Architecture and the International Experience
I grew up in London, the pulsating metropolis that acts as both the gatekeeper of acceptability, and the pit of iniquity in the UK. As a built environment, London could perhaps be thought of as a tower of profiteroles – albeit one where all the fillings have clashing ingredients – where beautiful hangovers from the imperial era jostle for space alongside priapic glass flights of fantasy.
But what is striking if you look deeper at London is that the city is actually quite separate. Not just the buildings (no-one would ever think to meld together a Queen Anne house with a modern extension), but in what the buildings represent. From 'poor doors' in luxury developments, to the vast disparity in quality between the newest glass skyscrapers and, say Grenfell tower, the city exists as a series of silos. Stylistic silos, social silos, and economic silos.
Groningen, on the other hand, is slightly different. More open. More welcoming. Much easier to feel 'at home'. In terms of the built environment, the city is more cosseting: everything slowly morphs from one building to the next. Nothing is thought of adding a glass jacket to an old building. There is more freedom of expression, or at least it feels it.
'I see you,' the buildings in Groningen seem to say 'and there's no need to be scared.'
This bleeds through to how the city makes you feel. There is no building in Groningen that keeps you away from the front door simply by presence. There is no feeling of inadequacy when considering the built environment, no imposing 'massiveness' like you get at the Barbican Estate, no sense of you being a barcode for use by corporations like in Canary Wharf, and no sense that you might as well be litter on the street like in Mayfair. 'I see you,' the buildings in Groningen seem to say 'and there's no need to be scared.'
The city feels usable, it undulates from built to un-built, and in doing so it provides serious comfort. Part of this has to do with the fact that, from the outside, you can hardly tell if a building is home to princes or to paupers. Or, to be less royal, to bankers or to students.
There is one house, that sits next to the Noorderhaven on the outskirts of the city centre. It is a beautiful, typically Dutch canal-side house, with stepped gable, and pretty detailing in white stone and dark red brick. But most importantly, it is set back from the road, near hidden. If you slow your walk, turn your head just so, and get a lucky ray of sunlight it reveals its face. And, in doing so, makes you feel truly at home.
You have been let in on one of the secrets of the city, and after that, you are truly a part of it.