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Owen Hatherley’s Eurovisionaries: Aachen-Maastricht-Liège

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This ‘Euroregion’ comprises three nearly contiguous cities in three different countries, each architecturally distinct, yet together providing an essential understanding of the affluent European heartland

European Union demographers like their ‘Euroregions’ – conurbations that span across two or more countries; a difficult concept for islanders. One such is the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion, which is focused on three nearly contiguous cities in three different countries: Aachen, in Germany; Maastricht, in the Netherlands; and the largest of the three, Francophone Liège, in Belgium. Each speaks a different language, but all three are on high-speed railway lines, so you can dash between each of them with more ease than crossing from south-west to south-east London, the three cities being around 20 minutes away from each other. As places to understand the affluent European heartland, they’re essential, not least because of their pivotal geographical position – each city has changed hands a fair few times between different states and armies – and for an architectural distinctness that belies their proximity. Also, a rather important treaty was signed here.

Aachen has a claim to being the first pan-European capital, long before Brussels; tellingly, it’s probably better known outside Germany by its French name, Aix-la-Chapelle. This was Charlemagne’s capital, placed at the place where Latin civilisation and its Germanic destroyers met, geographically, and it’s where he commissioned the Palatine Chapel, built between 790 and 814 and the first major piece of architecture to have been built in north-western Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. For centuries after his death, it was here that the Holy Roman Emperor was crowned.

Aachen Charlemagne

Statue of Charlemagne in Aachen

Much as Charlemagne founded Europe as we currently understand it, built around France and Germany (the Mediterranean was much more important for the Romans than these northern borderlands), you could claim that the Palatine Chapel founded ‘European’ architecture, but that would be fanciful. Charlemagne’s Chapel is deeply Eastern, a Byzantine Church that resembles the sort of thing you’d find in Thessaloniki or Kiev rather than Munich or Paris. Only the proportions of this octagonal, domed space and the openings that beam light into the murky space survive from the original building, but its intense atmosphere remains more Greek than German. The gilded mosaics are a Wilhelmine approximation of the originals, based on outlines uncovered after Classical accretions were scraped away, as the German Empire restored the building as part of its claim to becoming the central state of Europe. They’re very pretty, if schematic: one mosaic depicts the original Carolingian structure with the words ‘CIVITAS DEI’: the Teutonic Rome.

If this is an ersatz Istanbul in the Rhineland, later additions are totally northern – the 14th-century choir is an extremely high, polychromatic glass hall, thrusting and pulsating upwards, soaring while the Palatine Chapel glowers moodily. The additive nature of Aachen Cathedral is abrupt even by medieval standards. A Carolingian octagon with a strange faceted, stretched Baroque dome is attached to the most Gothic of choirs; forgettable Renaissance chapels are bolted on at random, all pulled together by a late 19th-century restoration, whose patronage is emphasised in the rose windows, remodelled into the eagle of the Prussian state. There is no space that eases you from one to the other, each era is totally distinct.

Tourists crowd around the cathedral and the Carolingian City Hall, but they don’t go much further, so you can walk into the more straightforward, spired Gothic of St Follian and be the only person there. Presumably all Aachen’s firehoses were trained on the cathedral when the city was carpet-bombed in 1944, as the interior was totally destroyed. The restoration is an attractively non-retro 50s interpretation of the building’s principles, membranes stretched across concrete ribs, and abstract glass inserted into the smashed frames.

‘It was the spectacle of Aachen’s gigantic University Clinic that brought me to my knees

Aachen was almost totally destroyed at the end of the war, and rebuilt mostly with a warm Aalto-like brick vernacular, which extends into the peripheral estates. The suburbs also feature attractive, pompous villas pockmarked by Modernism and Medievalism, and some excellent museums and galleries. One of these is housed in the Ludwig Forum, one of the city’s major Weimar Republic buildings – a long, Mendelsohn-like expressionist umbrella factory, designed in 1928 by local architect Fritz Eller. More dominant is the 1930 Haus Grenzwacht, a mini-skyscraper, whose laconic steel-framed lines are Modernist, but whose tight, stern rhythms and neo-Biedermeier windows point towards the architecture of the Third Reich and to contemporary German Classicists such as Hans Kollhoff. It is impressively scaled for a city of this size, but was at the time a controversial boondoggle, whose frame stood unclad for years. Aside from the cathedral, there are two buildings in Aachen previously noted in the magazines: an overdesigned bus station by Peter Eisenman with splayed legs sheltering drunks and passengers; and the University Clinic.

Aachen university clinic

Aachen University Clinic

This gigantic building, built for the duration of the 1970s to the designs of Weber, Brand & Partners, is a long quasi-industrial structure, housing blaringly colourful Pop Art interiors. The services are exposed, which can lead to easy comparisons to the Pompidou Centre or Lloyd’s. It’s as crazed as the latter and larger than the former, stamping its way across the flat countryside between Aachen and Maastricht. It’s this spectacle, and not the Palatine Chapel, that nearly brought me to my knees. Like the harshest Gothic it seems to have its own life, an organism, hairy, sinewy and wiry, rather than a static monument – a Classicist’s nightmare. The pastoral landscaping outside and the generous social spaces inside make clear it’s not all blare and power, but this is an overpowering architectural experience, and must be a memorable place in which to give birth or have your appendix removed. It shows just how extreme Modernism had become in the early 1970s – a totally new and bracing conception of landscape, space and design.

Maastricht’s Ceramique is a showcase of European architecture after the era of experiments was cancelled

The reaction to that can be seen at something close to its best a short bus ride away in Maastricht. Chosen, clearly, because of its position at the confluence of Germanic and Latin speaking Europe, it was here in 1992 that the Maastricht Treaty was signed, creating the European Union out of the old EEC. Fans of Romanesque churches and over-restored historic cities will find much to enjoy in this geographically puzzling city, a Catholic yet Dutch enclave squeezed in-between Francophones and Germans (it also has the most restrictive pot-smoking laws in the Netherlands, as a counter to stoners from said regions). But there is also an area called the Ceramique, built on the site of a large ceramics factory complex, in connection with the treaty. It is EUtopia. The main square, Plein 1992, is in the tradition of ceremonial plazas far too large for any conceivable function. It features a neat, sober tower block by Alvaro Siza only marginally less Classical than the Aachen Haus Grenwacht, but most of the Ceramique was designed and masterplanned by Jo Coenen. The architecture here is essentially conservative, without any of the aggressive features of, say, Aachen’s University Clinic: the difference encapsulated in the heavy Roman symmetry of Mario Botta’s circus of offices. This is a showcase of European architecture after the era of experiments was cancelled – not just those of Fascism or Stalinism, but also any idea that social democracy could be radical rather than consensual and small-c conservative. All it lacks is enthusiasm.

Plein 1992 with Siza tower  Maastricht

Plein 1992 with tower by Alvaro Siza,  Maastricht

It is telling that the architecture that literally accompanied the founding of the EU is marked by a purging of romanticism. But boredom is sometimes better than vision. On the river Meuse is a long housing complex designed by Luigi Snozzi, monumental and rhythmic: a little bit Prora, a little bit Bologna, a little bit Ludwig Hilberseimer and a little bit Aldo Rossi, an image of austere, sensible European collectivity. A shallow eye would find it authoritarian or dull, not noticing the sane, smart way it opens out towards a well-used riverside park. In fact, Snozzi appears to have been much better at being Aldo Rossi than the man himself, whose Bonnefanten Museum at the end of the enfilade is typically puzzling. Rossi obviously decided at some point to take the weight of Europe on his architectural shoulders, to embody its history in all its complexity rather than efface it, as does the EUtopia of the Plein 1992 – rather than an optimistic wiping the slate clean, a representation and montage with that which went before, which sometimes spills into coy jokiness. So he totally refuses the prevailing mild-Modernism, having other games to play: assembling various odd little devices, toy flags, Mario Bros pipes running up the cupola, and an almost Portmeirion-like fantasy dome. This is FAT’s version of Rossi, big on ideas, low on good taste.

Liège, further along the Meuse, is a different world to neat Maastricht and compact Aachen. It’s a big, scary industrial city, bigger than the other two put together, the Sheffield or Birmingham powering Leopold II’s genocidal turn-of-the-century empire. From the high-speed rail, you enter it at Calatrava’s Liège-Guillemins station, completed in 2008. There are good reasons why people hate Calatrava, particularly his subordination of engineering, material and structure to contrived imagery, but his railway stations are among the great guilty pleasures of contemporary architecture: sentimental, thrilling, contrapuntal. The notorious expense and unfashionability of his buildings are only two reasons why it’s hard not to think ‘we will never see the like again’ walking round an outrageously scaled shed like this. As of late December 2015, when these photographs were taken, it was being patrolled by the military with machine guns, as part of the near-martial law imposed against the threat of an ISIS attack on a Belgian city.

Liege Guillemens station 2

Liège-Guillemens station, by Santiago Calatrava

Liège is blessed with one hell of a setting, a basin ringed by mountains and blast furnaces, strung along a tightly built-up river, connected by grand 19th-century bridges whose elegance is made illegible by 60s highway engineering. In the centre is an acropolis, with nothing much on top but the remnants of Second World War bunkers, but leading to it is the Montagne de Bueren, a street of poky workers terraces stepping – or rather leaping – up the hill at a ludicrous incline, Victorian vertigo. From here you can survey the city. If Maastricht and Aachen are flat, impeccable and conservative, Liège is politically rancorous (there are many posters connected to a recent general strike), messy and multicultural.

In particular, it is relatively unplanned – near the Meuse, the seemingly randomly developed streets are a controlled madness: villa, mid-century high-rise, Art Nouveau tenement, Brutalist high-rise, villa, Art Deco high-rise; normal street rhythms pushed to the edge of chaos. Skyscrapers, such as the evocatively named Tour Kennedy and Tour Simenon, are as thin as the ‘pencil’ towers of Hong Kong; remnants of a speculative boom that clearly bust some time ago. The monuments on the streetscape are extraordinarily odd – in one direction, two swelling domes, miniature copies of Brussels’ famously bloated Koekelberg Basilica (one of them, Sacre Coeur, left unfinished and half-derelict for more than 70 years), a Moderne war memorial, and in the other direction, back towards Maastricht, the slabs of the peripheral housing estates. Beyond that, smouldering cooling towers, now owned by Lakshmi Mittal. Seedy, smoky, vigorous, it is quite the cityscape. On ground level, it is all hemmed in by grimy 19th-century streets, making the monuments stick out all the more. There are even some forlorn fragments of boulevard planning, around a statue of Charlemagne – of course – on horseback.

It is European cities like this that are in the most trouble. University towns, tourist traps and bureaucratic centres can fend for themselves; it’s places like Liège, lively and furious but stricken by industrialisation, that are facing collapse. New development – a lonely shiny high-rise, and a standard shopping mall given some squiggly roofs by none other than Ron Arad – is sticking-plaster stuff. There is much more hope for a Europe that will need to become more multicultural, rather than less, here in Liège. Its great wish has been that its geographic position here in the centre of the rich European heartland will rub off on it somehow – regeneration through transport network. Yet as the men with machine guns stalk nervously under Calatrava’s overpriced steel ribcage, the future does not look encouraging.

 

Data

germany flag

Germany flag

Aachen

Population 243,000 (Germany: 81.2 million)
Lord Mayor Marcel Philipp (Christian Democrat)
Density 1,500 people per km² (Germany: 235)

 

netherlands flag

Netherlands flag

Maastricht

Population 122,000 (Netherlands: 16.9 million)
Mayor Annemarie Penn-te Strake (independent)
Density 2,146 people per km² (Netherlands: 409)

belgium flag

Belgium flag

Liège

Population 196,000 (Belgium 11.2 million )
Mayor Willy Demeyer (Parti Socialiste)
Density: 2,800 people per km² (Belgium: 364)

 

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