Europe 1993: City with a mission to save: Antwerp - commerce and culture

NEXT YEAR, Antwerp becomes the latest European city of culture, following Glasgow, Dublin and Madrid. But the celebrations come at a time when many think the city should be asking difficult questions of itself.

Antwerp's greatness dates from the 15th century when the rival port of Bruges began to silt up, leaving Antwerp the dominant commercial centre of the north. But the city intends to use the opportunity not just to glory in its past, nor to advertise its present, but to look beyond the city boundaries and question Europe's future through its art. Posters are beginning to go up across town demanding: 'Can art save the world?', or 'What is beautiful what is not?'

As the director of Antwerp 93, Eric Antonis, explains: 'We want to emphasise projects which make people stop and think about our society. Art is the automatic choice. Good artists have doubts and dare to ask questions.'

If this is the aim it is timely, for many people believe that Antwerp desperately needs to ask difficult questions of itself. In the last Belgian election, one in four in the city voted for Vlaams Block - the extreme right-wing nationalist party that openly advocates the repatriation of all immigrants. The city appeared to many to be the fascist face of benign Belgium.

H B Cools, the mayor, is a jolly white-haired man who attacks his job with infectious enthusiasm. In bidding on behalf of Antwerp he was, he says, inspired by Glasgow. 'It was Saturday afternoon. I had been trying to think up a project that would somehow help Antwerp rise above itself and I picked up a paper and read that Glasgow was to be cultural capital of Europe for 1990. I thought why not Antwerp?'

Mr Cools maintains there is a bond between the two cities. Antwerp is in the Flemish (Dutch) part of a Belgium divided into French- and Dutch-speaking enclaves. 'Glasgow is the main city of a culture that is not English, as we have a culture that is neither French nor Dutch,' he said. 'A Scotsman speaks English and lives in Great Britain. I am Flemish, speak Dutch and live in Belgium.'

The reality of that confusion this summer almost threatened the Antwerp 93 project. The new government of the Flemish region threatened to withdraw its 165m Belgian franc ( pounds 2.7m) subsidy if the promotional literature did not do more to promote Flanders.

This seems unnecessary for Antwerp which, from the top of its filigreed cathedral tower to the bottom of its cobbled streets, is clearly a Flemish city. Its central heart, the Grote Markt, is surrounded by the characteristic narrow houses with stepped roofs and tall windows, many brightened with window boxes containing late geraniums.

From the mayor's wood-panelled office in the town hall, you can gaze down at the statue of Brabo, the Roman warrior who delivered the River Schelde from the curse of the giant Droun by cutting off his hand. It is said that this gives the city its name, ant from hand and werp from throw, though others suggest it is really a corruption of a Germanic word meaning quayside.

Like most great cities it is on a river, one of the busiest entrepots in Europe. Napoleon dug the first modern berth, and although most of the shipping activity is now out of town the effect of that commerce is everywhere, especially in the city's rich artistic heritage.

In the 15th and 16th centuries Antwerp was the European distribution centre for spices and other exotica shipped from the Indies. The money funded many of the imposing town houses that still stand and provided the patronage and custom for an extraordinary group of artists of whom Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck are the best known. It was also the printing centre of Europe, from which developed a world-renowned engraving industry.

Antwerp sparkles with a wealth that owes much to the development of the diamond trade - a throwback to Dutch links with southern Africa. It is today the major centre of diamond cutting for both jewellery and industry. The provincial diamond museum has declared the 12 months from 2 March 'diamond year'. A series of exhibitions is planned.

The visual arts programme is sponsoring film, photography, video and high-definition TV. It has commissioned new sculpture and painting alongside an exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of Jacob Jordaens. The performing arts programme has commissioned ballet and new operas under Flemish direction.

As part of the theatre programme, the city has built a floating 'Ark', a theatre-barge. Fifteen European cities have been invited to send a young theatre troupe to work, live and perform on the boat for a week.

Music too gets top-billing but Antwerp 93 will be a 'Pavarotti free-zone', says the programme organiser Andre Hebbelinck. Street events that culminate in mid-August with the Cutty Sark tall ships race will dominate the summer. The project has a budget of Bfr900m, half of which comes from national government and commercial sponsors.

The project seems to have the support of Antwerp's citizens - perhaps because the city has embarked on a series of ambitious renovations that will see the magnificent 18th-century Bourla theatre, for example, restored to its classical glory.

The mayor feels Antwerp has a mission. 'Look at all these people now, saying they don't want to be part of Europe, that it has nothing to offer them. I believe that as long as Europe is not seen by people as a technical thing, as long as you can involve them properly, they will become engaged Europeans. Culture is the cement.'

(Photograph omitted)