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March 24, 2020

Re-imagining required

Town and city centres throughout the land have one thing in common. They are all struggling to find a new economic model that doesn’t depend on an addiction to shopping. To date the unimaginative response has been generally to throw in a mix of leisure and social activities in the hope that the old shopping habits might eventually re-emerge. Perhaps the answer is simply to accept that these changes in habit are irrevocable and completely reimagine city centres as citizen hubs for the post-consumer age. It’s what they’re doing in Gronigen.

The Forum complex in the Dutch city Groningen is trying to show that town centres don’t need to sell to survive

The €101m Forum building is part library, part meeting space, part science museum and part recreational hangout.

Four-year-old Joris Niekus hops excitedly in front of a wall-sized flatscreen as his dad loads up an interactive version of Roald Dahl’s BFG (known as GVR in Dutch).

Seconds later, face beaming, his digitised silhouette is bopping across the screen together with Dahl’s gangly giant.

It’s just one of many experiences on offer at a new downtown development in the Dutch city of Groningen that is seeking to reinvent urban hubs for the post-consumer age.

The €101m, trapezoid Forum building is part library, part meeting space, part science museum and part recreational hangout – a 10-storey “multi-space” designed to resonate with citizens who know that shopping is not necessarily the answer. It’s a new-look department store that doesn’t actually sell very much.

But with high streets feeling the pinch across the developed world, with shops shuttered and town centres wondering what they are for any more, the Groningen experiment is being closely watched.

Nowhere is that truer than in the UK, where more than 16,000 retail stores closed last year at the cost of more than 143,000 jobs. The picture in the US is similar, with more than 9,300 shops going to the wall in 2019 as shoppers increasingly move online.

In Europe, city centres are being emptied of life as skyrocketing rental costs push low-income residents out to the peripheries. In cities such as Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Luxembourg, for instance, 80% of citizens say affordable housing is hard to find.

It’s early days, but the Forum certainly feels like it is working. More than 700,000 people – three times the city’s total population – have visited the library since it opened late last year. So, what’s the big draw?

There are books galore (92,000 in total), but they are for rent, not sale, distributed liberally across multiple mezzanine floors with a joyous disregard for Dewey decimal discipline. Geography on one floor, history on another, mathematics … somewhere, presumably.

For the non-bookish, there’s plenty besides: a six-screen cinema, two exhibition halls, a couple of cafes, a museum (about comics, no less), a 250-seater auditorium, and a hip (but not overly hip) top-floor restaurant and bar. Oh, plus a rooftop “market square” with panoramic views over the whole of Groningen.

“Every day when I pick him up from school, he asks to come to the Forum. He just finds it so much fun,” says Joris’s dad, Marcel, an archaeologist, who cuts his working day short every Tuesday to accommodate his son’s request.

The comment is music to the ears of Dirk Nijdam, the Forum’s director, who readily admits that lending out books has never been his priority. Instead, what’s driven his thinking since he took on the project six years ago is the idea of creating a space where anyone and everyone can wander in, kick back and collectively feel at home.

“If people walk in and say, ‘Wow, Groningen has got a new library’, then we’ll have failed,” he says. “If you want to come in and just hang out, you should feel just as welcome as if you’re going to an exhibition or taking out a book.”

This notion of “hanging out” gets to the real function of Groningen’s artful new creation: namely, helping fellow citizens mix and mingle and – who knows? – perhaps even taste that nebulous yet ever-necessary thing called “community”.

It’s a mission born, in part, out of Groningen’s struggling city centre. The hope is that the Forum will revitalise the main market square, which, after the German occupation during the second world war was home to a dingy car park for decades.

At the same time, the project marks a bold riposte to the effects of modern-day capitalist society: first, in its promotion of an individualistic society; and second, in its commercialisation of public space (ie with malls and coffee bars gradually replacing libraries and community centres).

The Forum is a splendid example of form following function. Clean and contemporary, the final design shouts anything but library. Hotel lobby, perhaps? Department store, even? From the luminous circular information desk, to the free-floating elevators, to the immense, cathedral-esque atrium. It’s all quite discombobulating and really rather marvellous.

Once through the door, the challenge is to make people stay. It’s all about “the experience”, says Nijdam, borrowing from big retail’s mantra de jour. So no security beefs on the door, no blaring Tannoy announcements, no endless queuing. Instead, it’s all soft furnishings, mood lighting and make-yourself-at-home courtesy.

Signposts are also kept to a minimum. Exploration, not explanation, is the building’s guiding motif, says Kamiel Klaasse co-founder of NL Architects, an upstart Amsterdam-based firm that beat off an all-star list (including the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid) to win the design contract way back in 2006.

“The brief talked as much about searching as about finding and we interpreted that as an incentive to let people roam,” Klaasse says.

Community connector

The Groningen resident and social activist Ritzo ten Cate is an early cheerleader for the project. Describing the Forum as “one big welcome gesture to us as citizens”, he points to the diversity of the building’s users as proof of its communitarian qualities.

The evidence seems solid. On any given day, you’ll find students working at their laptops, mums with their toddlers, school kids on assignment and grannies reading newspapers. All of them together, under one roof, seemingly as one.

Nor is it just Groningen’s well-heeled citizens who make use of the space. On his many visits, Ten Cate regularly spots friends from the city’s homeless community. Some come to read or use the free internet, while others are after a warm corner to kill time or take a nap.

“The Forum only opened a few months ago, but it’s already doing its job as a connector,” says Ten Cate, who has plans to run a large-scale hackathon there in June.

But as much as the Forum brings people together, is it serving to create community?

For Paul de Rook, an alderman on Groningen city council, it’s a crucial question. More than just shared physical space, genuine community is about a shared understanding of one another, he argues. “That’s why it’s really valuable to create spaces where people … can see what is going on in other people’s lives.”

In a nod to this reality, the Forum seeks to orient all its cultural activities around a common thread. Whether it’s the current exhibition on artificial intelligence (recently on show at the Barbican in London) or Spike Jonze’s futuristic film Her at the cinema, everyone is collectively inching towards the same page (“optimism about the future”, in the Forum’s case).

Dr Ward Rauws admires the sentiment but harbours doubts. An assistant professor of spatial planning at the University of Groningen, he notes that the core building blocks of community – social capital, civic culture, place identity and so forth – start first at a street-by-street level and expand out from there.

Even so, he remains a big fan of Groningen’s Forum because of its role in helping foster “familiarity”. Echoing De Rook, he defines the term as a state of awareness that “other kinds of citizens exist who might think differently or look different, but who are part of the same community”. It’s a salient point for a university town such as Groningen, where town-gown tensions are a feature of daily life.

Groningen’s audacious experiment in urban planning isn’t without its detractors, most of whom gripe about the final price-tag. Joris’s mum is in that camp. Her son begs to differ. Done with the BFG, he’s now playing a spelling game on one of the library’s iPads. His dad watches on patiently, albeit with half an eye on the upstairs cafe. “Afterwards,” he whispers, “we go for cake.”