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The biggest improvement to the renovated Grote Markt in Groningen? He’s smaller now

‘Natalini did a good job of that,’ says architect Sjoerd Soeters, when we are standing on the Grote Markt in Groningen at the Waagstraat complex, designed by Adolfo Natalini (1941-1996), which was built on and near the town hall square in the early 1990s. “Look,” says Soeters, pointing to the Waagstraat, which is located behind the wide underpass in the complex and further down turns into Herestraat. “The Waagstraat is not exactly in line with the underpass, but makes a slight bend to the left. And further on, Herestraat nods slightly to the right. That causes some urban planners serial vision to call. The kinks break the endless perspective to one vanishing point and the image rotates a little bit as you walk down the street. In this way you skate, as it were, from one leg to the other, through the space and you always see the street in a slightly different perspective. Everyone likes to visit old cities for these kinds of things, because they almost always have winding streets.”

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There are more things that Soeters like about the Waagstraat complex that is located around the small Gold Office from 1635. “Natalini has created a second square behind the town hall and that is an asset – squares in old Italian cities such as Venice often consist of a large and a small part,” says Soeters, who has designed squares in the centers of Nijmegen in recent decades. and Zaanstad and in Amsterdam-East. “The glass roof between the Goudkantoor and a new-build block is also good. For example, the café in the Goudkantoor has been given a terrace that can be used in bad weather and you also have a view from the Waagstraat on the town hall. I also like the curved shape of the long block on the north side of the square. For example, the concave south side looks long in the sun and the convex north and shadow sides look short. But the biggest improvement that Natilini has made is that the new building has made the Grote Markt smaller. Many squares in the Netherlands, especially the post-war ones, are far too big.”

Le Corbusier

On the way to Groningen, Soeters has already explained why this is so. “In my lectures, I often compare Le Corbusier’s city plans to Giambattista Nolli’s map of 18th-century Rome,” he explained as he drove his Tesla. “They are the exact opposite of each other: in ‘Corbu”s plans, which set the tone for post-war western urban planning, solitary buildings are surrounded by seas of white public space. In the Nolli map of Rome, the public space, not only in squares and streets but also in churches, is as it were carved into a black slab of buildings. The latter results in much nicer public spaces. We prefer not to enter the limitless spaces of the Corbusian suburbs built all over the world, the closed public spaces of Rome and Venice are overrun by tourists.”

In 1972 the Grote Markt was saved – the highway plan was scrapped

A good, lively square is therefore not too big and is surrounded by facades of the right height that ensure privacy, Soeters concludes. “Small squares promote interaction between visitors. In large squares, people become scattered and, for example, at a distance of more than 50 meters it is difficult to recognize faces. It is also important that the plinth of the buildings contains various facilities, such as cafes, shops and ‘spawning grounds’, as I call places where people like to come to see and be seen. There should also be housing above the shops. Cars, both parked and moving, should be banned as much as possible. It is essential that the square is part of the urban fabric, with walking and cycling routes from one district to another. And ensure a good balance between shade and sun by, for example, trees and greenery. Place good benches in the square and lay out a fountain or decoys that provide cooling on hot days. And avoid gusts through high buildings, otherwise you’ll find yourself in a drafty room, as it were.”

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All obvious things, he admits. “They were forgotten for a long time. And it still often goes wrong. For example, residential towers have been built in various Dutch cities in recent decades that provide so much wind that the surrounding streets and squares had to be covered.”

Rescue of the Grand Place

In Groningen, too, after the Second World War, Le Corbusier’s mind became skilful over urban planners and administrators. After the Grote Markt, which was considered one of the most beautiful squares in the Netherlands before the war, was largely destroyed during the liberation of Groningen in April 1945, the city council decided not to restore the square to its former glory, but to sacrifice it to the means of transport. of the future: the car. The Grote Markt was given the purpose of a traffic circle that was eventually to become the junction of a motorway to be built from Amsterdam to Bremen. To this end, the square was enlarged: a reduced, new east wall was placed 17 meters to the rear. On the west side, where the Waagstraat runs, what remained of the buildings made way for a semi-modernist, box-shaped extension of the town hall, which was connected by an air bridge to the neoclassical old building from 1810.

Waagstraat complex.
Simon Lenskens
Public toilets on Grote Markt.
Simon Lenskens
Closed poffertjes stall
Simon Lenskens
Forum, behind Grote Markt.
Simon Lenskens
Metal fence at the Grote Markt.
Simon Lenskens
Photos Simon Lenskens

The Grote Markt was saved in 1972: a new city council brushed aside the plans for the further ‘remediation’ of the old city center and the construction of the highway. The Grote Markt became a market square again. However, as an addition to the old Corbusian urban planning, a concrete parking garage was built behind the new east wall, which was connected to the Grote Markt by a low gribus passage.

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With Natalini’s Waagstraat complex from 1996, which replaced the city hall extension, the recovery of the Grote Markt started. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Groningen city council also decided to renovate the east side of the square. After years of debate and planning led by city architect Niek Verdonk, the city council finally approved the plan to turn back history and put a new, long east wall back on the old site. The plan also provided for the replacement of the brutalist parking garage by the Forum culture center.

In 2019 the Forum, designed by NL architects, finally opened, a 45-meter high iceberg that houses a library, cinemas and a comics museum, among other things. At the beginning of 2022, the new east wall was completed with the completion of the dark brick Market Hotel and the white Merckt residential and catering building.

Small public areas

With the exception of the new club building of the Groningen student corps Vindicat, Soeters finds the buildings of the new east wall mediocre. “I even think the white Merckt building is terrible, with those white brick strips and gold-colored balcony gates and window frames,” he says. But architecture is of secondary importance for a good square, he immediately adds: “Urban planning is more important than architecture. The urban coherence of the buildings determines whether a public space is a pleasant place to stay, not the quality of the architecture. A square will never be successful if buildings are not properly built around and on it.”

And the new east side of the Grote Markt looks good, says Soeters. “When you used to come out of this street, you could already see the tower of the Martinikerk from a distance,” he explains as we walk into the square from Oosterstraat. “That’s boring: if you see where you’re going 500 meters in advance, there’s no surprise anymore. Now that the east wall is again 17 meters forward, you only see the tower when you walk into the square, as if you were a delayed meeting. Similarly, on the east side there is a serial vision to arise.”

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Soeters also thinks that the new east wall is so high that the Forum Mountain can hardly be seen from the Grote Markt. “If the Forum were prominent on the Grote Markt, it would have been an ungainly tower that would compete too much and contrast with the square’s two old icons, the town hall and the Martinikerk,” he says. “Now that the Forum is located on its own beautiful square with a water gutter that is accessible via an alley through the east wall, it is just right.”

The core of the renovation of the Grote Markt is the reduction in size of the square and the shrinking of the public space, concludes Soeters on his way back. “By reducing public space, many other cities could also be improved,” he says. “Less public space means not only more people per square meter of public space, but also denser buildings with more square meters for various facilities and homes. Both lead to a better, more vibrant city.”

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