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Editorial: Belgium’s architectural fecundity bypasses political uncertainty

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Belgian architecture continues to strive in the face of a changing political landscape

Two Belgian practices, invited to give lectures in London by the Architecture Foundation this year, have attracted large crowds at the Barbican. One was Robbrecht en Daem, who were the first Flemish practice to work here when they were commissioned to upgrade the Whitechapel Gallery in 2009. Later in the year came Architecten de Vylder Vinck Taillieu, whose thoughtfully witty take on everyday architecture provided a provocative counterpoint. So far, Flanders has made more of a name for itself internationally, finding particular echoes and synergies with English and Irish practices, but Wallonia is slowly catching up and finding its own voice. As this issue illustrates, Belgium is enjoying one of those golden architectural moments when new architects emerge, and high-quality design practices find the clients and the circumstances in which to shine, both at home and abroad. Can this have anything to do with the political context in which the country finds itself?

The most prominent Belgian on the UK horizon is very much a politician. Guy Verhofstadt is the European Parliament’s representative in the negotiations surrounding Brexit. A former prime minister, he has led a Europhile party in Brussels/Strasbourg and is a bitter opponent of anything (like Brexit) which appears to threaten the expanding power and influence of the EU. Two years ago, I was present in the Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam, where he addressed an audience of several hundred British property professionals, including architects, and had us in stitches with his witty barbs about Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. However, what was more significant in his address was the brutal honesty with which he addressed the subject of the future of the European Union.

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Bv pbraquenier hd

Eurotopie, the Belgian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, was curated by a multi-disciplinary team of architecture graduates and artists from Wallonia. Image: Philippe Braquenier

He had three main points: first the EU is utterly dysfunctional and will remain so as long as more than 20 different countries try to administer it; second, it needs to adopt a federal structure with perhaps a dozen countries in control; and third, rather surprisingly given Belgium’s colonial past, it needs to become an ‘empire’. One imagines he was simply drawing a parallel with the American ‘empire’, and that of China, in terms of their political power and economic influence. 

Given the history of what has been called ‘Belgium’ since it was established in the 1830s, the yearning for the warm embrace of an empire where you expect to have some influence is certainly understandable. Belgium’s complicated history and the ongoing difficult relationship between Dutch- and French-speaking communities, the outcome of a series of conquests and warring regimes going back at least 500 years, must make a federal structure, conveniently run from Brussels, look like the best of all possible worlds, especially since Belgium itself has a federal structure designed to balance its two principal language groups.

Is the quest for stability in (or perhaps the organised instability of) Belgium’s political institutions, a contributor to the architectural culture which is now flourishing there? In a famous 1999 essay, ‘Is There a Belgium?’, the historian Tony Judt warned that internal criticisms of the state might have malign consequences, and that in an uncertain world, constant complaints about ‘too much state’ could result in ending up with far too little. Perhaps those arguments about the extent to which the nation state should quietly fade away, leaving a Europe of regions and the EU, have prompted an outbreak of ‘critical regionalism’, in parallel with the increasing success of the Flemish economy and its chief cities, leaving Wallonia flagging behind. Ironically, the future of the EU and its relationship to Brussels is the subject of the Belgian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Its curators, a group of four architecture graduates from Wallonia in collaboration with four artists, describe their programme thus: ‘The Eurotopie project will confront the major challenges and imperatives encountered by the European Union as it analyses its key territorial, physical and symbolic presence in Brussels.’

Belgium pavilion eurotopie venice biennale 2018  dezeen 2364 hero a

Belgium pavilion eurotopie venice biennale 2018 dezeen 2364 hero a

 Eurotopie aimed to address the lack of citizen and democratic spaces in the European Quarter in Brussels and highlight that the area is impervious to citizen initiatives. Image: Camille Cooken

In the 21st century, as the world of architecture well knows, the idea of formal borders and boundaries of any description, like the notion of a set of ‘correct’ architectural rules, has begun to look irrelevant. Increasingly, architects have become as concerned with questions of energy, social equity, education, health and water resources as they have with some notion of an autonomous national architecture, as opposed to cultural currents unrelated to the nation state. And although different countries and regions will have regulatory regimes, including recognition of qualifications, this has not generally prevented architects bypassing them if they wish to, not least because of the multi-national nature of architectural offices themselves. 

There is also the question of client culture, which tends to be internationalist in tone. A good example is the Istanbul Design Biennial which takes places in that extraordinary city in September. Its invited curator, critic and teacher, Jan Boelen, is Flemish.

Lead image: The Ommegang in Brussels: Procession of the Guilds, was painted by Denys van Alsloot (1570-1628) in 1616, having been commissioned by Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella to celebrate the 1615 Ommegang in Brussels. The procession honoured the Crossbowen, the city’s most prestigious guild.

This image appears as the cover image of the AR September issue about Belgium – click here to purchase your copy today