Thanks to Schengen, crossing the borders to Belgium or Germany is mostly free of hassle. The days of heavy border controls are almost as far away as the Dark Ages. Not too long ago, the situation was different, and much more hostile. It's hard to imagine, but in the first decade after the war, more than thirty people were killed in fights between smugglers and police along the border to Germany – and no, they weren’t smuggling hard drugs, but coffee!
Nowadays, you have to look carefully for the border or else you might miss the fact that you’re suddenly in a different country. What remains though, is that even without border controls, you quickly realise which country you’re in merely by looking at the buildings. There’s a lot of interaction between the neighbours, but one thing that is still very distinct is the differing styles and preferences in architecture.
Now, for private homes this might not be so remarkable, but it’s definitely so for public buildings, which have their distinctive style. What is unique in the Netherlands is the way in which the Dutch combine old substance and new architecture. The typical German way of dealing with old buildings is to preserve them and only ever renovate them in as close to the original style as possible. This is a costly matter, which is why old buildings are often not renovated at all and slowly fall apart over time.
How refreshingly different is the Dutch approach. Here, people have a much more pragmatic as well as creative approach towards old buildings, modernising them with respect for the past but embracing the future as well. Many Maastricht University buildings are wonderful examples of this, like the buildings of the University College or the Department of Knowledge Engineering, as are other places in the city, like the famous Selexyz Dominicanen bookstore – I doubt that you can find something similar in any other country. Granted, it doesn't carry many decent books (at least not in the international section), but it looks gorgeous! And if you’re hunting for a good read, you can always go to De Tribune in the Kapoenstraat.
What I don't like about the city centre of Maastricht, I have to admit, is the attempt to historicise the city, to make it look older than it is. The city likes its self-prescribed image as a historic centre so much that many facades – like the shopping mall in the Helmstraat - look much older than they actually are, which reminds me of Disneyland at times. Still, I think that's something specifically Maastricht – by and large, modern Dutch architecture is wonderful. And this is confirmed by the exhibition about modern European architecture at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen (until 28 November), where the Dutch architects truly stand out.