Netherlands: Wonder City: How a Hinkelstein made Groningen even cooler

No Dutch city is as young as Groningen. And in hardly any other are the residents so happy. The city is also successful in urban development.

That thing looks like a giant menhir from Obelix. Even in Manhattan or London, this artificial boulder would draw everyone’s attention, the architecture is so unusual. But in the center of Groningen, surrounded by pretty little brick houses with white gables, the 45-meter-high block looks completely unreal. The people of Groningen seem to have gotten used to it though. “Great, isn’t it?” calls a cyclist who happens to be passing by. Yes, it’s great.

Inside it looks like a fancy department store. Escalators lead to dizzying heights. Huge windows let the sun in. But nothing is sold. Is it perhaps a luxury lecture hall? This is indicated by the arena-like rows of seats on which young people in T-shirts and hoodies have made themselves comfortable with their laptops. One floor up, workstations at tables offer even more comfort. Here, too, all users are apparently under 25.

Next level up: Okay, it appears to be a coffee shop, at least there is one. But wait, the city library is also housed here. You want to try out the comfortable rotating wing chair straight away – preferably with an audio book. And then there is a comic museum, a restaurant and a cinema. Perhaps the Groninger Forum could best be described as a stacked, horizontal city, with all sorts of facilities, meeting places and public spaces on different levels.

Groningen is a trendsetter

The high-tech menhir is something completely new, which is also reflected in the fact that many international media reported on the opening at the end of 2019. The British newspaper “The Guardian” wrote that this building shows for the first time that inner cities no longer have to be primarily geared towards retail. The success is undoubtedly there: the 1.3 million visitors targeted for the first year came in the first three months.

So Groningen is currently a trendsetter, and that’s no coincidence. The city may be old, but despite all the historic buildings, it seems incredibly young – almost 60,000 of the 200,000 or so residents are students. This makes Groningen the youngest city in the Netherlands. The median age is 36, nationally it is 41.

During the lecture period, Groningen seems to be populated exclusively by students, especially during the week. It’s a little different on Saturdays because that’s when a lot of people from the surrounding area come to shop. On top of that, the people of Groningen are among the happiest Europeans, according to an EU study.

A center in the middle of nothing

The fact that the city seems so lively also has something to do with its large catchment area: the nearest large city is unreasonably far away by Dutch standards. You can’t just go somewhere else quickly. In the north of Groningen are fields of potatoes and sugar beet, and eventually the sea behind them. Germany is to the east. And in the west and south stretches deserted farmland.

Groningen, on the other hand, is vibrant. Strongest around the Grote Markt. Arson by the German occupiers and bombing by the Canadian liberators in 1945, shortly before the end of the war, resulted in two of its four sides being destroyed. In contrast to many other German cities, Groningen has consistently eliminated the subsequent building sins of the post-war period over the past few decades.

The new architecture is not historicizing, but fits wonderfully into the overall picture. This includes the always well-visited headquarters of the oldest Dutch student association “Vindicat atque polit”, whose partnership can be recognized by the slogan “Mutua Fides” (mutual trust).

The fusion of old and new succeeds here

If you continue from the market, you will come to another large square behind the town hall, the Vismarkt. There is still a market here on most days. The square is dominated by the former grain exchange (Korenbeurs), which now houses a boring supermarket. Standing in front of the building with its striking columns and then turning left leads to the city’s prettiest shopping street, Folkingestraat. The old synagogue is also located here.

The most striking building after the Groninger Forum is the Groninger Museum. The building designed by Italian architect Alessandro Mendini, which opened in 1994, lies like a futuristic ship between the main train station and the city center. The basic idea for the museum was not to build an art temple, but a labyrinth in which the boundaries between design, architecture, art and media are blurred.

Not only art is on display, but also Asian porcelain, for example, which slumbered on the seabed for centuries in a shipwreck belonging to the United East India Company (VOC) before it was recovered by divers in 1985.

Groningen: There and away

Getting there: Coming by car from the south via the comparatively little-used federal motorway 31 to Emden. By train with the ICE to Arnhem, change there to a Dutch Intercity to Groningen.

Entry and corona situation: There are currently no restrictions for people entering Germany. (dpa)

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