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Book of the month: Trans-Europe Express

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Owen Hatherley deliberates on how power influences architecture in the creation of the European invention – the nation-state city

A vast triumphal arch, flanked on one side by a military museum, stacked with fighter aircraft and tanks, dominates Brussels’ Parc du Cinquantenaire. On the other side sits the Art & History Museum, housing both national archaeology and artefacts from antiquity, pilfered from Syria, Greece and Ancient Rome. The park itself, laid out over 30 hectares in the east of the city, was planned and named for the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence in 1880 as part of a grand National Exhibition. It’s difficult to imagine a more European concept for a public space: the Neoclassical architecture being a conscious attempt to align the bourgeois city with Europe’s supposed roots in the Classical civilisations of Rome and Greece, while still foregrounding the new technology, industry and armaments that were making the modern nation rich.

The project, and its work on the triumphal arch, was overseen by Leopold II, at the same time that he was laying the groundwork for his personal, privately owned colonial state in central Africa, the Congo Free State. Using a corvée forced labour system, it is thought Leopold extracted over a billion dollars of wealth (in today’s money) from his private kingdom, mainly through meeting Europe’s growing demand for rubber. Failure to meet the high rubber quotas was punishable by death, and administrators demanded evidence of the executions by the presentation of amputated hands. The baskets of severed hands became a quota in their own right. Current estimates for the death toll in his reign run between one and 15 million. He inaugurated his arch in 1905, three years before the Belgian state annexed his ‘free state’ as a national colonial asset. Colonial torture and exploitation is also a very European funding model for a public space. 

Brussels cinquantenaire r02

Brussels cinquantenaire r02

Source: Marc Ryckaert / Wikimedia

The centrepiece triumphal arch at the Parc du Cinquantenaire, Brussels

Known in his own country as ‘the Builder King’, Leopold’s plan for Brussels was to use architecture to demonstrate Belgium’s national maturity, presenting the city as quintessentially European in its high-quality civic buildings. The question of what makes a European city, and what power tries to say and do with its architecture, are at the core of Owen Hatherley’s latest book, Trans-Europe Express, a pacy trip around cities of Europe at this crossroad in the continent’s history. Early on his tour is a visit to the Belgian capital, where the grand civic architecture of Leopold’s hubristic fantasy – his colonial plunder, Hatherley informs us, was driven by his desire to fund Brussels’ transformation into a truly ‘Parisian’ capital – is an anomaly among its domestic architecture, where lack of an overall plan has produced a diverse, eccentric urban fabric. Streets full of townhouses exhibit a bourgeois experimentalism, with Art Nouveau and Deco units producing a varied streetscape without ever breaking into a truly radical attempt at revolutionising urban living. It’s a fitting metaphor for the city, the home of the EU, where grand visions come into conflict with messy everyday concerns and bourgeois managerialism. 

Nevertheless, Leopold’s vision has, in a manner of speaking, come to fruition and, thanks to the EU, Brussels is regarded as the capital of Europe. What defines Europe – a political fiction, comprised of ever-shifting ideological and geographical boundaries – will always be a tricky task for a book like Trans-Europe Express. As Hatherley notes, its limit at the Urals is geographically arbitrary – ‘a shallow range of hills dotted with Soviet industrial towns on both sides’ – and was only settled at in the 19th century, having also been drawn anywhere from the Elbe to the Volga. Architecturally speaking, its historical lineage is just as simplified. The orderly transition from a Graeco-Roman Classical tradition via the Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque, and back to Neoclassicism, simplifies the messy results of the dissolution of the Roman Empire, and the constant influence of cultures that survived and thrived on its eastern edge. In fact, if anything defines Europe outside a belief in Greek and Roman roots, it’s a negative: the insistent sense that Europe is not what lies to its east in Asia.

‘There’s a refreshing pragmatic frankness about someone who sees the EU, and Europe, as neither a perfidious threat nor a sunlit upland, but as a shifting continent’

The capital of Europe may have shifted from Athens to Brussels, but Ancient Greece is still a strong architectural signifier for any nation wishing to prove its Europeanness, especially one with orientalist concerns about the proximity of the Middle East. Nowhere is that more clearly seen than in Skopje, capital of Macedonia, which Hatherley visits as its city centre is being transformed according to the Skopje 2014 plan. At the heart of the plan is ‘antiquitisation’, with Neoclassical facades providing existing civic buildings with an array of new features, from marble cladding to hollow Doric columns. Part of the plan includes a sculpture square, with national heroes ranging from medieval kings to anti-Ottoman nationalist insurgents selected by ‘popular choice’. Macedonia Square also features an equestrian statue of Alexander the Great – a not uncontroversial choice, given both Macedonia and Greece claim him as a native son, with Macedonia’s claim resulting in diplomatic backlashes from the Greeks – but the effect is obvious. Skopje, the architecture and statuary declaims, is Europe. For good measure, the plan has also delivered that most European of statement pieces: a new triumphal arch. 

This new plan is even more dispiriting, for Hatherley, for the way it erases a pre-existing plan for the city, designed in 1965 by Kenzo Tange following a devastating earthquake that hit the then Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Unlike the cheap populist facades of the 2014 plan, Tange’s vision was genuinely radical, tying together the old city with the modern city on the opposite side of the river Vardar, historically an informal divide between Muslim and Christian areas. Much of this was built: Hatherley cites the ‘strange, individualistic example of organic Brutalism’ of the Telecommunications Centre, the ‘extraordinary’ Opera and Ballet Theatre, and the Trade Centre that runs to the river. But the new City Wall, bridging the old and new, was never completed, and nor were the towers and walkways that were to lead from the City Gate. In their place, post-socialist retail parks and informal housing blocks fill the landscape. He cites this as a cautionary tale for those who wish traditionalism would ‘get to win’ over the Modernists.

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The postcard included with the book depicts civic architecture in Europe, ranging from Neoclassical archetypes to more modern and dystopian urban visions

Trans-Europe Express is characterised partly by these two visions of Europe: a populist, nationalist vision looking to the past to define itself in opposition to external difference, versus a socialist, internationalist vision, which looked to possible futures where new worlds could be realised. But there’s a third ideological player at hand in the book – a sort of boring, Nordic, social-democratic managerialism the author finds on display across Scandinavia, not least in Bergen in (non-EU) Norway, and which, perhaps surprisingly, he finds almost to his taste. It’s not just the 1930s Constructivist department store, or its approach to ‘intelligent modern architecture with a sensitivity to landscape’, but the social results of its response to the sudden windfall of North Sea oil revenue in the 1970s. He laments the contrast between the British and Norwegian response: the Norwegians managing the proceeds of a nationalised oil industry via a sovereign wealth fund that has left the country one of the richest on earth (a policy favoured in the UK at the time by then energy minister Tony Benn), while Britain used its windfall to ‘subsidise the mass unemployment created by a deliberate policy of class conflict and deindustrialisation’. You’re left with the strong sense that it’s the small, boring decisions, the issues of good housekeeping and sensible management, that really deliver both architectural and national visions, rather than the sweeping gestures of pride. The ‘very successful, ordinary pedestrian space’ of socialist-era Split 3, for example, offers far more to its city’s inhabitants than any number of triumphal arches. 

Yet, as the British are experiencing now, the grand gesture is easier to tub-thump. Brexit is the spectre that hangs over Trans-Europe Express. While Hatherley clearly finds the jingoistic meanness behind the referendum repugnant – he tackled the same attitude, this time as a cover for austerity, in his book The Ministry of Nostalgia – he is no banner-waver for the EU either. Instead, there’s a refreshing pragmatic frankness about someone who sees the EU, and Europe, as neither a perfidious threat nor a sunlit upland, but as a shifting continent whose history is marked by barbarism, colonialism and war, but also collective, internationalist optimism. Both are represented in its architecture. At times, Hatherley comes across as exhausted by the graft and short-sightedness of much modern European city planning, and struggles to summon the exciting rage of his early books. Nonetheless, Trans-Europe is more than a Baedaker Guide for an EasyJet city-break age; it’s a thoughtful, sharp and personal look at how Europe uses architecture to tell stories about itself, and an excavation of the political realities behind its own fairytales. 

Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent

by Owen Hatherley

Allen Lane, £16.99

ISBN: 978-0141988320

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