A trip to the periphery…

Last Saturday I invited my MVRDV colleagues to come over to Sas van Gent and reflect on the region and my analysis so far. I had a special reason to invite them: thanks to their international background my colleagues could help me to see the situation in a broader perspective than the typical Dutch of Flemish point of view.…

Periphery?

Before inviting I had to make clear why it’s interesting to visit an relatively peripheral area like Zeeuws Vlaanderen. Since researchers discovered that the majority of people around the world live in cities, the focus of many architectural firms and schools has been on developing cities as new habitat for the masses. MVRDV’s ‘excursions on density’ in FARMAX and research on 3-dimensional planning in KM3 seem to be miles away from analyzing shrinking communities in the periphery…

It turned out that it’s not that difficult to see the importance of the periphery. Urbanization is also about the area that people leave, about why some people go and some stay. If you want to learn why people move to cities and what they expect to find there, you should know where they are from and why they left their region.

Next question: why particularly Zeeuws Vlaanderen? –Paradoxically the area is a periphery because of it’s strategic, central location in Europe. -Looking at the map of Europe, you would never expect the area to be a periphery. It is surrounded by thee XL harbors (Rotterdam, Antwerp and Zeebrugge) and it’s own harbor (Terneuzen-Ghent) is big and productive. The logistic connections on European and global level are perfect: close to open sea, connected to a big hinterland by canals, railways and roads. In European perspective the area is anything but periphery. And yet communities are shrinking and national Dutch government doesn’t invest in the region anymore. What happened?

A quick overview of history shows that the area is strategically very important and that there has been a lot of fight to control the region. From the 16th century on, when the ‘Staatsen’ (=the protestant inhabitants of cities in Holland, later ‘the Dutch’) split off from the ‘Spanish’ (the Netherlands and Belgium were controlled by Spanish nobility) and tried to conquer the coastal areas of the Netherlands and Belgium to control trade and economy. One of the final stages of the eighty-years war that followed, turned out to be the Scheldt estuary, near the current ‘Zeeuws Vlaanderen’. The ‘Staatsen’ controlled the coastline (and the important sea route to the harbor of Antwerp), the ‘Spanish’ controlled the south. Finally Zeeuws Vlaanderen got cut off from its connections to the south and became ‘Dutch’. A ‘strategic periphery’ came to existence.

So: yes, the periphery is worth visiting and particularly Zeeuws Vlaanderen is interesting because it current position as periphery, cut off from its surroundings by natural and political borders, is a result of strategic and political fights in the past. Is it stuck in its position as border area between two countries, it needs a Houdini act to escape….

The trip

So: off we went! Last Saturday morning, 15 colleagues and 6 partners left Rotterdam in two busses and a car to the first stop of the tour, the 16th century fortress of Lillo in middle of the Antwerp harbor, Belgium. This fortress (nowadays a very nice, small village surrounded by gigantic cranes, ships and chimneys) was built by the Dutch to protect the city of Antwerp against the Spanish armies (in which they failed). We wandered through narrow streets, had a coffee at the local café and enjoyed the view over the river.

Our next stop was the evacuated village ‘Doel’ at the other bank the the Scheldt. Since inhabitants got forced to leave and make room for future harbor expansion, the houses are empty and the facades got covered by graffiti. Doel turned into an artwork at village scale, a background scenery for activities that wouldn’t take place in inhabited villages.


We crossed the border and the ‘Hedwigepolder’, (subject of heavy debate between Belgian and Dutch governments about whether the area will be ‘ontpolderd’ or not) and enjoyed the view over the drowned land of Saeftinghe.

After a lunch with a view over the broad Scheldt estuary in Terneuzen, we admired the fantastic town hall by Jaap Bakema, by far the best piece of architecture in the region. Then we headed to Sas van Gent, where we paid a visit to a hall where cars for this year’s carnival procession got prepared (see previous post). The collective effort that the people in the hall do to create the most beautiful car of the procession is touching. It is undeniable that the annual festival is very import for Sas van Gent’s social coherence.

(We expect the space ship car to be the winner of this year’s contest…)

Of course we visited the epicenter of the ‘Krot of Kans’ research project as well. While I was explaining what my research is about, I had the quite claustrophobic experience of being in a 1949 single family dwelling with twenty-one people at the same time: the living room was packed with people. Quite funny: my colleagues even started wandering around the neighborhood as if they were tourists visiting an ancient district in Rome. Everything (even a very common and slightly run-down housing district) can be interesting.

After Sas van Gent we crossed the border again and drove to Ghent, where we enjoyed the magnificent Medieval city center and tried to understand the meaning of the Robbrecht & Daems Stadshal design. We had some drinks in the Pink Flamingos bar and returned to Rotterdam late at night.

Broader perspective

It’s hard to define right away what I learned from this trip. Some colleagues pointed out that there are interesting similarities to other regions. An interesting similarity might be Venice, Italy. Unfortunately the region is not as scenic as Venice, one thing that both areas have in common is that they got built by people that were home at sea and had to defend themselves to armies form the land. Both the laguna around Venice and the inundated polders around Terneuzen and Axel were a helpful natural buffer against armies from the mainland.  The major difference is that Venice in the end united with the surrounding land and Zeeuws Vlaanderen didn’t. I wonder how the area would look like if it would have become part of Belgium….

Another eye opener was a comparison to Basel region (actually a region that MVRDV currently works on) Here three countries (Switzerland, France, Germany) meet and the cultural (and institutional) differences both slow down and speed up developments. In the Basel region many people live in Germany, work in Switzerland and shop in France. Despite cultural differences, living in a border area brings a lot of advantages. As a Dutchman I always regarded the presence of the border south to Zeeuws VLaanderen as the end of the world. The presence of so many cultural, institutional and economical differences might be one of the biggest qualities of the area. Enjoy your borders!

Last but not least I was surprised by the effect that Bakema’s town hall in Terneuzen had. I am so used to the image (and the criticism of local people) that I tend to forget how important strong, iconic building are to communicate to a national (or even global) audience. Besides this (now somewhat outdated) town hall there is no such iconic sign that communicates the area’s unique identity. This might be something I could work on…

All together: I had a fantastic day and enjoyed the presence of my colleagues a lot. Next step is composing future scenarios, work on the region’s Houdini act,  put the periphery back on the map again…

(Aerial pictures from google earth, ground images by Elien Deceunick)

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