Exactly ten years ago, in March 2011, I visited the Maastunnel in Rotterdam to film it. The historic tunnel complex has separate tunnels for motor traffic, for cycling and for walking. Together they allow people to cross the river Nieuwe Maas (New Meuse). Much has happened since that visit. The Maastunnel became a national monument in 2012 and its 75-year anniversary was celebrated in 2017. That was also the year that a three year renovation started. The tunnel has been reopened last October and it is exceptionally beautiful again. Time for another visit to Rotterdam’s pride!
Construction of the Rotterdam Maastunnel took place from 1937 until 1942. At the time it was an architectural masterpiece: the world’s first sunken tunnel with rectangular instead of round elements. In 2017, the Rotterdam museum “Kunsthal” dedicated an exhibition to the then exactly 75-year-old Maastunnel. The title of the exhibition was telling: “Our Tunnel”. It focussed on the role the tunnel had played in the history of Rotterdam, connecting the north and the south bank, and how the people of Rotterdam felt about this icon over the years.
Mid 2017, the big renovation started that would take until October 2020. First, the car tunnels were temporarily closed. All the concrete floors were removed, because the concrete suffered from corrosion and degradation due to heavy use and age. All the tiles were also carefully removed from the walls and cleaned. Some could be reused but most of the tiles had to be replaced. The new tiles look exactly like the originals. I took two years, until 2019, before the car tunnels could be reopened. Then the tube with the pedestrian and bicycle tunnels on a separate level got the almost exact same treatment. When you compare the before and after pictures of the cycling tunnel it is hard to imagine that every single tile on the walls was taken out and replaced in the renovation. It took 7 months, from late November 2019 to early July 2020, to restore the cycling tunnel. The tunnel was completely closed for cycling and walking during the restoration. A temporary ferry took people to the other side. While the pedestrian tunnel was reconstructed the cycling tunnel was open again. Bicycles were temporarily available for pedestrians to cross the river in the cycling tunnel. Walking in the cycling tunnel was prohibited! A rickshaw was available for people who could not cycle themselves. The reopening of the pedestrian tunnel marked the end of the entire tunnel restoration project. The final reopening could not be a large celebration due to the Covid-19 pandemic. To mark the occasion the Rotterdam alderman for finances, the port and large projects simply walked through the tunnel, alone, on 17 October 2020. The tunnel is again bright and clean. All the lighting was replaced by energy efficient LED lights, but the lights were fit in the original light fixtures. The colour of the modern lights was carefully chosen to match the colour of the original light-bulbs to recreate the 1940s atmosphere.
The almost 80-year-old and partly wooden escalators were completely restored. The wooden steps were chosen -all those years ago- because bicycle wheels would have a better grip on the wooden surface. The dimensions of the escalators have a direct relation with the size of a classic Dutch bicycle. The escalators were specifically designed to be easily used with a bicycle. As an integral part of the national monument the escalators could not simply be replaced. Engineers tried to save as many of the original elements as possible. The main axles had to be replaced, but many of the steel cogwheels could be restored. All the elements that are visible to the public, such as the wooden steps and the hand railings, could also be saved. This means the escalators look the same as before, but they are fit to be used for another 75 years.
When the tunnel was opened in 1942 the walls alongside the escalators had been plain white. After the restoration that was also how the walls looked initially. But in 2011 there had been an exposition in the tunnel, with old pictures on those walls. The photo exhibition was supposed to be temporary, but the pictures remained on the wall until the tunnel closed in 2019. Many people had developed an attachment to those pictures. That is why they now asked for something new on those clean white walls. In February 2021, the city of Rotterdam decided to indeed place new pictures alongside the escalators. At either end of the tunnel there are 20 frames, 10 on each side. Ten of those frames will show old pictures from 1942, the first year of the tunnel and the ten frames on the other wall will have a contemporary exhibition for three months at the time. The first set of pictures depict the recent restoration works. I filmed just before the pictures were put up, but someone else did capture them in a YouTube video, early March 2021.
After the recent restoration the entire tunnel has again the atmosphere of the late 1930s and early 1940s, when it was designed and opened respectively. It is not hard to understand why the people of Rotterdam were so proud of their tunnel. Much of that pride has still not worn off in all those decades. The tunnel is not only used by many on a daily basis, it is also a testament to the craftsmanship and ingenuity of the people of Rotterdam. In more recent years, the tunnel has even become a place to visit for tourists. The restored tunnel is ready for many decades to come.
My video with a portrait of the renovated Maastunnel.
My video with a ride from North to South via the escalators.