Antwerp square 1aa

In my last post I mourned the destruction in Brussels of a neighbourhood of working class conviviality and the suffocation by the tall buildings of rapacious international finance of a green sanctuary in the city.  In this one I want to celebrate that most civilizing element of urban life – the city square.

I arrived in Antwerp with no particular preconceptions.  But what I hadn’t expected was to fall in love with a city that – in the warm sunshine of a Sunday during the heatwave that spread across Europe this July – felt relaxed and easeful as people strolled and cycled through its streets and squares.

We had come primarily for the art so, from the stunning railway station, we first made our way to the Rubens House. Walking down Meir, the pedestrianised main shopping street, I experienced a curious sensation of being back in Liverpool, walking along Church Street and Lord Street.  The street angled in the same way, and there was the same mix of older buildings with ones erected after the Second World War to replace those damaged or destroyed in the war. (In a period of of nine months in 1944, night and day, seven days a week, V1 or V2 missiles struck Antwerp every twenty minutes or so – echoing the destruction brought to Liverpool during the blitz of 1940-41).

As we wended our way through the town – from the Rubens House to the waterfront, and back to the Rockox House – I began to appreciate the importance of town squares, small ones especially, for creating a sense of urban well-being.  For Antwerp is full of these little squares; in the late afternoon we ended up in Vrijdagmarkt, having just discovered on one side of the small square the wonderful house of Christoffel Plantijn the printer, contemporary of Rubens the painter and Nicolaas Rockox, humanist, alderman and art collector.

Vrijdagmarkt (top) is a 16th century square, created in 1547 as a market for the sellers of second-hand clothes.  The square was named Vrijdagmarkt (Friday market) since that was the day when the stallholders sold their wares. At the time, buying and selling used clothes was common; even the clothes of Pieter Paul Rubens were auctioned here after his death.

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Much of the Vrijdagmarkt was destroyed in 1945 after a German V1 bomb hit the square. But, after the war it was restored in its original condition and today, after more than four centuries, a second-hand market is still held every Friday morning.

At one of the bars that inhabit the square I sat over a Chimay watching the life of the square unfold: the barman in his apron attending the outdoor tables, locals of all ages cycling leisurely through the square, strollers greeting their neighbours or stopping to sit with beer and chat in the Sunday scene.  This must be what life is made for.

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Groenplaats, where we later had an evening meal, is a much larger space, one of Antwerp’s most prominent squares, with a statue of Rubens at its centre. Today Groenplaats is lined mainly by cafés and restaurants, popular with both tourists and locals.  But its use and appearance has changed over time. Until the 18th century, the Groenplaats was Antwerp’s main cemetery. But cemeteries were abolished inside the city walls, it was converted into a square.

In the 1990s, moves began to improve the square’s appearance: an underground car park replaced an ugly multi-storey one, and a derelict 1920 building which had once housed a large department store was renovated to become a Hilton Hotel.  Today, the square is vibrant and full of life, a place where ordinary folk mingle with the tourists ambling through on their way to the the Cathedral, which borders the Groenplaats to the north.

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Outside the Cathedral, in brilliant afternoon sun, passers-by stopped to listen to a string quartet play.

Cathedral 1
Outside the Cathedral
Cathedral 2
Outside the Cathedral

Here the Cathedral faces a small, triangular cobbled square lined with 17th century merchants’ houses.  At street level there are cafes, market stall and small shops.

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The small square in front of the Cathedral

Along the outside wall of the Cathedral I noticed this monument to the 14th century stone masons who built the cathedral.

Monument to the tower builders
Monument to the Cathedral builders

Around the corner is the Grote Markt, Antwerp’s main city square dominated by the magnificent 16th century town hall and lined with beautiful 16th century Guild houses, lavishly decorated and gold encrusted.

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Grote Markt: Antwerp Town Hall
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Grote Markt: Guild houses

We went down to the river Scheldt, where the story had, apparently, been the same as that of Liverpool: a city that turned away from its river in the 1950s and 1960s, but where, more recently, the river front has been opened up and become an attractive place to stroll and sit and watch the world go by.

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On the waterfront
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On the waterfront

Wandering through Antwerp’s squares and pedestrianised spaces, confirmed in my mind that attractive, well-designed urban squares encourage people to congregate, mingle and linger.  As Ken Worpole and Katharine Knox put it their report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Social Value of Public Spaces:

Public spaces offer many benefits: the ‘feel-good’ buzz from being part of a busy street scene; the therapeutic benefits of quiet time spent on a park bench; places where people can display their culture and identities and learn awareness of diversity and difference; opportunities for children and young people to meet, play or simply ‘hang out’.  All have important benefits and help to create local attachments, which are at the heart of a sense of community. The success of a particular public space is not solely in the hands of the architect, urban designer or town planner; it relies also on people adopting, using and managing the space – people make places, more than places make people.

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Cafe Pelikaan on the Melkmarkt

‘People make spaces’.  While we were in Belgium, events in a square in Istanbul dominated the news. Police had used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a crowd that gathered in Taksim Square to protest against its redevelopment as a shopping precinct. The project has been approved by the city and the government, but locals are concerned that one of the few central places where people could congregate outdoors was being given over to yet more shops, and ridding the square of the trees under whose branches they had enjoyed the shade.

In an essay for, Cities belong to us, Leo Hollis writes that:

Henri Lefebvre, the French Marxist philosopher, observed in the late 1960s that there are no neutral places in the city; that the different threads of power find their way into every crack of the metropolis, constructing a cartography of exclusions and barriers. … For Lefebvre, the city was both the problem and the solution to the quandaries of our everyday lives. Within this political perspective, the people have a common right to utilise city space without restriction. Lefebvre argues that viewing those spaces as the theatre for everyday life changes our sense of belonging: being part of the city is no longer determined by ownership or wealth, but by participation. In consequence, our actions change and refine the city. […]

Hollis observes that geographer David Harvey, in his book Rebel Cities (2012), argues that the creation of common spaces within the city – public areas where we can congregate without fear, or without the constant demands of the market – is stalling: ‘Enclosed places free of CCTV, private security, Starbucks, gates, or regulations are becoming increasingly rare. The privatisation of public space is proliferating and is often too subtle to notice’.  Hollis continues:

We have lost many of the public spaces of the city without knowing it. As the journalist Anna Minton notes in Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st-century City (2009), the ‘urban renaissance’ of many city centres has resulted in regenerated zones ‘designed purely with shopping and leisure in mind’. These new ‘malls without walls’ are in the hands of private owners who want maximum returns on their investment and, as a result, extinguish much that makes the city human. There are few places left in the city where you can sit down without first having to buy a coffee.

A picnic is held on the streets in the centre of Brussels to 'reclaim the streets and the public place', 9th June 2013. Photo by Kevin Van den Panhuyzen,Demotix
Picnic outside Brussels Stock Exchange to ‘reclaim the streets and public places’, 9 June. Photo: Demotix

Leo Hollis’s essay is illustrated with this photo of a demonstration in Brussels in June this year to ‘reclaim the streets and public places’: the Brussels which I found so soul-less when we visited.  But what of my own home town Liverpool?  The city has many fine buildings, but few public squares and spaces that really work, as in Antwerp.

Some of Liverpool’s ‘squares’ (as in Bloomsbury) originated as private, residential squares and gardens for the wealthy mercantile class: elegant squares in the Georgian quarter, such as Abercromby and Falkner squares.  These are not squares in the sense of an urban community spaces, open to a variety of uses.

In the centre of town, Liverpool has old city squares such as Williamson Square, Queen Square, Derby Square, and Exchange Flags, as well as new spaces, such as Concert Square intended to be a symbol of the city centre’s regeneration.  But none of these really flourish in the way that Antwerp’s squares do. Concert Square, planned as a European-style piazza with a variety of uses – somewhere where people could mix during the day and a high quality night-time destination – soon deteriorated, known simply for bars making cheap drinks offers, and the resultant drunkenness and disturbances.

There are plans to implement a new vision for the square to attract families back during the day time and vary the crowd in the evenings.  But Concert Square is a new creation; it has no past, no tradition of communality like Antwerp’s Vrijdagmarkt.  Maybe that can evolve, but it will surely take time.

The architectural historian Gavin Stamp wrote in 2007, ‘It’s difficult not to conclude that, in its relentless post-war economic decline, Liverpool became consumed by a hatred of its own past’. Arriving in the city as a student in the sixties, I caught glimpses of disappearing cobbled streets and squares like those in Antwerp that had been dedicated to trades long since died out (like the Old Haymarket being swallowed up by the St Johns Precinct development).  In Antwerp I bought an ambrosial frozen yoghurt from one of those Moochie places that we ought to have here; it was on Eiermarkt, a now-pedestrianised thoroughfare that was once the egg market. Just around the corner was the linen market (Lijnwaadmarkt) and the milk market (Melkmarkt).

In my time in Liverpool, the only square that came close to behaving like a square was Williamson Square. This YouTube video recalls the square as a vibrant place with lots going on and as ‘a place where you could sit and watch the world go by’.

But the soul of Williamson square was destroyed, first by the construction of an elevated walkway along the north side, then – after the walkway was demolished in the 90s – by unsympathetic new buildings.  Today, as a Seven Streets post on Williamson Square puts it:

Look out from the space-age drum of the Playhouse bar and you see a square with a severe personality disorder. Bookies, jobcentre, fenced off bin store, part-time fountains and sorry-looking street traders. We thought rule #1 of geometry was that a square should have four equal sides. Not here. No two elevations are even close to approaching symmetry.

But it wasn’t always like this. Until 1965, the north side of the square was home to the Theatre Royal – its elegant Queen Anne-style facade complementing the stucco of the Playhouse (pic top r). Now it’s the monstrous New Look and LFC store. Who thought this building would complement the square? And can we have their address, please? […]

City squares still have a major role to play as decompression zones: places where the city can pause, relax and socialise. A place where all paths merge, where office workers, lunching ladies and map-wielding tourists collide at coffee shops, pavement cafes or cultural centres.  Most city squares started life as market places, surrounded by grand civic buildings. An at-a-glance status report of a city’s wealth and ambition. It’s a job our cities usually leave to John Lewis these days.

But, as I observed in a post earlier this year, rather than preserving or developing communal spaces in our towns and cities, we are witnessing a creeping privatisation of public space. As in the Liverpool One development, streets and open spaces are being defined as private land after redevelopment.  These are the new privatised public spaces in towns and cities across Britain.

It could be so different.  As the Project for Public Spaces put it in a report in 2009:

Civic spaces are an extension of the community. When they work well, they serve as a stage for our public lives. If they function in their true civic role, they can be the settings where celebrations are held, where exchanges both social and economic take place, where friends run into each other, and where cultures mix. They are the “front porches” of our public institutions – post offices, courthouses, federal office buildings – where we can interact with each other and with government.

That was what I found in Antwerp, and it impelled me to return – soon.

3 thoughts on “Antwerp: city of squares

  1. There was a fascinating discussion relating to these ideas on The Forum (BBC World Service) this week, bemoaning how over-determined much of our city space has become “…should we be more aware of the space we live in? Where does private space end, and what is it that makes a space public? One of the world’s leading art critics TJ Clark explains why Picasso’s use of space is the key to understanding his paintings. The Dutch sociologist and globalisation expert Saskia Sassen speaks in favour of empty spaces – indeterminate areas of a city which people can make their own and populate with their own history. And philosopher of space Stephan Günzel argues that human are spatial beings above all else, and that an awareness of space is crucial to learn who and what we are.”

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