Ugly or boring? Belgium’s lack of planning constraints fuels a culture of the grotesque and the banal
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As a Belgian, let me describe how it feels to get there from its many neighbours. Coming from the North Sea, you might imagine Belgium has wonderful white cliffs like Dover. In reality, you are confronted with a kind of horrendous contemporary version of the Atlantic Wall. From Knokke in the north to De Panne in the south, a trail of concrete desolation extends along the entire coastal strip.
Coming from the broad rolling plains of France, you just drive straight in. Without border posts, you could easily miss the sign saying ‘Belgium’. You only realise that you’re there when a curiously oppressive feeling takes hold. Where has all the picturesque French landscape gone?
‘We are realistic Surrealists. Ceci n’est pas une maison. C’est ma maison’
Coming from the Netherlands, your mood might lift when you get to Belgium because you can do what you like, architecturally. This is not the case in the Netherlands, where a building inspector decides how your house will look. I detest these inspectors, because Belgium is now swamped by Dutch people flitting over the border to build their dream home, unfettered by constraints. It might be an ersatz Spanish hacienda or an ersatz Belgian farmhouse. Generally, the ersatz hacienda predominates, a cruel irony in our gloomy, rain-lashed country.
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Coming from Germany, you might think ‘bloody hell, didn’t we raze this place to the ground?’ Indeed you did, but it didn’t improve it. Coming from Luxembourg – well, not many people come to Belgium from Luxembourg. Confusingly, the Belgian province which borders Luxembourg is also called Luxembourg.
Wherever you come from to get to Belgium, you end up in a nightmarish architectural Legoland. Everything is possible, everything is permitted. Except it feels as if you’re stepping on Lego blocks the whole time. An excruciating torture which can only be endured if you are Belgian. You don’t know any other way. Your only aim is to be able to afford and build the same house you once built in Lego. In the very spot which coincides with the only remaining open vista in Belgium. Because that is your inalienable right. As a Belgian.
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We are realistic Surrealists. Ceci n’est pas une maison. C’est ma maison. A place as unique as its 11 million inhabitants. Just don’t mention the houses. I’ve been running the Ugly Belgian Houses website now for six years. Hundreds of dwellings have already undergone scrutiny. Some of them ugly, some super-ugly. But all of them odes to the grotesque.
‘Wherever you come from to get to Belgium, you end up in a nightmarish architectural Legoland’
In Belgium there’s an overwhelming sense of clutter. It’s as if we first crammed every square metre with buildings before deciding to put in some streets here and there as an afterthought. In Belgium you can easily find a neighbourhood featuring a dozen different styles within a 100-metre radius. Yet the country is so small that it cannot possibly do them justice. Houses are inevitably bunched up, which means that differences are exaggerated and any individual quality lost in a distracted haze. No one can look at a house objectively when another dwelling in a different style is frantically trying to catch their attention.
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Often, a house facade will look a bit too much like a face, grimacing in terrible anthropomorphic glee at its equally bad neighbours. And we shouldn’t overlook those terrible finishing touches. For instance, a bust of a pharaoh or a gnome might be incorporated, for no logical reason. Not to mention the terrible front gardens full of terrible clutter. Or the terrible statues in all sorts of weird and wonderful materials. And to top it all, some house owners seem to enjoy competing for the most ridiculous postbox, especially on homogeneous estates, as if trying desperately to affirm their individuality.
Many properties didn’t make it onto the Ugly Belgian Houses website. Either because they were not ugly enough or because I couldn’t think of a good enough caption. Or because they were simply too boring. Oddly, it’s predominantly the boring houses that don’t do well on the website. They are often even defended by my followers. Maybe because some of them live in boring houses. But a boring house is the worst evil of all, so in this respect, ugliness has got something going for it.
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I propose two alternatives to Belgium’s dilemma.
1. A Brixit. Bye-bye to all bricks. We bid farewell to Belgium as we know it. All Belgians must leave the country for one day. Meanwhile, all bad, boring buildings are destroyed, with the exception of the historic city centres of Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels. Next day, everyone is allowed to return and start building again. This time using Lego Technic for those at an advanced level. I’m really curious to see what that will produce.
2. We extend Belgium’s borders. In France there is still a lot of boring, dredge-like waste and an apparently inexhaustible amount of space. Meanwhile, the UK is searching for new trading partners, the Netherlands remains desperately dull, Germany is largely covered in trees and no one really lives in Luxembourg.
Currently I favour the latter solution. Because Ugly Belgian Houses are still the best defence against any enemy. Should one ever turn up.
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All photographs and captions by Hannes Coudenys
This piece is featured in the AR’s September 2018 on Belgium – click here to pick up your copy today