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Andrys Onsman
[To Andrys Onsman’ index]

Architecture in Leeuwarden

Text and photographs by Andrys Onsman,
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, ©2008

[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L Travels collection as well.]

The inner-city hospital where I was born and spent the first seven weeks of my life cocooned in a humidity crib for the pre-mature is being knocked down to make way for a new expensive housing estate. Twice each day during the worst two months of the northern winter, my mother would walk through the snow-covered streets to breast-feed me in the hope that I would grow strong enough to face the world unaided. Now only the Administration block remains: several of the brand-new penthouses are up and it is, I am confidently assured, only the current world-wide recession that is keeping them empty. The fact that every second house in Leeuwarden seems to be up for sale has apparently nothing to do with it. On the other hand, it is also true that currently Leeuwarden has some 95,000 inhabitants. When it reaches a population of 100,000 it moves up a rung on the status ranks and gets more federal funding. The last five thousand are proving rather difficult to acquire but surely more houses means more inhabitants? Apparently Leeuwarden needs more Leeuwarders.

There is but a handful of famous Leeuwarders. The most famous of all is Mata Hari, born Margaretha Gertruida Zelle, the reckless, beautiful dancer who was shot as a spy by the French in World War One because she was seen canoodling with German officers. The fact that she also canoodled with French officers was conveniently over-looked. The other really famous Leeuwarder was M. C. Escher, who was born there in 1898. Maukie Escher only lived in the city for five years, but as we are rather short on really famous citizens, we claim him by birthright. After those two, we’re on thin ice. Most other famous Frisians, including Pieter Stuyvesant, Rutger Hauer, Doutzen Kroes and Sunnyboy came from elsewhere in Fryslân.

Achmea TowerAnother somewhat famous Frisian (who didn’t come from Leeuwarden) is Abe Bonnema, the architect who designed the Achmea Towers, two incongruous black monoliths that seem to have descended straight from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and come to rest outside the train station. The flat Frisian landscape ensures that they can be seen from just about anywhere in the province. Achmea is a large corporation with enough clout to get what it wants. To those who objected to a Dallas type building in the middle of a Prague style town it could say, “Fine, we’ll take the 5,000 jobs elsewhere.” In an area that has the largest rate of unemployment in the country and in a city where decisions are made by councils that are re-elected every four years, it was an argument convincing enough for the councilors to bend heritage regulations—if one accepts blackmail as a legitimate form of debate. Abe was to prove a master at it.

Despite my objections to its presence as an eyesore, I availed myself of the opportunity to have a look at the city from a great height—114 meters to be exact. From up there Leeuwarden lay as bare as the world seen by Ted Hughes’ Eagle. And from up there I could see everything that I knew in theory about the place: the rise and fall of the streets, the battered star of canals around the inner town, the meadows where the new wards are being built, and in the distance the islands that guard us from the North Sea. Having grown up in the detail of the houses and streets, always having looked up from street level, I could suddenly see the grand design, the visions of the town-planners writ large like a dendo-chronologicum and there, just below the clouds, another layer of engagement was added to my love for Leeuwarden.

At the same time any regard I had for Bonnema plunged faster than the eardrum rattling descent of the tower’s elevators. The man was a screaming ego-maniac. In his will, he left 18 million euros to the city so that a new Frisian Museum might be built. On the face of it, it sounds like a benevolent civic bequest but it isn’t. Really, it is a hysterical attempt to live forever. First, the money is not nearly enough to cover expenses: another E180 million needs to be spent. Second, we have a perfectly good, even brilliant, museum already. Third, it is to be built on the only bit of inner-city public space left. Fourth, it has generated “The Eggs.”

Actually, “The Eggs” are quite funny—if entirely impractical and outrageously expensive. Let me explain. When the proposal for the new museum was first put to the Leeuwarders by way of a referendum (this is Fryslân after all) some 85% voted against it. A fairly clear response, one might assume. But the Council pointed out that as only 33% of the population had voted and a 35% turn-out was required, the project was going ahead anyway. That’s democracy for you.

The place where it will be built is officially called Het Wilheminaplein but everyone knows it as Het Zaailand, a large open square where on Fridays the market is held; where occasional major public events are held; and where people have met up for coffee and herring for centuries. Underneath it is a large parking cellar—which will have to be moved or lowered by a meter to accommodate the new building.

The EggsIn response to the decision to over-rule the populace, the artist Henk Hofstra was commissioned to paint broken eggs on the square because the council had “laid an egg”. From the top of the Achmea building the sunny-side up eggs look great, but unfortunately at street level you have to wear sunglasses against the reflected glare thrown up by the huge expanses of white. And the scuffmarks caused by the market means it has to be repainted regularly. Anyway, it was pretty funny—even though it cost more than 100,000 euros and the project is going ahead anyway,
If you don’t count the church spires, the only other really high building in Leeuwarden is its own leaning tower, De Oldehoven. Originally a church spire, work was abandoned when one corner began to sink and the whole edifice started to lean at an alarming angle. Over the centuries, numerous investigations have been carried out to find out why—it was likely due to the internal stairs not being centrally placed. A few years ago when yet another parking cellar was built under the square in front of it, the hole dug filled with ground water. That answered the question of the lean: the foundations were far from solid. Of course that never stopped us kids braving the stench of a public urinal to play chasings up to the top. Nowadays De Oldehoven has been tarted up as a tourist attraction and you have to pay to climb the many well-worn steps.

From its top, you can see that much of the 16th century harbour town remains as the inner city. Leeuwarden was originally a port on the Middle Sea even though these days it is almost in the middle of the province because the Middle Sea silted up. In its heyday Leeuwarden was an important part of the Hanseatic League and a major centre for distribution of agricultural produce. On some of the older houses you can still see the way the city kept in touch with the sea:

17th-century mural of a horse-drawn barge

A few decades ago the city’s council decided to reduce the number of cars in the binnenstad. The decision to build three massive underground parking stations in the middle of the place seems somewhat counterproductive to that idea. But then again, an ordinance prohibiting any new building higher than the existing ones was also ignored when the Friesland Bank threatened to go elsewhere if they were not allowed to put a great big glass copula on their new office block. Frisians are nothing if not pragmatic.

The city isn’t a beautiful amalgam of styles in the way that Barcelona has been able to encompass the very new, the very old and everything architectural in between and still come up with a city that is able to embrace Gaudi’s creations with aplomb. The only aspect of Barcelona’s buildings that is disconcertning is the statue of Columbus, high on its pillar. I’ve never been sure why Columbus is there in the first place, but in any case he is pointing confidently towards Africa. As you can actually see that continent on a clear day, discovering it doesn’t seem such a great achievement. Nonetheless, Barcelona has been able to manage its potpouri of building styles. Paris is another city where the new, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Pompidour Centre and the upside down Glass Pyramid at the Louvre. See people? It can be done.

Old HydrantTo be fair, Leeuwarden has managed to hold on to a lot of its old churches (even if they are now galleries and performance spaces), its synagogue (now a dance school), its governor’s house (a restaurant), the old jail (storage) and my old school (an artists’ space). Here and there modern buildings have been wedged into old streets and one of the world’s ugliest bridges (purple, round and stark) has been erected in a place where no bridge should be, but overall you can still wander aimlessly in quaint little streets and laneways, feeling yourself to be in another era. In the street called Bij de Put (At the Well) there actually is a public well—even if it no longer draws water. It’s in a street called Achter de Grote Kerk (Behind the Big Church). Since it has been repainted, many a tourist has spent hours speculating what it might be. I overheard someone suggest a giant coffee grinder. I think it was in jest. My grandmother told me it was still in use when she was a girl.

The city developed organically. Leeuwarden was orginally a conglomeration of three terpen (dwelling mounds) called Oldehove, Nijehove and Hoek, and the cobblestone streets rise and fall where they were. The “Old Haven” and the “New Haven” were originally on either side of the River Ee at the point where it flowed into the Middle Sea, whilst the “Hook” was on a outcrop a few hundred meters to the north. By the middle ages Leeuwarden was a fortified city with three entry ports over the moats, Hoekster Poort, Vrouwen Poort and Widdumer Poort, complete with drawbridges and portcules. Over the years, other bits and pieces were added, houses developed leans, roads swirled and straightened, neighbourhoods came and went.

One excellent example of how different styles of architecture can be incorporated into a workable whole is the current Fries Museum. I love the place and have spent countless hours there in the various rooms. Occasionally one of the temporary exhibitions leaves me cold but any museum that has an entire hall, moodily lit and enchanting, devoted to Mata Hari is all right by me. The Museum complex is a conglomeration of three principal buildings, linked by a tunnel under the street. One of the buildings is the Eysinga House, a genuine stately manor that has been faithfuly redecorated. Another is an ultra-modern insert and the third is the old chancellery. There are other bits and pieces to connect them all. Recently I spent a whole day in the Frisian Resistance in World War II room, doing some research for a new project and was held captive by the familiarity of the names of the brave men and women who refused to yield. Wy Friesen knibbelje alinne for God—I’m not at all sure I’d have been as brave as my grandfathers.

Collage of buildings

The buildings are counterpoints to each other. The old worn stairs in the chancellery building are a contrast to the brute architecture of the entrance building. To get to the splendour of the seventeenth century Eysingahuis you have to go through the underground tunnel. How brilliant is that? It’s taking a trip through time, physically as well as conceptually. It is a jewel. And notice the height of the modernist insert building—it doesn’t stand out.

Drawing of the planned museumAbe Bonnema saw a different possibility in the museum: his own immortality. There is little doubt that the new museum will bear his name somewhere. His will stipulated that his bequest had to be used for a museum, which had to be built on Het Zaailand, and it had to be designed by Hubert-Jan Henket in conjunction with the Bonnema Architecten. Why an ostensibly socially-conscious architect would insist on destroying one of the few public spaces is beyond most people’s comprehension. Het Zaailand used to be a tree-lined plaza where foot-races were held, where markets were held, and week-end public concerts drew hundreds of patrons. The trees have gone, a shopping centre (part of which will have to be demolished to accommodate the new museum) has been erected and many of the surrounding buildings of historic interest have been torn down. Despite all that, thousands of emigrants crowded onto the square during the Simmer 2000 concerts, proving that the city needs a large open public meeting space.

The other famous Abe, Abe Lenstra, is a legend in Fryslân because of his footballing prowess and his refusal to chase the big money in Italy or France. Instead he played for It Hearenfean, proudly wearing the blue and white striped shirt with the red waterlily leaves. Abe Lenstra is immortal: he will always be Us Abe—Our Abe. Heerenveen’s stadium is called the Abe Lenstra Stadion and serendipitously, every second week it is on international television. Abe didn’t have to buy his immortality nor by strength of will enforce it on the people.

From the Prinsen Tuin, the as yet untouched beautiful city gardens on the side of the city canal opposite to what remains of the hospital, I stand on the tow path and send a heart-felt thanks to my mother for never losing faith in me, a boy too small to survive without it. I wonder what she would have made of this architectural circus. No doubt she would have laughed at The Eggs, despaired at the relocation of the museum and shrugged her shoulders at the Towers. It’s neither Barcelona nor Paris, but is my home; this is where “we” live. And while construction on the new architectural folly has yet to start, I live in hope that common sense will prevail.


[To Andrys Onsman’ index]

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