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Groningen's new cultural Forum is a place that makes you want to stay

Words:
Isabelle Priest

The city, emerging from a period blighted by man-made earthquakes, wants more permanent residents. The Forum by NL Architects will help attract them

The new Forum sails into the city past the Martinikerk tower. It replaces a huddle of post-war building, including a multi-storey car park.
The new Forum sails into the city past the Martinikerk tower. It replaces a huddle of post-war building, including a multi-storey car park. Credit: NL Architects/ Deon Prins

I’d be lying if I said the architects and journalists I spoke to thought it would be worthwhile visiting Groningen’s new Forum. The rendered drawings didn’t look particularly sophisticated. The building seemed to have taken over a vital public space in the city centre. It looked oversized, cumbersome, far taller than those around for no reason.  

But I know architects who live there and I knew the project was a big deal for the city and the Netherlands, with a lot of history already. In 2011 construction was halted for a year and a half to re-evaluate the structure in the face of earthquakes plaguing the area, caused by decades of drilling ‘Dutch gold’ from the gas fields 20km away. The Forum has been a long time coming amid frustrated processes and changes of heart by local authorities and residents.

The competition for a new cultural centre was launched in 2006 and finalised in February 2007, which partially explains the quality of the drawings. But its origins date back to the millennium and aborted plans for a high-speed rail linking Amsterdam-Groningen-Hamburg, which would have halved the 127 minute journey to the Dutch capital and better connected the city to the rest of the country, isolated as it is in the less prosperous north-east. As compensation the council was awarded €35m to spend on something else.

‘The city had a good experience with the Groninger Museum,’ explains the Forum’s director Dirk Nijdam. ‘It was also a historical spot, a cosy area. But there was a period when people said we needed to move the city on. We are in a province, we are quite far from Amsterdam so when we have a flag, we should wave it a bit higher to be seen from the rest of the Netherlands. The museum became a big candy bar. It attracted people from all over the world. Everybody noticed the traffic changed and that area became really connected. The image of Groningen also improved. People had tasted what a building could do. They wanted more and to do it again.’

  • Looking up and down the atrium to the escalators and bridges that encourage a slow route of exploration through the many different attractions of the building.
    Looking up and down the atrium to the escalators and bridges that encourage a slow route of exploration through the many different attractions of the building. Credit: NL Architects
  • Looking up and down the atrium to the escalators and bridges that encourage a slow route of exploration through the many different attractions of the building.
    Looking up and down the atrium to the escalators and bridges that encourage a slow route of exploration through the many different attractions of the building. Credit: NL Architects
  • The thriller section of the library has a gentleman's club feel, with a pool table that was added for the opening.
    The thriller section of the library has a gentleman's club feel, with a pool table that was added for the opening. Credit: NL Architects
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Completed in 1994, the museum is a colour-saturated po-mo explosion with elements by Philippe Starck, Alessandro Mendini and Coop Himmelb(l)au linked in a tumbling fashion next to the train station. This time, however, the brief was not only to attract visitors but make people want to live in Groningen long term. Nearly one in four residents are students but few people stay longer than five years. The Forum was conceived as an all-in-one cultural centre that would provide a new home for the library and city archive and include an exhibition hall, art-house cinema, auditorium, café, restaurant and an element of local history as requested by locals during consultations. ‘You should be able to start with a coffee in the morning and end with a cocktail at night,’ says Nijdam.

The council invited many architects to participate in the project competition and shortlisted seven. Six were established firms – Zaha Hadid Architects, Foreign Office, Wiel Arets, Erick van Egeraat, UNStudio and Neutelings Riedijk who recently completed the Naturalis museum in Leiden – and one young firm ‘to give it a chance’: NL Architects. ‘At this point,’ explains NL Architects architect Pieter Bannenberg, ‘we had mainly only done interiors and small buildings.’ But the four juries – professional, citizens, schoolchildren and international – agreed it should win. 

As a practice it had grown accustomed to intensifying briefs (for example, adding a basketball court on top of a grand café for a university). But with so much in the programme already, that was not necessary. Instead, NL’s idea was to treat all the separate organisations and functions as one so they could gain value by acting and working together. It grouped everything into a massive maximum-height block, ignoring the brief’s suggestion that the building should be in two parts. The sloping pyramid sides deal with the average 33m height requirement. In the original drawings it looks as though the building has been dumped on an existing square, but NL Architects’ proposal actually creates three: a new one out the front, another on the ground floor and one on the roof (in the architects’ eyes each level in the atrium is a public square too). 

Extraordinary amounts of steel were used to make the structure earthquake safe and now the building is complete, 13 years after it began, it is remarkably similar to those rendered drawings – only crisper and more exciting.

Like a great lump of greying Old Amsterdam cheese with chunks shaved off, the Forum is on a scale only comparable to a cruise liner steaming its way down the Canale della Giudecca in Venice. Cutaway angles bring light to the square and cause the building to lean and twist dramatically over the entrance to the 380-space underground car park and taper elegantly towards the top. Placed towards the back of the Nieuwe Markt square, the building creates narrow streets on two sides and slopes away from the square like a volcano. It’s a solid rock, clad in German Wachenzeller Dolomit limestone, with a huge glass crack down the middle for the atrium and punctured horizontal window holes.

‘We would always suggest a modern building,’ says Bannenberg. ‘By size it is very present, but we wanted it to fit into the city, not be white like a spaceship from somewhere else. We wanted it to blend in materially with other buildings – the details of the City Hall and spire of the Martinikerk. The original option was sandstone, but it was decided that the dust is too unhealthy. This is tougher, the holes give it texture and it changes in the rain. We were pleased it [the stone] was also from quite nearby.’

The interior is a kaleidoscope of images and references

  • The rather swish 380-space €43 million car park below the building. The artwork is by Nicky Assmann.
    The rather swish 380-space €43 million car park below the building. The artwork is by Nicky Assmann. Credit: NL Architects&ABT /Marcel van der Burg
  • The conference facilities and auditorium have their own timber spiral stair located next to the café on the ground floor.
    The conference facilities and auditorium have their own timber spiral stair located next to the café on the ground floor. Credit: NL Architects&ABT /Marcel van der Burg
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Inside, the stone and apparently small windows evaporate into a bright white nine-storey atrium criss-crossed by a maze of randomly flying Harry Potteresque escalators. The many programmes are concentrated in blocks either side of this atrium, opening out to it at the escalator landing points and occupying as many storeys as required – the cinema three, the exhibition halls two. A kiosk with free newspapers and magazines and the tourist office are on the ground floor and at the top the restaurant benefits from the views and the full breadth roof terrace. There’s a sunken open-air stepped auditorium up on the tenth floor, protected from the winds, but otherwise the building is divided to stimulate chance and discovery (take the lift if you are in a hurry). The fiction library is several floors below reference books because it is more popular, and a cantilevered gaming terrace projects from the first floor by the youth library. There’s a giant net for teenagers to sprawl and bounce on, above spaces for younger children. As you move up the building, levels are split and escalators skip floors, so you can more easily see activities across the void. All the while, the views through the glazing north and south are changing your perspective of Groningen itself. The Forum is only 45m tall, but because the city is so low, you feel like you are on top of London’s Shard.

Designed with deMunnik-deJong-Steinhauser and &Prast&Hooft, the interior is a kaleidoscope of images and references, clearly conceived by a generation of architects used to having an infinity of images at their fingertips. That atrium from Meccanoo’s Birmingham Library. The fiction library, filled with refurbished furniture, a 1950s version of an 18th century Enlightenment gallery complete with cabinets of curiosity. The thriller section like an English gentleman’s club, including the pool table. The art-house cinema with its deep pile pink carpets, fabric walls, brown-tinted mirrors and velvet curtains recreating the 1930s glamour of going to the movies. The rousing concrete stair void and sloping angles of the walls and doors to the exhibition hall are a version of the subterranean entrance to the reading rooms of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Every area has a different atmosphere. The building is a cross between every latest (often Nordic) mixed cultural centre and the pop of OMA’s Casa de Musica. The youth library is lined in calming wood, with a crazy double intertwining spiralling stair.

 

The Forum is a major new building soaring above the Groningen skyline with as much hope and promise for citizens as the towers of the previous centuries.
The Forum is a major new building soaring above the Groningen skyline with as much hope and promise for citizens as the towers of the previous centuries. Credit: NL Architects/ Deon Prins

What sets the Forum apart, though, is what Nijdam changed when he took over in 2011 to get the project through the difficulties of the recession, the earthquake proofing and public despondency. He injected a burst of energy into the programme, removed the archive arguing it was ‘not a city centre activity’, downgraded the local history element and rebranded the building towards popular culture, politics and technology. He wanted video art, photography, the new world of images and for it to be a forum of information, answers and inspiration. The building does all it needs to at street level, creating space for leisure and community, even realigning the buildings along the neighbouring Grote Markt to deprioritise cars, but inside it is a solar system of things designed to prepare Groningen’s citizens for 21st century life in an unpatronising, self-guided way. There are free-to-play green screens and VR headsets casually attached to lounge chairs in the cinema bar. The 250-seat auditorium includes a 360˚ experience system called WatchOut while the Storyworld gallery is all about comic books and the video gaming industry. You can experience 3D printing and there is a wall-sized interactive book. The first show in the exhibition hall is about artificial intelligence, a collaboration with London’s Barbican. At another lounge chair  you can tap a historical date into a screen and draw up the news on that day as well as photographs of how Groningen looked. You can attend courses on the latest skills. The building is open 365 days a year, from 9am until 1am.

‘Technology often leaves people behind,’ says Nijdam. ‘We want to close the gap, help people embrace and understand it.’ The Forum is coup for the city. Architecturally it’s exhilarating. Socially, I have no doubt people will stay to live here because of it. Perhaps the Amsterdam-Groningen journey will soon be more about commuting in the opposite direction.


IN NUMBERS 
€101m

Forum construction cost
17,000m2
gifa cultural centre
10,000m2
underground parking 
€275m
total regeneration cost including buildings on new square
€70m
total earthquake strengthening cost

Credits

Architect NL Architects with ABT Engineering
Client Municipality of Groningen
Delegated client TwynstraGudde
Structural and geotechnical engineer ABT
Interior design NL Architects, deMunnik-deJong-Steinhauser, &Prast&Hooft, Tank, Northern Light
Technical installations Huisman en van Muijen
Acoustics Peutz
Seismic engineering ABT, BORG and BAM Advies & Engineering
Contractor BAM

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