The Building

Sand-coloured bricks, yellow plasterwork and turquoise details

Utrecht is dotted with special buildings, which you bike past regularly but know very little about. Take Joke Smitplein, a cosy, semi-circular residential close built between Maliesingel and Schoolstraat in the 1980s.

My mother (1942-2020), who was a graphic designer, often pointed out snappy logos, nice posters, or particularly attractive lettering. We regularly visited museums to see visual art, preferably modern. She was less interested in architecture, but there was one big exception: Joke Smitplein.

This residential close nestling between Maliesingel and Schoolstraat was completed in 1986. It was built on the site of an old technical college. There’s lots of green space and the buildings feature sand-coloured bricks, embellished with yellow plasterwork and turquoise details. The lines of the buildings are also nicely varied: some square walls are simply straight with vertical windows in the stairwells, while others are semi-circular with horizontal details. Some of the balconies are recessed into the façade, while others hang against the façade like fenced-in baskets.

Although this cosy residential close on a pretty square must be a great place to live, it’s not exactly ‘prestigious architecture’. Looking back, I think it was the street name that won my mother’s undying approval: Joke Smit (1933-1981), the woman who campaigned for radical sex equality in the 1960s. the woman who single-handedly jump-started the second feminist movement with an essay entitled Het onbehagen bij de vrouw and wrote books with titles such as Hé zus, ze houen ons eronder and De moeder van Marie kan meer. Her feminist literature inspired a generation, including my mother who enrolled at the Graphic Design College in 1983.

Joke Smitplein was home to subsidised owner-occupied housing and rented social housing, and in those days was the epitome of the current empty political creed ‘a town for everyone’. The original residents were the ones who suggested the name of the Utrecht-born feminist. Despite the fact that the street name committee advised against this choice, the Municipal Executive gave the go-ahead. Last August, a memorial stone was also dedicated to Joke Smit. The plaque was made by the sculptor Britt Nelemans. The poet Anne Broeksma, who also lives in the close, wrote an ode and at the unveiling, two local residents sung the Joke Smit song. The first line translates as ‘There’s a country where women want to live’, and the last lines are: ‘Where being young doesn’t mean being ignored. Where respect is shown to those who are vulnerable. Where foreigners are no longer belittled. Where nobody tolerates violence. Where everyone comforts those in need. This is the country where people want to live. The country that celebrates unity.’

Perhaps we could play this quietly in our exclusive city during the forthcoming elections?



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