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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.