Domplein Utrecht – Holland

© OKRA landschapsarchitecten

In the middle of the city of Utrecht lies the Domplein or cathedral square. This is where Utrecht began, 2000 years ago, with a Roman castellum that now lies 4 metres underground. In the Middle Ages it became overgrown by a primeval forest with giant trees. Later its stones were used to build the churches that formed the basis for the Christianisation of the Netherlands, the gothic Dom being the pinnacle. In 1674, however, a hurricane caused the collapse of the nave of the cathedral. Utrecht never really recovered from this traumatic incident. It was 150 years before the rubble was cleared and the Domplein created, a shabby square, cold and draughty. Countless plans have been drawn up for the square over the years but no plan was ever good enough for this grumbling city – until now.

In stead of making a blue print design, this time a process has been set in motion that will gradually transform the square. It is being altered, in a number of small steps, so that the residents of Utrecht will come to see the square differently, that way allowing the square to become a beautiful plaza, a place the city can be proud of. The first concrete intervention in this transformation is the marking of the castellum wall, the boundary of the future square. The international competition for this was won by the design submitted by OKRA.

The design is based on the history and mystique of the place. The castellum was a place from which the surroundings was controlled, a safe base where people liked to establish their homes and trades. However, the area within the walls was only open to soldiers. This was their ‘sanctuary’, where they could rest and did not have to be continually on the alert. Non-soldiers only got past the guards with permission.

This guardian line is marked with Corten steel elements at street level, directly above the original castellum wall. Its width, 80 cms, is as wide as the wall, and makes the transition from the profiled streets to the flat square floor. Green light and wisps of mist emanate from the marking and the borders of the Roman Empire are engraved in the steel. The marking is just as silent as the archaeological witness underground. The material and colour are earthy and refer to times long past in the fertile river delta and wooded ruins dating back to the dark Middle Ages. Now and again a poetic message is signalled with the light, in a type of Roman morse code. And on special days the light changes colour, like in yellow on Catholic holidays and orange on the Queen’s Birthday.

The marking has been received very enthusiastically. Masses of passers-by stop to look at it and city guides have already incorporated it in their guided tours. The Utrecht residents’ perception of the Domplein is beginning to change already.

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