Developers, take note: This building of artists’ studios suggests a wholly different approach to the ecofriendly apartment block. The exterior concrete walls bloom with life, as plants are able to grow through a system of irrigation using recycled rainwater and groundwater.

Not unlike Paris’s Pompidou Centre, the structure is, to a degree, turned inside out. Its veinlike water pipes become part of the architecture.

“Originally the experiment was to find the most ugly thing in the world—this cement factory that is creating pollution, creating dust, a horror story for any sort of ecological-minded person—and figure out how to transform it,” says Ricardo Bofill Jr., son of the visionary architect and now a principal in the firm himself.

“Our idea was to create an inhabited arch,” says Jacob van Rijs, a principal at MVRDV. “It’s like the Galleria in Milan, but wider.” A food market “is a new concept for Rotterdam,” he adds, “and the idea was also to make the city center more lively. Because Rotterdam was heavily bombed in World War II, the old historic center is gone. This site was the market square.