What Groningen does with us and what we do with Groningen

In 1976 I started studying Geography at the University of Groningen. At that time we did not have a free choice where to study, as geography was a popular study programme, and there were not always sufficient free slots at the university of our preference. An allocation committee decided where you could go. I was sent to Groningen. In hindsight, I did not regret it, as Groningen as one of the more peripheral University Cities, also had a vibrant student life because students could not always afford to go to their parental home in the weekends. The ‘Pakhuis’ (Warehouse) was our favourite student pub for the weekends. Notwithstanding the not so fancy (but cheap) housing accommodation during my studies, we were happy with our newly gained autonomy. My first room somewhere around the Plantsoenstraat, at that time, had rather primitive sanitary facilities, with a separate toilet-building in the back garden. For a shower, we anyhow had to go to the university sports facilities. Soon I moved to downtown, in the red light district. My room was noisy and in the wintertime, I had to go to the university library to keep warm, which by the way, unintendedly was also profitable for my study results. Then we had the opportunity with some extra state subsidies to rent an apartment in a highrise building on the outskirts of the city in Vinkhuizen. For us, this was ‘luxury’, although on the ninth floor when the wind was sweeping over the flat Groninger countryside, the wind howled through the cracks, and the elevator always smelled of piss, and we had to queue up to make a telephone call at the only telephone booth in the street, in these very cheap low-end housing conditions.


Plantsoenstraat                    Lopende Diep                                    Aquamarijnstraat         Barmaheerd

Nevertheless, we had a great time, during which friendships for life were made. And the University also allowed us to discover and develop our interests. Groningen in my experience was and is a great place. A place where our formative years took place became very dear to us, and it still is, although I lived at many other places since then. Not just as a student city, but also in other respects, Groningen can be characterised by its typical atmosphere. It is almost the only bigger urban centre in the whole of the North of the Netherlands, and has the allure of a big city, in a part of the Netherlands, which is rather down to earth, and where people are usually characterised by their no-nonsense attitude. The historic centre with its many street cafés, and markets is iconic. The Grote Markt, where we remember the flower seller, James Squarrosa (Jaap Bloemendaal), nicknamed, ‘the oracle of Andijk’, standing on the back of his truck, yelling that you cannot leave without taking a few of his plants and flowers for almost nothing. And when you believed you were satisfied, he always added another plant to it. He was a weekly returning phenomenon, which you would never again forget. But also the vegetable market where my wife would explore al stands to find where the salad was the cheapest because we had to live with a single student allowance.  And in the city hall on the ‘Grote Markt’ we also married, a bit low profile, in a hippy fashion at those days, having our wedding dinner on the pancake ship in one of the canals of Groningen. Groningen has changed much since then. Many parts of the city have been revitalised and refurbished. Groningen also added to its diverse hipster-like offerings along the Folkingestraat, which in the past had been more or less a  no-go area, and created a totally new atmosphere, which is so nicely described and celebrated in the love song for Groningen by the cabaretier Janneke Jager (click on the picture to hear her song (in Dutch)). And this brings me to the topic I wanted to raise here. Because, what creates an urban atmosphere? What is an urban atmosphere? Is it an attribute of the place or is it an attribute of our subjective experience, infused by our memories, nostalgia and habitus? Who creates or causes these atmospheres?

An urban atmosphere is certainly not just a set of functional properties, which we can rationally appreciate or criticise. An atmosphere is a feeling, an affective aspect of a place. It is the emotion which a place evokes if we think of it or remember it? Or is it the emotion we experience if we immerse in it and are directly encountering it at that moment? Urban atmospheres are a central concept in placemaking and place experience. They refer to ‘a class of experiences that occur before and alongside the formation of subjectivity, across human and non-human materialities, and in-between subject/object distinctions’ (Anderson, 2009, p. 78).

Conceptually and theoretically this concept draws on the new phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz (2019), and on the further development of these ideas by Gernot Böhme (2014), and has been applied also to the city of Groningen by the German Geographer Jürgen Hasse, one of our recent Alexander von Humboldt Lecturers at the Radboud University.

Prof. Jürgen Hasse develops a methodology to investigate urban atmospheres, which he describes as ‘micrology’ but which is sometimes also denoted as ‘phenomenography’ (De Matteis, Bille, Griffero & Jelić, 2019). In a nutshell, Hasse (2012) describes urban atmospheres as belonging ‘to the life of the city like its traffic flows, they come and go with the situational change of the urban. They are different in this location than in any other, they spontaneously emerge out of the presence of things and the dynamics of life or are the object of deliberate production. They have their own significance in the lives of people as well as in the unique character and history of a place. Where they are produced according to a systemic calculation and interest, they fulfil functions as affective dispositions in an ideological, economic or political context’ (pp. 11-12).

Urban atmospheres, therefore, are emotional experiences of the human surroundings; are dependent on how we live these places, and how we actively perform these places. They do not just have passive semiotic meanings which just need to be discovered or ‘read’, but are continuously creating meanings through the performative stream of human dynamics. Urban Atmospheres can not be reduced to specific aspects, but need to be seen as wholes in between subject and object, as ‘in-between spaces’.

Urban Atmospheres are situations, which consist of the things that are, of problematisations of what is, and of programmes for realising what is not yet. In this respect, one can also distinguish between individual personal situations and more collectively shared situations. Atmospheres are not just created by human interventions but as well by the emerging phenomena of nature. Atmospheres have the power of indentedly or unintendedly affecting what happens and what takes place. Atmospheres are not just things, which are there and which might be transformed but cannot really disappear, but are ‘half-things’, which might be linked to things, but which are much more volatile in their performance and in the way they are experienced. Atmospheres are communicated and experiences through our different bodily senses, which then are re-combined into a ‘synesthetic’ holistic impression. The concept of Urban Atmospheres also re-covers the importance of emotions and affects, which in the course of the modernistic and rational project, seems to have gone lost and in this way also allows a critique of one-dimensional economics of aesthetics but also allows access to the constructive dimension of atmospheres.

Usually, Atmospheres are distinguished from Moods. Atmospheres are seen as a-specific and a-personal reality, while moods are seen as personal and individual and therefore also more specific feelings of being in this world, and of being related to this world. Moods create a disposition of the self and create the sensibility for the experience of urban atmospheres. ‘Whether we can and want to feel at home in the urban space of a city is never solely dependent on the urban atmospheres of that city, but also on personal moods, i.e. the affective relationship to living in the city in general and to living in that specific city at that moment in time, in particular’ (Hasse, 2012, p. 20).

In this respect, I see some similarities between the concept of an Urban Atmosphere, and what one could describe with Piere Bourdieu as the affective dimension of a “Field”, while the concept of a Mood could then be parallelled with the affective dimension of our ‘Habitus’, although one might object that Bourdieu sees Habitus as a much more structural personal disposition, while Hasse sees Mood as a much more volatile and momentary personal disposition. But for understanding the difference between Mood and Atmosphere this might nevertheless be helpful, in my view.

Furthermore, Hasse pragmatically describes Urban Atmospheres along several sensible dimensions, like:

  • The built infrastructure
  • The smell
  • The light and shade
  • The soundscape
  • The feeling of the ‘air’
  • The rhythms and movements
  • The looks and sights
  • The habitus and the way people dress
  • The presence of nature and other life forms (animals)
  • The ‘family of things’ as media for distinctions

In this way, he comes up with a lively and very detailed scientific, analytic and synesthetic description of the places Janneke Jager sings about in her above-mentioned love song for Groningen. It shows what geographical science can contribute to understanding the role of the affective dimensions of places in our daily lives.

If you click on the image below, the original text (in German) will appear. In you prefer a (quick and dirty) translation in English, click here.

We sometimes only become aware of the special effects of urban atmospheres, when they abruptly change. Some weeks ago a newspaper article (in Dutch) in NRC-Handelsblad described the Vismarkt in Groningen in Covid-19 lockdown times. This makes us aware of the quality of urban life which is all of the sudden missing, but which we otherwise seemed to take for granted.

The affective and emotional elements of space determine where we feel at home and part of the local community, where we feel attracted and thrilled by the experience of the ‘strange’ places we visit, how we can make places hospitable for ‘strangers’, how places can provoke us to think differently, where ‘diversity’ or an elan for hopeful change is ‘in the air’, what characterises ‘no-go’ places or inspiring and creative places, where we feel the respect for historical and cultural heritage, or where we feel the disgust for evil pasts, and to which places we feel attached, or with which we can identify. These feelings are the hidden but essential drivers of our everyday doings, maybe much more so than our rational thinking.

References

Anderson, B. (2009) Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society. Vol 2, No. 2, pp. 77-81.

Böhme, G. (2014) The theory of atmospheres and its applications. Interstices: Journal of Architecture and Related Arts. pp. 93-100.

De Matteis, F., Bille, M., Griffero, T. & Jelić, A. (2019) Phenomenographies: Describing the plurality of atmospheric worlds. Ambiances. Vol. 5, pp. 1-22.

Hasse, J. (2018) Märkte und ihre Atmosphären. Micrologien räumlichen Erlebens. [Markets and their Atmospheres. Micrologies of spatial experiencing.] Vol. 2, Karl Alber, Freiburg.

Hasse, J. (2012) Atmosphären der Stadt. Aufgespürte Räume. [Atmospheres of the City. Felt spaces.] Jovis, Berlin.

Schmitz, H. (2019) New Phenomenology: A Brief Introduction. Mimesis, Milano.

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