The Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam is named as Holland’s tenth UNESCO World Heritage Site


June 24, 2014

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee awarded the Van Nelle Factory (Van Nelle fabriek) in Rotterdam World Heritage status on June 21st 2014. This is a worldwide acknowledgement of the unique and universal value of the former coffee, tea and tobacco factory that was constructed between 1925-1931.

Internationally renowned architects like Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, and famous Rotterdam based architecture firms such as OMA and MVRDV are making their mark on the city’s modern architecture. However, Rotterdam also has some historic gems from the Modernism (Nieuwe Bouwen) era as well. The newly awarded UNESCO status for the Van Nelle Factory confirms that Rotterdam has much to offer in terms of architectural history. The factory complex, a collection of interconnected buildings, is one of the highlights of twentieth-century industrial architecture. Soon after it was built, prominent architects described the factory as ‘the most beautiful spectacle of the modern age’ (Le Corbusier, 1932) and ‘a poem in steel and glass’ (Robertson and Yerbury, 1930). Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb states that ´the Van Nelle Factory is definitely one of our historic icons. A building unique in its day in form and materials, and way ahead of its time from a social perspective.´

An ideal factory

The commissioning client, Kees van der Leeuw, and architects Johannes Brinkman and Leendert van der Vlugt aimed to design the ‘ideal factory’: functional, beautiful and open. Natural light was used to create a pleasant working environment, proof of a concern for employees’ physical and mental well-being—not a self-evident feature of industry at the time.

The Van Nelle Factory today

After production ceased in 1995, the then owner of the factory, Sara Lee/DE, and the local authority looked for a fitting new use for the complex. The sale to the CV Van Nelle Design Factory created a new ‘Van Nelle community’. Director Roger Meertens explained, ´As it was before, the current Van Nelle Factory is an inspiring working environment, where more than eighty businesses develop the most beautiful things on a daily basis and all kinds of national and international events are staged—from Art Rotterdam to exclusive dance parties. We are reinterpreting the socio-cultural function of the progressive factory and the ideas of the man who commissioned it, Kees van der Leeuw.´

The successful redevelopment of the factory was carried out between 1999 and 2006, under the direction of builders VolkerWessels. Wessel de Jonge acted as coordinating architect. UNESCO endorses the fact that the painstaking restoration has preserved the authenticity of the complex in all respects, producing a result that visitors and new business users of the Van Nelle factory can clearly see and feel.

First World Heritage Site in Rotterdam

The award of World Heritage status to the Van Nelle Factory brings the total number of sites in Holland to ten. It is Rotterdam’s first World Heritage Site.

Interesting facts:

  • First industrially prefabricated curtain wall in the world.
  • On 14 May 1940 most of Rotterdam´s city centre was bombed. Plans for the reconstruction of the city started immediately. The first meeting took place in the office of Kees van der Leeuw, the commissioning client of the Van Nelle Factory
  • Men and women worked in the same factory, but had to use different stairwells
  • The design is filled with psychological tricks to increase the speed of the workers, for instance steep stairs and small revolving doors that made them walk faster in order to avoid holding up the person behind you.