Big Stair

Azure - - CONTENTS - By Cather­ine Sweeney

MVRDV builds a mon­u­men­tal set of steps to ac­ti­vate a space in Rot­ter­dam

WHEN THE GROOT HANDELSGEBOUW was erected in 1953 on a mas­sive pub­lic square in cen­tral Rot­ter­dam, it stood as a sym­bol of post­war strength and re­newal. The big­gest com­mer­cial build­ing in the Nether­lands on its com­ple­tion, it was the first ma­jor struc­ture to rise af­ter the near-to­tal dev­as­ta­tion of the city cen­tre, and gal­va­nized cit­i­zens to ap­pre­ci­ate their city from a fresh per­spec­tive. For one month this spring, the im­pos­ing build­ing once again com­pelled Rot­ter­dammers to look at their down­town in a new way, thanks to a mon­u­men­tal ex­te­rior stair­case by lo­cal firm MVRDV.

The 57-me­tre-long in­stal­la­tion leads up from the square out­side Rot­ter­dam’s cen­tral train sta­tion to the Groot Handelsgebouw’s rooftop, in a mod­ern-day ver­sion of the Zig­gu­rat of Ur. Seen from the stair­case, the struc­ture’s fa­mil­iar fa­cade be­comes a fo­cal point, trans­form­ing the sim­ple act of stair-climb­ing into an al­most cer­e­mo­nial pro­ces­sion. At its up­per end, the stair­case de­posits climbers on the rooftop at the 1960s Kri­te­rion cin­ema, which was re­opened for the run of the project, along with a new tem­po­rary café and ob­ser­va­tion deck.

Part of a larger cel­e­bra­tion of the city’s re­con­struc­tion, MVRDV’S con­tri­bu­tion takes things to the next level – seven storeys up, to be pre­cise. As tem­po­rary in­ter­ven­tions go, this one took the city by storm, with an es­ti­mated 1,000 peo­ple go­ing up per hour. Although it rises to the im­pres­sive height of 29 me­tres, the stair­case took only a week to con­struct. As­sem­bled from stan­dard scaf­fold­ing (an­other nod to the his­tory of re­build­ing), it’s en­gi­neered to with­stand the weight of 1,000 peo­ple, though only 300 were per­mit­ted to go up at a time. “The in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the func­tion is cre­ated by the peo­ple who use it – as a cul­tural item, a way to go up and see the city, as a work­out, or a place to meet peo­ple,” says project leader Fedor Bron.

While MVRDV co-founder Winy Maas ac­knowl­edges that some credit is due to lo­cal land­scape firm West 8 (which com­pleted a sim­i­lar project 10 years ago at Rot­ter­dam’s Las Pal­mas port build­ing), MVRDV scaled up the con­cept con­sid­er­ably. Maas is pas­sion­ate about in­ten­si­fy­ing ur­ban cen­tres by ac­ti­vat­ing their sec­ond layer, us­ing rooftops as a way to re­lieve den­sity and cre­ate more green space – some­thing that would have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on any city. An ex­hi­bi­tion at the top of the Groot Handelsgebouw plays out this vi­sion with im­ages of roofs made green and bridges con­nect­ing build­ings on a higher level. Though its de­sign­ers would like to see the stairs as a per­ma­nent fix­ture, the in­stal­la­tion’s ap­peal may very well lie in its tem­po­ral­ity.

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