In whatever country they operate, American fast-food restaurant chains are not known for developing finely detailed minimalist buildings. And one chain that already owned a large, serviceable kiosk on one of the most prominent corners in the heart of Rotterdam, Netherlands, was under no pressure to replace it. Furthermore, since the kiosk had stood on city-owned land for 45 years, the chain owned only the kiosk—the ground lease still had 40 years left. Also, the retail chain knew the value of both visibility and accessibility. A new pavilion that would be even more visible from the outside and inside, at night as well as during the day, could increase sales volume.
Coolsingel is a street that had been a town canal, which was drained and filled during World War I. Then it was transformed into a main street that includes the Dutch baroque city hall built in 1920 with its turreted towers and steep mansard roof, and the stock exchange, built just before World War II. At the intersection of Coolsingel and Meent streets, a five-story German neoclassical post office was built in 1923 with high vertical windows, covered with Muschel limestone, and topped with a convex curved mansard roof. Just to the northwest of the site stands the five-story city hall. To the south is the 30-story Beurs-World Trade Center.
In the historic post office’s early years, a small octagonal kiosk had stood in front. After the bombing of World War II, the kiosk was replaced with emergency shops that obscured the historic building’s presence. When the Lijnbaan, Rotterdam’s main shopping street, was built in 1953, the emergency shops were dismantled, except for the Felix Heijnen cigar shop, which acquired the right to build a larger cigar shop on the site of the old kiosk in front of the post office. It was a massive brick-and-steel structure that appeared to have been an addition to the historic building itself that McDonald’s acquired and converted to its restaurant.
Since the 1970s, the building was frequently altered, with its facades infilling large portions of its glass, further obscuring the post office and making the spaces around it more foreboding. A row of four, man-sized utility power boxes blocked the street facade. Dumpsters were stored between the kiosk and the post office. Although the cigar shop converted into the McDonald’s appeared to be an appendage to the post office, there actually was a space of about 20 feet (6 m) between them that was used to store trash bins and service the store. A portion of the wide sidewalk beyond the boxes was fenced off for storage. Only a single entrance led into the McDonald’s kiosk, and the chain’s trademark golden arches projected above it. Even though picnic benches and tables had been built into the sidewalk on one side of the building, the design of the space was fenced, bleak, and outmoded.
Robert Winkel’s solution to these multiple problems was to replace the old McDonald’s building with a transparent and translucent pavilion that opens the street to the historic post office. Winkel is the founder of Rotterdam-based MEI Architects & Planners, which was retained by McDonald’s. He believed the key to opening the space was to constrain the building to the most compact possible core and surround it with glazed facades around the periphery in a manner that would bring the street into the space, and also the reverse, so that both public and private spaces flow through and integrate with the street. In this design, the outdoor terrace includes the same street furniture found in other public spaces in Rotterdam.
Although the building-area footprint of about 3,200 square feet (300 sq m) is not appreciably smaller than that of the previous structure, which read as a solid volume, the new pavilion appears smaller because only the core—which occupies only about 25 percent of the floor area in the northwest corner—is primarily visible in a portion of the rear wall. And even that smaller core is sheathed inside and out with a translucent screen made of gold anodized aluminum. That skin is perforated with heart-shaped openings to form a veil around portions of the glazed building through which illumination shines. This same skin is continued in the interior walls and ceilings. The metallic material is vandal-resistant and durable at the same time. With the application of various degrees of perforation, the facade depicts a pixelated image of a crowd of people on Coolsingel.
The new volume’s form is a slim pedestal supporting a sheltering roof. MEI did narrow the width of the new pavilion. The firm also raised it slightly to incorporate within it the power infrastructure and traffic regulation systems formerly housed in the obstructive utility boxes. All other mechanical equipment is integrated within the roof, which is designed as a fifth facade. The McDonald’s parabolic arched logo has been simplified and raised from that fascia to give it a sculptural effect. A minimalist one-piece cantilevered white steel spiral staircase is recessed behind and encased in a glazed corner and that opens the views to the post office behind and to the corner from inside and out.
Both stories of the pavilion are surrounded with mullion-free glass, lending the pavilion a character more like that of a jewel box or an Apple store than a fast-food restaurant. The second floor is a thin white slab recessed behind the glass wall reached by and extending the form of the spiral staircase. Inside areas on both the ground and second floors, unencumbered views link guests and passersby on three sides of the structure.
Because this McDonald’s restaurant is open 24 hours a day, its appearance at night is as important as that during the day. The glass walls on the east, south, and portions of the west and north walls flood the interior with daylight. But that transparency is magnified at night as ceiling planes that light the interior make the pavilion glow. A continuous, thin light-emitting diode (LED) light strip at the top of the fascia penetrates the fascia’s screen, lighting the mural formed by variously sized, heart-shaped cutouts used like pixels to form the figures on its mural. The effect is particularly bold on the screens shielding the core on the north and west facades where light from the interior silhouettes the murals.
Interior furnishings add highlights of color. Red Eames molded plywood chairs, complemented by black-and-white molded fiberglass chairs, pull up to pedestal tables. Red banquettes and tufted brown leather sofas vary the mix of seating.
The structure is a simple steel skeleton with its rectangular form offset to articulate it and the corner. It took only two months to erect. The architects planned the structure to be able to use the foundation of the former kiosk. All elements were prefabricated, including two-story, 20-foot-tall (6 m) glass panels; perforated anodized aluminum facade and ceiling panels; and the single-piece cantilevered staircase. Building construction costs, excluding interior furniture, fixtures, and equipment, were about €1.1 million ($1 million in mid-2015).
The historic post office behind the pavilion was decommissioned in August 2007 and sold to a team comprising the Post Rotterdam Consortium (made up of Rotterdam-based Delta Development Group, an international project developer active in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Italy; and SNS Property Finance, based in Leusden,) and Alderman Hamit Karakus from the municipality of Rotterdam.
In November 2009, the consortium presented plans by UNStudio, the Amsterdam-based architecture firm that designed the redevelopment of the former post office at Coolsingel 42. In the post office’s 300,000 square feet (28,000 sq m), Delta conceived upscale retail shops, restaurants, cafés, and bars combined with a luxury hotel, which would house conference facilities and offices. The interior central hall, 74 feet (23 m) high, was formed with large parabolic concrete beams, between which large glass skylights let light stream into the atrium.
Gert van der Ende, Delta Development Group’s manager, says that in 2011 that redevelopment project of the Post Rotterdam Consortium came to a halt due to a lack of interest from retailers, as a result of the worldwide Great Recession. Delta Development revised the plan to include a luxury hotel of 120 rooms with retail space on the ground floor. Delta scheduled the revised project to start construction in 2016 and to open in mid-2017.
It is not often that American fast-food restaurant chains fashion a restrained, urban character for downtown developments. In Rotterdam, McDonald’s investment in a transparent urban pavilion may help set the environment for—and be a counterpoint to—the rehabilitation of a monumental historic edifice shielded behind carefully crafted limestone walls.
William P. Macht is a professor of urban planning and development at the Center for Real Estate at Portland State University in Oregon and a development consultant. (Comments about projects profiled in this column, as well as proposals for future profiles, should be directed to the author at [email protected].)