Unlike its freewheeling and artistic (read: stoned?) sister city, Rotterdam is a city of utility—it’s remained one of the busiest ports in the world since the Middle Ages. Yet like other industrial towns, it’s slowly transitioning from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, with information and creative workers fast supplanting their industrial counterparts.
The RDM Innovation Dock, a newly finished project by Groosman Partners, is a perfect microcosm of that transition. The massive portside hangar once housed the Rotterdam Dry Dock Company, a business that serviced the cargo ships moving to and from the harbor. Bought by a coalition of small companies and universities, it fell to Groosman to convert the former machine hall into a warren of labs, meeting rooms, and workshops. The purpose of the Dock? To harbor (so to speak) collaboration between schools and companies focused on innovating in energy, building, and mobility.
The first move Groosman made was to slice the soaring space in half. It seemed unnecessary (and noisy) to have 40-foot ceilings inside of a building devoted to research, so the architects proposed hanging a layer of space at mid-height, doubling the building’s programmatic area. Because the building once housed a massive crane, they were able to hang the new floor from pre-existing structural members, like a 3,000-square-foot steel cradle.
Upstairs, open-air meeting spaces and classrooms look out on the lower level, where production and events take place. The spaces are accessed via an exterior staircase, but a series of bridges connect the upper floors over the factory floor. The design team at Groosman describe the building as "a city within a factory," a comparison driven home by a massive Google Maps mural of Rotterdam affixed to the ceiling of the first floor.
The idea that innovation can be primed by particular types of spaces has preoccupied architects (and startup founders) for decades now. There’ve been plenty of missteps, gimmicks, and failures in the process. But there are a few concrete ideas that work—among them, proximity among teams, visibility between workers, and floor plans that mix research groups in diverse patterns. The RDM has all three—it’ll be interesting to see what work comes out of the space over the next few years.