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Without TivoliVredenburg, the improvement of the Utrecht station area would have come to nothing.

There is an artist café in Utrecht that few Utrechters know about. And I don't mean Theatercafé De Bastaard, where by now a whole generation of actors, filmmakers and writers come from, but the artist's foyer of TivoliVredenburg. I've eaten and hung out there a few times, as an embedded reporter of The Night of Poetry, when it goes on until very, very late into the night.

The musical venue that celebrates its fifth anniversary this week has a self-service restaurant in the basement between the dressing rooms. On an average night, orchestral musicians from a classical orchestra eat there fraternally alongside a jazz vocalist and the black-leather-clad members of a death-metal band. Several new fusion projects seem to have already emerged in that basement.


The performers then all get to eat in the basement, sometimes playing 30 metres up. And then another 30 metres to the right. One of the most sense-making features of TivoliVredenburg, then, is not its fascinating exterior, about which more later, but its interior, that part you don't get to as an ordinary visitor. Something I was able to see for myself a few times, on guided tours, or the few times I was allowed backstage: a maze it remains, but it works.

TivoliVredenburg can therefore best be described as a festival machine, or rather more so: the incarnation of a yet-to-be-written science fiction series, a Star Trek Enterprise, where between engine room and bridge lie hidden connections like 'Jefferies Tubes' behind the central corridors.

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The building is also - like the old Music Centre Vredenburg building - a disorienting building. Once inside, it is rabidly difficult to determine where you are - seen from the outside. As a result, the many open facades make it constantly fascinating to have a new view of your own city, even after dozens of visits. In the middle of the world, and yet detached from it. An art building could not sum up the essence of art better in itself.

City squares

Herzberger himself, the architect who designed the Great Hall and was supervisor for the design of the new palace, prefers to see the result as a city: 'Actually, all kinds of different buildings were put together by different architects,' he explains in an interview with local newspaper DUIC. 'I was supervisor for a kind of vertical city with five buildings and city squares in between. The great luck is that quite a lot of space remained between those buildings. That is now the foyer space where there are so many activities.'

Now that foyer space is a thing. As a central village or city square, it occasionally livens up considerably when activities are organised for it, but outside it is a bit dead and deserted. It is then similar to the foyer of the Theater aan het Spui in The Hague, also set up as a village square. So it still needs some work, especially to prevent that - in times when the cultural economy unexpectedly slows down - it can no longer always be staffed up there.


Another question is whether the central square will have the intended effect: a forum where people from different concerts come to and have surprising encounters with lovers of other music. The spectators I spoke to for this series, none of the three thought such a thing could work. Switching from pop and rock to the classical offerings in Vredenburg's Great Hall is easier than the other way around. In any case, I haven't come across any people myself who have made such a transition.

This also has a lot to do with the layout. The Great Hall of TivoliVredenburg does not really connect to the square meters above, so you really have to make an effort to get there for the possible crossover. You can, of course, do that in Het Gegeven Paard, the open café on the ground floor, but then again, there you are more likely to end up among the hard-working zzp'ers after the matinee during the day, and in the evening at the run-down free mibo of one of the many companies in the area, or further afield. Indeed, the café's location is ideal for people who want to meet up with friends and colleagues from other corners of the country.

Ultimately, that cross-pollination is something we should leave mainly to the festivals for which the building is so incredibly well suited. The now award-winning festival Le Guess Who? for example. That is a unique festival that uses all the possibilities of mixing that TivoliVredenburg has to offer. This is where you can best see the true power of design. And it works more strongly than anyone (at least the outsiders I know) could have imagined beforehand.


With that in mind, it is actually fascinating how quickly and overwhelmingly successful TivoliVredenburg is. This expensive and here-and-there sound leak building was, of course, already too big to fail for the municipality. It thus became a potential moneypit for eager building contractors eager to finish a few million above budget to make up for losses elsewhere.

It all happened, and at a time when Utrecht was one of the first cities to have to deal with populists in the city council. Remarkably, the Utrecht livebars were a lot more culture-minded than their livable counterparts in other cities, allowing the building to get there in all its unique quirkiness anyway.

The Hague

How it can be done differently is becoming clear in The Hague. There, the municipality has taken it upon itself to build a new palace of culture in the Spuikwartier. Something prestigious it was supposed to be, but all sorts of things are now going wrong there. Take a look below at the pictures showing the development of the building, from artist impression that made everyone happy, to something that was adapted to the demands of politics, to what is actually being built now.

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About what is wrong in The Hague, we will hopefully write more soon. After all, the question is how bad such a thing is. The fact that The Hague is not getting a fairy-tale palace but a cultural centre that looks a lot like a department store from reconstruction need not detract from the music and dance that plays there. The old Muziekcentrum Vredenburg (strange name actually, 'music centre'. Typical 1970s) didn't look like much either. It was also connected to the covered alleys of the previous version of Hoog Catharijne with a couple of failed locks. An air bridge containing displayed pianos from the now-bankrupt music store Staffhorst, a little bar that never worked and a first floor accessible only by a medieval-looking spiral staircase that housed a restaurant before that whole area was taken over by junkies and then closed off. It was a nasty corner of Utrecht. The music did not suffer.

Music experience

Of course, art buildings are not about the outside. Herman Hertzberger, the architect of the original Vredenburg, would be the first to admit that: 'A beautiful exterior wasn't my first task as an architect either. It could have been cosier, but I always had the music experience as my starting point - unlike a lot of other architects who would go for a nice exterior.'

Yet it is now the outside that has made TivoliVredenburg an inner-city revamp. Indeed, from the large square on 6 high, you can now clearly see how the other side of Vredenburg, the bus lane to the city centre, is going through upgrade after upgrade of one catering building after another. It is actually starting to look as if the approach to the Utrecht station area, once initiated as UCP, is having an effect. And for now, this is really only thanks to the fantastic music city that is TivoliVredenburg.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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