotterdam's container harbor. On the south side of the Wilhelminapier is the Montevideo apartment block designed by Francine Houben of Delft-based Mecanoo Architects - at just over 500 feet the Netherlands' tallest residential tower.

Dwarfed between these two towers is the Hotel New York, once the headquarters of the Holland-America Line and departure point for thousands of Europeans from Rotterdam to a new life in the United States.

It was built between 1901 and 1917 featuring many Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, characteristics such as the flowing lines of its wrought iron staircase. It fell into disuse as air travel displaced trans-Atlantic passenger ships, but was painstakingly restored before reopening as a hotel and restaurant in 1993.

Crossing the Erasmus Bridge and heading back into town past the gently bobbing yachts of the Veerhaven, you reach the Westerlijk Handelsterrein, a warehouse complex built in 1894 that survived the German bombers and was considered too good to tear down even by this city's demolition enthusiasts.

Instead it, like the Hotel New York, has been renovated and updated and now houses restaurants, art galleries and night clubs for the city's in-crowd.

From there, a quick pedal takes you to the Shipping and Transport College, which vies with the Cube homes for the title of oddest building in the city.

The 230-foot tower, topped by a cantilevered conference room, looks like a giant periscope jutting out of the ground and peering down the Maas.

Materials used inside the building include sail canvas and wood, underscoring a nautical theme that recurs in many of the city's buildings, from balcony railings to circular port hole-like windows.

"For many Dutch architects, shipbuilding is an ideal," said Van Duivenbode. "It's seen as a perfect combination of form and function."

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