Coffee to Culture: inside the Van Nelle Factory

Van Nelle Factory 1

I feel like such a city girl! On a cold Sunday morning I’m looking for the front door of the Van Nelle Factory. Quite the undertaking, because there doesn’t seem to be an obvious entrance to this industrial high rise. With beautiful blue skies and a bright winter sun, icy winds make me shiver and about ready to give up. This former tobacco and coffee factory of steel and glass in Rotterdam is normally closed to the public, but now open due to a Swan Market inside. I’m combining my need to shop, with a natural-born interest in architecture and big buildings.

Workshops and Warehouses

This striking piece of architecture is one of only 10 spots in the Netherlands featured on the UNESCO world heritage list. Now home to more than 80 big and small businesses in media and design, this used to be a thriving factory for tobacco, coffee and tea. During 64 years the mixed aroma of tobacco, coffee and tea would greet you at the door. When I finally do find that door, I’m greeted by music and countless vendors in the former workshops and warehouses. Hipster food trucks and gourmet coffee stands fill the space where at once tea was stored. Now it’s filled with a whole new aroma and I can choose from an endless supply of stuff I don’t need. Armed with my camera I try to capture this strange combination of the industrial space with it’s clean cut lines and the color and kitch of hipster goods. All framed with this amazing natural light.

Ruins of Rotterdam

The design of the building was quite groundbreaking for the 1930s. Contrary to most other factories built at this time, the structure is completely above ground to create a sense of light, air and space for it’s workers. The factory survived the 1940 bombing of nearby Rotterdam. This is quite remarkable when you consider the massive damage done to Rotterdam and how a steel and glass factory of this size would have been a hard target to miss. While writing this blog I found out that my grandfather had the presence of mind  to photograph the ruins of Rotterdam after the bombing in May 1940 . He was a great admirer of photography and a talented photographer himself. I always felt a slight regret that he died before I discovered my own love of photography and a chance to work with him on it. That’s why I’m honored to present a few unique images made by the talented Nico van Wijngaarde. 

Saving the Building

By 1986 the Van Nelle factory was named a national monument, but when the machinery and production stopped in 1995, the building was set for demolition. Only a new owner with respect for it’s original industrial charme, would be able to save it. Thankfully, a group of gutsy investors buy the building and embark on an ambitious renovation to match the current demands  and to create an energetic and dynamic bastion for creatives. In 2014 the Van Nelle factory was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list as an icon of 20th century industrial architecture. Following the Amsterdam canals, the Waddenzee and the windmills at Kinderdijk, this factory is included in the worldwide cultural and natural heritage of irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. I certainly get why.

Van Nelle Factory Building - 17