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Farewell to architecture: contrasts and common ground in Flanders and Wallonia

1970.02.06.uitnodiging voor 'luc deleu neemt afscheid van de architectuur' 1970 © sabam (1)

Two opposing approaches, one breaking with the past, the other honouring it, characterise the architecture of Flanders and Wallonia respectively

The dominant narrative about Belgian architecture during the 20th century is simple: it doesn’t exist. When architecture is considered as a conscious, intellectual and cultural activity that shows in a spatial manner how man lives or would like to live at a certain moment in history, then it is not that easy to find Belgian architecture from the previous century. Architecture was absent because building was not a critical matter: it did not become the subject of a thorough and complex public debate, nor of any serious study. Even the architecture of a few Modernist masters – such as Horta and Van de Velde – existed in a splendid isolation of bourgeois exemplarity: the lack of a cultural interest in architecture was countered by a lack of interest for everything that was not praiseworthy as Great Architecture.

1980 luc deleu manifest aan de orde(ready made housing) © sabam

1980 luc deleu manifest aan de orde(ready made housing) © sabam

In Manifesto to the Order (1978-85), Deleu questioned the position and duty of architecture and urban design. Image: Luc Deleu © DACS 2018 

Foreign critics came to the same analysis. In 1961, American historian GE Kidder Smith published The New Architecture of Europe. ‘Of all European countries,’ he wrote, ‘Belgium is least to be excused for not contributing more to contemporary architecture. Having a thoroughly literate and capable population and an extremely high living-standard, the mediocrity of its architecture can be explained only by the indifference of its officials, the inadequacy of its educational system, and a flabby materialism.’ The reasons indicated by Kidder Smith were correct. In many ways, Belgian architecture had never become modern, and architects hadn’t even tried to liberate their profession from pseudo-scientific, so-called ‘objective’ methods, ideological and political assumptions (such as the tenacious individualism that forced the population into suburbia) or provincial and illiterate traditionalism. Instead, architects flocked together, and defended their profession, both from its own uselessness and from external criticism. In 1963, the foundation of the Belgian National Association of Architects sealed the case. It was stipulated by law that only a certified architect was allowed to make plans and to control building activities – a stipulation that, given the many small constructions in backyards, such as greenhouses, little stalls or porches, was not obeyed by the population. Paradoxically, the countless villas or freestanding houses constructed by architects were nothing but copies that could have come about without their interference.

1986 scale & perspective ghent © sabam

1986 scale & perspective ghent © sabam

Luc Deleu’s staging of electricity pylons on one of Ghent’s urban squares in 1986. Image: Luc Deleu © DACS 2018 

A generation of postwar architects and intellectuals seized this situation as an opportunity to critically but incidentally intervene from within the margins of official and over-regulated architecture. Emblematic is the solo exhibition Luc Deleu (b1944) organised in 1970, entitled Luc Deleu Says Farewell to Architecture. Recently graduated as an architect, Deleu started his practice as an artist-as-architect, devising spatial proposals – for urban agriculture, for example, or for a mobile university on aircraft carriers – that shocked the majority of his (former) colleagues. In more than one way, Deleu scripted the scenario for the architectonic counterculture that would emerge in Belgium during the final decades of the 20th century: mimicking the autonomy and the subversiveness of art, this ‘other’ architecture could comment on the organisation of public space and of the built environment, by organising exhibitions, publishing articles and books, or – now and then – really building a house, a gallery or a bank office.

This modus operandi was theorised in 1987 by Geert Bekaert (1928-2016), the most prolific and authoritative critic of his generation. Bekaert offered, on the pages of Dutch magazine Archis (for which a Belgian counterpart didn’t exist, also because the bilingual journal A+ remained a rather boring vehicle of the Association of Architects), a positive interpretation of the lack of a valuable tradition and of a public conversation. His text was entitled ‘Belgian Architecture as Commonplace: The Absence of an Architectonic Culture as a Challenge’. It remains one of the few key texts on architecture in Belgium. Instead of a fierce critique, Bekaert proposed a future-oriented possibility. The starting point remained the same: even at the end of the ’80s, Belgian architecture was hard to find. ‘A few years ago,’ Bekaert wrote, ‘Carlo Ginzburg, the famous historian from Bologna, paid a visit to Leuven. His fascination with as yet undefined marginal phenomena automatically led the conversation to contemporary Belgian architecture. Ginzburg’s curiosity made him ask the spontaneous question: ‘Where can I find some examples of this architecture?’ The conversation halted. No one was able to show Ginzburg the way.

001b school berlaar

001b school berlaar

Brede school in Berlaar by Bovenbouw. Image: Filip Dujardin

002 grobbendonk 291dpi 2

002 grobbendonk 291dpi 2

‘Corner House’ in north Belgium by Gijs Van Vaerenbergh. Image: Filip Dujardin

Certainly, Belgian architecture had proved its existence, but it was nowhere to be seen. It was faceless. There were no paradigms that could serve as an example. In a manner of speaking, all one had to do was open the door and go out into the street.’ If Belgian architecture did emerge during the ’70s and the ’80s, it was in the form of an exception, Bekaert argued – an exception that never spectacularly displayed its difference, but that emerged through the ironic, playful or poetic manipulation of architectonic commonplaces. Of course, this view on the possibility of architecture was rife with apparent contradictions and open questions. How exactly did this contrast with the majority of building production occur? Which mechanisms of publicity were used to put this architecture ‘on display’? Did these architectural incidents have a social value, or were they built just to be enjoyed by connoisseurs like Bekaert? And how long could this benign and marginal existence outside official and cultural institutions withstand?

Needless to say, in 2018, more than quarter of a century later, in Belgium this kind of architectural innocence, outside the spotlight, is gone. The cultural turn in architecture has unfolded, here as well as elsewhere, determined as it is by the ubiquitous attention for the work of architects. One particular reason behind this evolution in Belgium, but also a consequence or at least a reinforcement of the ‘success’ of architecture, is political. Since the ’80s, Belgium has evolved into a federal state, consisting of the French-speaking Wallonia, the Dutch-speaking Flanders, the more or less shared capital of Brussels, and a small German-speaking region in the east of the country. Each of these regions has its own government with an autonomous cultural policy. The new Flemish region decided to invest in the development of an architectural culture, and in the support of emerging practices, while the regional government in Wallonia decided, shortly after its creation, to focus on patrimony, heritage and conservation of monuments and historical architecture. Already in 1991, this resulted in the Flemish exhibition Architetti della Fiandra at the Venice Architecture Biennale in the Belgian pavilion, alternately hosted by the Flemish and the Wallonian community. At the Venice Biennale in 1996, the work of one architect – Pierre Hebbelinck from Wallonia – was shown, and in 2002, it was decided not to show early work by a single practice, but seven recent buildings, under the polemical title Îles flottantes (Floating Islands): production in Wallonia remained even more limited and anecdotal than in Flanders.

Mmm 032

Mmm 032

Mons Memorial Museum by Pierre Hebbelinck. Image: François Brix

150722 mundaneum maud faivre 04

150722 mundaneum maud faivre 04

Le Mundaneum archives in Mons by Coton_Lelion_Nottebaert. Image: Maud Faivre

Apart from notable differences in policy, the rapid progress of architecture in Flanders can also be explained by the influential presence of the Netherlands during the ’90s as an exemplary country speaking the same language; by prosperity and economic growth absent in Wallonia; by the critical and intellectual approach to architecture offered for more than five decades by the writings of Geert Bekaert; by the quantity and the growing quality of architecture schools in Flanders; and by the growing interest of cultural institutions, such as deSingel in Antwerp. This hosted, for example, exhibitions of OMA/Rem Koolhaas in 1985 and 1988, and of Aldo Rossi in 1986. These were harder to find in the Frenchspeaking part of Belgium, and the same goes for publications. The first Flanders Architectural Yearbook dates from 1993, while Architectures, Wallonie-Bruxelles: Inventaires #0 was published in 2010. For Flanders, it was the start of a long tradition, and this summer the 13th edition appeared, collecting projects and buildings, by this time selected from an almost endless list. Around the turn of the century, the first Vlaams bouwmeester, or building commissioner was appointed: Bob van Reeth (b1943), a prolific, versatile, elusive Belgian architect, active since the end of the ’60s. Van Reeth, together with his team, was asked to act as an adviser every time a government or a municipality wanted to create a public building. To watch over the quality of these public projects, Van Reeth devised the ‘Open Oproep’, modelled on the famous competition for the Sea Trade Center in Zeebrugge in 1989 – a contest in which Van Reeth participated as an architect, that was won by Rem Koolhaas and Xaveer De Geyter, but that did not lead to the implementation of OMA’s design. Van Reeth organised each competition according to the same scheme: the client is helped to explain his desires as clearly as possible; five architects are asked to make a design; a jury, chaired by the bouwmeester, selects a winner; the team of the bouwmeester assists in the execution of the project. This manner of working has proved to be on the one hand a stimulus to the quality of public architecture, while on the other hand it has enabled architectural offices to obtain important commissions and to develop their oeuvre in a relatively sheltered context. The institution Wallonie-Bruxelles Architectures, established in 2007, organises similar competitions, but with a lower frequency. The Flemish Architecture institute (VAi), founded in 2001, was modelled on the by now defunct Netherlands Architecture Institute: an organisation that has to inform a larger public about recent developments, by editing and publishing the yearbook, by installing exhibitions, and by organising an annual ‘architecture day’ as a chance for an interested audience to visit new buildings.

‘Certainly, Belgian architecture had proved its existence, but it was nowhere to be seen. It was faceless’

All these innovations seem to have turned Flanders, in no more than two decades, from an architectural desert into a sprawling oasis for the art of building. In March 2012, Ellis Woodman, member of the editorial team of the Flanders Architectural Yearbook in 2011, summarised it succinctly on these pages, calling the Flemish architecture scene ‘the envy of Europe’. Woodman spoke for many foreign observers and critics. Since 2005, journals and magazines from all over the world have devoted many pages to the accomplishments of architects from Flanders and Brussels. Offices such as OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, Rotor and de Vylder Vinck Taillieu have proven to be successful at recent editions of the Venice Architecture Biennale. ‘Flanders’, Woodman wrote, ‘has established itself as home to one of the most progressive architectural cultures in the world. This is testament to the fact that − as with Japan in the 1950s or Switzerland in the ’90s – Flanders happens to have produced a world-class generation of architects in the past decade.’ Woodman deservedly ended his short piece in 2012 with a warning: ‘The lesson of the region’s recent success is that strong architectural cultures only emerge if a society makes a commitment to nurture them. Whether Flanders’ commitment to architecture survives Belgium’s current programme of austerity measures, we may sadly know all too soon. The fear must be that we are now witnessing the end of a golden age.’ After the election in 2014 of a new Flemish government, the position of the Vlaams bouwmeester was indeed threatened, but following a storm of protest, politicians reversed their decision.

Office kgdvs after the party 4 28x35 200 dpi srgb kopie

Office kgdvs after the party 4 28x35 200 dpi srgb kopie

OFFICE buillt an enclosure around the Belgian pavilion during the 2008 Venice Biennale. Image: Bas Princen

There is, however, a more internal but related threat to the so-called miracle of Flanders. Every form of culture that flourishes so largely and so quickly, tends to fold back on its accomplishments, and to decline into self-protectionism. In this regard, it is regrettable how cautious and one-sided the public debate on architecture in Flanders has become. This is to be understood as a result of both too much self-confidence and too little. Now that the public funding of architecture is under discussion, many commentators and policymakers try to preserve the peace and the consensus on the value of architecture. Critical observations are pushed aside, and the image of architecture as a uniformly well meant and constructive activity is reinforced. This leads to the encouragement of a specific kind of architecture, and of a ‘branding’ of what valuable Flemish architecture is or should be: modest, never polemical, discreet, subservient, sustainable, slightly conservative, and immediately recognisable.

If the generation of the 1960s and the ’70s brought about a kind of cultural revolution, it often seems as if official political power has launched a counter-revolution to streamline or disarm architecture, by taking over the major places of production and discussion. The postwar origins of Belgian architecture – and, one is tempted to suggest, of Western architecture in general – are to be found in its once peripheral force, developed on the strength of the critical discernment between good and bad architecture, and on the ability to speculate, to experiment, to theorise, to criticise, to project and to contradict. Now that almost everything a random Flemish architect builds is hailed – on the cover of magazines or on image-driven sites such as Dezeen or Instagram – as a new masterpiece, the most important challenge for architecture in Flanders no longer lies in the absence but in the existence of what passes for an architectonic culture. It is to be hoped that current and future generations will now and again say farewell to architecture, just like Luc Deleu did in 1970, precisely in order to redefine again its contribution to society.

‘Modest, never polemical, discreet, subservient, sustainable, slightly conservative, and immediately recognisable’

In Wallonia, the challenges are different, and almost opposite: much pioneering work remains to be done, and this creates space for experiment and adventure. In 2016, the third edition of the inventory of architecture in Wallonia and Brussels was published, assembling projects built between 2013 and 2016. It was decided by the editorial team to present 152 projects by means of a small text and one photograph; 28 writers, photographers and comic artists were invited to render one project more extensively in their own medium. So far, the three editions of the yearbook are published to help Wallonia find its voice, to show and prove – not only to the outside world but also to the local architectural community – that there is such a thing as an architecture in and from Wallonia and Brussels, and to subsequently gain the self-confidence to let it speak for itself, on its own terms and conditions.

Charleroi dc bas smets bouwmeester hd

Charleroi dc bas smets bouwmeester hd

Sketch from landscape architects Bureau Bas Smets outlining the creation of a dense network of public spaces in Charleroi by an international team including Atelier Bow-Wow and MDW Architecture 

This kind of confidence in architecture and urban planning is becoming more and more evident in the city of Charleroi. Georgios Maillis was appointed by the socialist mayor in 2013 as the Charleroi bouwmeester. This municipality, together with its metropolitan area, has a total population of more than half a million people. From a post-industrial area in decline, it is now embracing a more diversified economy and attracting new residents. Maïllis and his team, assisted by architects from all over Belgium, are rightly convinced that this is above all a spatial, infrastructural and architectonic challenge. As such, Charleroi is evolving into a model city for an architectural policy in the 21st century.

Click here to find out more about Belgian architecture

This piece is featured in the AR’s September 2018 on Belgium – click here to pick up your copy today