Mediamatic Magazine vol 6#1 Mariette van Stralen 1 Jan 1991

The Books of Groningen, Marking the city boundaries

Paul Hefting, Camiel van Winkel (ed) the City Planning Departement (pub), Groningen 1990

ISBN 90-800606-1-5, Dutch and English text, pp. 319, f 65,-


The Books of Groningen, Marking the city boundaries -

Something is brewing in thecities of The Netherlands. During the last few years, government and local authorities have begun to realise that the dilapidation of our cities, the exodus from the inner areas and the moving of industry to the outskirts, cannot be allowed to continue. The city must regain its power of attraction for investors and people from the higher income groups. In the competitive struggle with a view to '1992', the opening of the borders inside the EC, local authorities are vying with one another to come up with the most attractive cityscape, one after the other.

City plans which are usually projected onto urban 'empty sites’, such as vacated railway yards, disused industrial sites or harbour areas, and intermediate zones between the peripheral and inner city.

Within this process, the most striking approach is that of the city of Groningen. In the Verleidelijk Stadsbeeld (Alluring Cityscape) catalogue, which came out to document the exhibition of the same name, held at the Nederlands Architectuur Institute (Dutch Institute of Architecture). Harm Tilman described the urban development policies of the Groningen authorities as a striking example of an approach whereby designs are part of a ‘theatrical spectacle’. City plans as such will no longer determine what happens to the city, but will become part of a programme aimed at attracting activity. Tilman is referring to Baudrillard, who places strong emphasis on the entertainment value of such an approach. To quote Tilman: The process in which local attractions and potentials play a central role, leads to the deliberate conception of the city as a venue of entertainment. He illustrates this characterisation of Groningen by describing the strategy followed for the Verbindingskanaal area. Then he writes that he regards the video pavilions realised last year, and the city landmarks built, as the perfect illustration of the city as an intoxicating amusement park, where the monitor screen controls the urban space.

The strategy followed by the Groningen Department of City Planning can also be detected in the way in which the assignment granted to Daniel Libeskind, to design a master plan for the city landmarks, was formulated. To quote Libeskind: The Groningen authorities are interested in the problem of the identity of the city: now that the city gates have vanished, in what contemporary way can the city dweller be helped to regain a feeling of involvement with his city, also from an architectural point of view. I am glad that I have been invited for this project, particularly now that the authorities are beginning to realise that it is not enough to build such gates once more, or to realise a similar representation of this identity. Because, as we all know, in a world of aeroplanes and television, such a thing is no longer possible.

It is revealing that it was precisely Libeskind who was invited for this project, the pre-eminent example of an architect whose attitude towards existing architecture is highly critical, because, in his eyes, architecture is no longer compatible with the nature of the human being and its metaphysical destiny. The intriguing, extremely complex wooden machines he showed at the 1985 Venice Biennale point to the complexity of life itself. They can be interpreted as an expression of the impossibility of getting a grip on the reality of the future. Moreover, in Libeskinds eyes, there is no such thing as the city as a notion and the city as a distinct unity. In the city, alienation, chaos and rootlessness prevail. According to Libeskind, the only way to return to its essence is not only to introduce the chaos of insecurity, but also to incorporate experiences unconnected with architecture. Philosophers, poets, artists and laymen — to Libeskind they are the real paradigms of the city. That is why it was a logical step for Libeskind to invite representatives from highly divergent disciplines — an art and architecture historian (Kurt Forster), an economist (Akira Asada), a dancer and choreographer (William Forsythe), a playwright (Heiner Muller), two visual artists (Thom Puckey and Leonard Lapin), two architects (John Hejduk and Gunnar Daan) and a philosopher (Paul Virilio) — to join the project that was given the name The Books of Groningen.

The master plan, presented in the form of a large aluminium book whose pages were held together by nuts and bolts, consists of a city map on which each of the nine locations, situated near major access routes, forms the matrix of an apparently arbitrarily drawn curve and a straight line, suggesting a connection with other places on the globe. Each landmark, with the exception of the one by Paul Virilio, is linked, not only with a letter of the word ‘Cruoninga’, the original name of the city, but also with one of the nine Muses and with other varied and associatively chosen subjects.

Each landmark tells its own story about the city, but together they have an intrinsic added value, due to the fact that they are part of the intriguing master plan which gives the city a mysterious structure. However, this does not mean that all landmarks as such are equally interesting. In this respect, Libeskinds own design is possibly even the most disappointing one. His landmark simply consists of an open book, covered with paintings by local artists, his way of pointing out that the history of the city is written by its own inhabitants. In any case, no further-reaching intentions can be read into the work of art itself. A second low in The Books of Groningen is Gunnar Daan’s landmark. This Dutch architect also designed an open book, in his case based on proportion, rhythm and structures, the elements architecture is left with when space and function are lost. As demonstrated by the explanatory notes with his design, he found it very difficult to deal with the freedom granted in the assignment. Perhaps other designers would have brought more conviction to the job. Indeed, Daan steals his own thunder, when he writes: But will I find the courage, and do I have the right to design a construction which is a poem, costs almost 100,000guilders and will be there forever ? The third designer who was inspired by a book is the Japanese philosopher-economist Akira Asada. In his design, he makes use of electronic data systems to provide information on, for example, economics, the universe and the city of Groningen.

William Forsythes landmark, on the other hand, a row of bent trees anchored in a ditch, is characterised by sobriety, whereas with Heiner Muller, who makes use of texts and sound, the highlight is on drama, in a design dedicated to his friend, the late composer Luigi Nono, who had earlier been invited to realise a landmark for this location. The electricity pylon with flames by Kurt W. Forster, symbolizing the energy of the regions gas resources, is almost banal in its legability, a characteristic it shares with the design of the architect John Hejduk's tower showing the letters of the word Groningen. However, Hejduk’s design is more than an ‘advertising column’. His other tower — of cards — and the column of the Joker incorporate a numerology. The tower has four sides, with thirteen cards on each of them, which together give the number 52, the number of weeks in a year. The numbers on all the cards of the tower add up to 364, to which the Joker (the devil ?) is added, jointly forming a reference to the number of days in a year. The tower is an immovably fixed timepiece. The card game is a pastime in a fixed position. Fixed in our vehicle we will pass the time (tower), wrote Hejduk, in the explanation to his work incorporated in the practical and magnificently designed publication on The Books of Groningen.

The most interesting contribution to this project is undoubtedly that by Paul Virilio. In his article in the publication, he enters into the increasingly overwhelming influence of electronics on the life of every human being, and on city life as well. Electronics brings the world into our homes and enables us more and more to manipulate the world from our homes. Virilio sees the invalid as a good frame of reference for what he calls ‘the inert human' of the future. The ‘inert human’ is housebound, but is at the same time connected to the whole world due to the intensity and perception of worldwide floods of information, which will strongly influence his direct living environment and world of experience. The meaning of space and time will change completely. Virilio’s landmark, placed on the Martinikerkhof in the middle of the city, consists of a marble well, covered by a metal plate. With this ‘hole in the globe', does Virilio allude to an absolute zero ? A resting point in modern life?

The Books of Groningen has a high entertainment value. It is based on a well-balanced concept in which a certain degree of mysteriousness, typical of Libeskinds master plan, is coupled with the more concrete elaboration of each of the different landmarks individually. Admittedly, the publication The Books of Groningen tells us some more about the objectives of the project and Libeskinds work, particularly Paul Hefting s contribution. But none of the authors ties in with Libeskinds own explanatory article in any substantial way. It is therefore remarkable that Libeskinds text was the only one of the range of articles included in the publication which was not translated into Dutch.

translation Olivier & Wylie