An ode to Groningen urban architecture


Groningen as an example and forerunner in urban architecture. This is what De Volkskrant writes on Sunday. There is interest from all over the world. But how did the city manage?

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According to the newspaper, if you walk through the city, you see more and more space for greenery and less for (car) traffic. As an example, the writer mentions the quay at Kattendiep, where nowadays people have picnics and moor their boats. It is one of the 50 projects that Groningen city center has been renovated with over the past six years under the motto ‘Space for you’, with the aim of creating an attractive, accessible, safe and accessible city center for everyone.

Groningen city architect Jeroen de Willigen (2015-2021) is an exemplary city. But how did Groningen manage to do it? And what can Dutch cities learn from this?

Give the city back to the people

The basis for the relaxed streets may very well lie in the 1970s, when then PvdA councilor Max van den Berg came up with the Traffic Turnover Plan. His goal: to make the city center car-free. For example, the center suddenly changed from a huge parking lot to a pedestrian crossing. De Willigen: “While Utrecht was then busy filling Catharijnesingel for a highway, Van den Berg gave the city back to the people.”

It was also decided to keep the university and the hospital in the city, instead of following the trend of moving them to the outskirts of the city. And later again, Westerhaven as a shopping center and the renovation of the east wall of the Grote Markt – with the Forum as the icing on the cake – are examples of giving the city back to its inhabitants.


Design from the public space

In the 1980s, Groningen architect Jurjen van der Meer, like De Willigen, a partner in the architectural firm De Zwarte Hond, called for an approach to the city as a coherent system of public spaces. This idea is related to the famous map drawn by the Italian architect Giambattista Nolli of Rome in 1748, showing public interiors such as churches as an extension of the street. An idea that eventually landed in Groningen, partly thanks to three Italian architects.

This ‘Italian’ approach, where the building is considered part of the city, is reflected in recent construction projects such as the Kunstwerf, the new home for four theater companies in the Ebbingekwartier.

Organize design competitions

These kinds of innovative projects were possible thanks to the architectural competitions that Groningen often organizes. The idea is that the choice is made based on the best plan, rather than the lowest price and a certain turnover and experience required in traditional tenders. That way, for example, the young NL Architects agency would never have been able to win the Forum contract in 2007.

In 1780, the very first design competition in the Netherlands was organized by the then mayor of Groningen, for a new town hall on the Grote Markt. The winner was the – for the time very modern – neoclassical design by architect Jacob Otten Husly. The mayor made only one condition: he wanted, and got, a colonnade.

The idea of ​​enriching a building with a public (outdoor) space seems to have become a tradition in Groningen along with the design competition. For example, NL Architects added a freely accessible panoramic roof terrace to the Forum building, and Happel Cornelisse Verhoeven Architecten designed a new civic center for parties and events in the newly renovated town hall with doors onto the market square.


Maintain control

A lot of land in Groningen is owned by the municipality, and therefore must not be bought for construction projects, explains Group CEO Bert Popken from the municipality of Groningen to the Volkskrant. “The increase in value on the land and buildings subsequently flowed into the municipal coffers and not to the builders. By keeping control in our own hands, we can focus on quality instead of profit. But we were also lucky to be able to buy properties at a favorable price, and the building materials were cheap during the economic crisis.” The land is also owned by the municipality for future construction projects such as Meerstad, Suikerzijde and the Station area.

Honor the past

The fact that Groningen thrives spatially is no reason to sit back; a city is never finished. There is still plenty to work on. After the west and east sides of the Grote Markt, it is now the turn of the north side, where the former V&D building is located. This is to be transformed into a multifunctional complex with a market hall, workplaces and housing. The renovation of the station will invest in public transport, while the renewal of the A7 marks the end of the car city era. Where the outskirts of the city were previously cut by a huge viaduct, car traffic now disappears underground, on which a park is being built.

Here, too, a design competition has led to a remarkable construction project: the memorial balcony. A bright red watchtower that provides a view of the spectacular renovation. The designers of Studio LA have incorporated part of the old viaduct into the building. This surprised De Willigen: “I thought the last stretch of motorway would disappear – finally. And so the architects proposed to erect a “monument” for it. Now I see that it is good that a memory remains. Because it’s hard to believe in something, to continue working with it, if you don’t know where you come from.”

The memory balcony.  Photo: Siese Veenstra
The memory balcony. Photo: Siese Veenstra

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