The Building

The Building: Final edition!

Utrecht is dotted with special buildings, which you bike past regularly but know very little about. In this edition, architectural historian Martine Bakker bids farewell to her column Het Gebouw and the city she’s lived in for 44 years.

Utrecht smells of coffee, Rotterdam smells sweet. Having said this, the sweet smell probably comes from the petrochemical industry at Pernis… The fact that I like it might have something to do with my budding love for the city I’ve just moved to. I felt the same about Utrecht in 1982. I’d just started high school and I skipped Christian Religion classes to explore the city centre instead. Every week, I used the time slots of just under an hour to wander around and gape at the traditional bars, dingy coffee shops, squats, alleyways and tiny squares.

I’d been living with my mother, my sister and the cat Druppie on the Thomas á Kempisplantsoen estate for just two years at that point. Everything had been very different before that, when I’d been living with my father on Vlieland and Sint Maarten. Our estate was next to the Douwe Egberts factory. They organised open days for local residents and we were given free coffee, even though we lived right under the tall chimneys and weren’t really bothered by the factory. To me, the hustle and bustle, and the smell, were fascinating.

It’s still an archetypal factory: a cluster of large and small, old and new production halls, with tubes and pipes running along the outside, and a white plume of smoke coming from the chimney. The factory didn’t just mark my home, but represented home to all Utrecht residents. You drove in over the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal bridge, past an advertising board showing a neat 3D DE coffee cup. I took the advertising slogan ‘Je bent thuis… waar je Douwe Egberts drinkt’ (You’re home… where you drink Douwe Egberts coffee) very literally and felt a coffee bond with my fellow-locals.

Later on, we moved to Sint Janshovenstraat. There too, we overlooked an iconic building: the Wolvenplein prison. Barred windows peeped out above the walls surrounding the complex and there was a strip of grass between the wall and the canal, where nobody ever went. An intriguing phenomenon in the city centre. Relatives of prisoners sometimes shouted to detainees from ‘our’ side of the canal, and you could hear a barrage of banging from behind the walls at New Year. It sounded like iron hitting iron.

Utrecht is dotted with special buildings, which you bike past regularly but know very little about, because part of any city is ultra-personal. Seen from this perspective, there are almost 400,000 ‘Utrechts’: the city represents something different for every one of its population. As an architectural historian, I think that architects could pay more attention to the narrative of a city. In Rotterdam, I live on the Noordereiland, between three iconic bridges, and a new narrative is being born. Finally, it’s been a privilege to share my Utrecht stories through UITagenda.

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