Flemish practice Robbrecht en Daem is applying a sense of pragmatism and delight to its major renovation of Ghent’s public squares
From the faux wood ceramic tiles cladding Paul Robbrecht’s new house, to the plywood walls of the office next door, which he runs with Hilde Daem in a converted timber yard in Ghent, it is clear that Flemish practice Robbrecht en Daem favours sturdy, pragmatic materials. At the office door is a metal plinth designed as an artwork by Isa Genzken; a visitor mistook it for a cycle rack and leaned his bike up against it. You suspect that the practice, which was behind the Whitechapel Art Gallery extension in London, has to explain endlessly ‘we’re not minimalists’, but as Daem tells me, ‘We choose materials to arrive at something aesthetic, yet with a high level of craftsmanship.’
In the medieval era, their home city of Ghent was Europe’s second largest after Paris. Now it boasts over 900 listed buildings, including Renaissance guild houses (trade and administration headquarters, often elaborately designed) lining the canals, and some commercial buildings dating back as far as 1200. In Ghent, however, you don’t find the more monumental buildings from Robbrecht en Daem’s oeuvre, such as their terracotta tile-clad Concert Hall in Bruges (2002). Amid the 19th-century mansions on the north bank of the Coupure canal is the Kanaalhuzen corner block, containing a pair of restrained apartment and office buildings dating from 1997.
Now, though, with a design for Ghent’s main squares on-site for completion in 2012, as well as a renovation of Henry van de Velde’s 1930s library at Ghent University, the practice has continued to woo clients who recognise that its design language works well as a foil to urban history of all periods.
‘Somehow, we feel our work is closer to British architecture’, comments Daem, ‘than the surrealist creations of the Dutch.’
When you look at their only other built scheme in the UK besides the Whitechapel extension, High Views - two observation towers along a cycle route between Lincoln and Boston by the River Witham, inspired by the meandering vault of Lincoln Cathedral - you see what she means. Wooden slatted structures with colours inspired by local birds is a typical Robbrecht en Daem response (they are fans of Corb’s colour schemes, documented by Arthur Ruegg in his book Le Corbusier - Polychromie Architecturale). Idiosyncratic twists are wedded to everyday life.
From its founding in 1975, the practice has been extraordinarily lucky with clients. In the 1980s, there was a paucity of architectural work in Belgium until the mid-decade, when the fortunes of many younger practitioners began to be catalysed by the efforts of architect Marc Dubois, who staged exhibitions and drummed up business. This process gathered momentum when Flanders became a self-governing region in the 1990s and had to look for an identity, kickstarting regular think tanks, a biannual yearbook and, from 2000, the new post of the Vlaams Bouwmeester (literally ‘Flemish curator of buildings’), an architect responsible for controlling the quality of government projects.
Bob Van Reeth was the first to hold the post, and during his six-year tenure he promoted urban regeneration to reverse the exodus from city centres. This was largely to deal with the downside of Flanders’ cultural autonomy: ‘When Belgium separated, Flanders had all the bad things, so a post-industrial adaptation followed’, explains Katrien Vandermarliere, director of the Flemish Architecture Institute.
Working with architect Marie-José Van Hee from the council, Robbrecht en Daem’s major commission to reinvent Ghent’s central squares is now taking shape. The city does not have a single main plaza, but instead has evolved around a network of open spaces and historic churches. In the city centre is the Korenmarkt, focused on the 13th-century St Nicholas’ Church.
There are commanding views of the whole city from the pinnacle of the belfry tower behind, overlooking Emile Braun square and St Bavo’s Cathedral. At present, these vast expanses have a lacklustre, forgettable air, and are cut off from the grandeur of the monuments around them by the tramlines that loop around their south side and over St Michael’s Bridge to the east.
The proposed reconfiguration will make the squares more functional and responsive, enhancing their civic spirit and no doubt pleasing the Bouwmeester.
‘It’s living space - it’s not all circulation space,’ says Robbrecht. In a move that English Heritage would never allow, they are cutting away part of the bridge to create a new bicycle store in the void. Tram stops are being redesigned, and the deft insertion of a small park between the church and the tower softens the hard ground plane. ‘There are not enough green spaces in Ghent,’ Robbrecht adds. Next to the park will be a municipal hall open on both sides, with a double gable roof for concerts, performances and an ice skating rink, recalling how this space was formerly used without resorting to historical pastiche.
Both the previous mayor - ‘an intellectual’, according to Robbrecht - and the current mayor - ‘a man of the people’ - were instrumental in driving this scheme, confident of the architects’ capacity to work at an urban scale and cultivate a sense of public ownership. If you look hard enough within the layers of Ghent’s history, contemporary architecture shines through. Even the underground car park at St Peter’s Square is designed by an architect, ABSCIS. The largest square in the city and a neoclassical ‘room’ of great formal strength, it had fallen into the role of car park before its extensive renovation. And while the council had to sacrifice some archaeological heritage to excavate space below ground for 700 parking spaces, the square was resurfaced and benches and bollards were added (though there is not a traditional-style bollard in sight). These street furnishings can be removed when the spring fair comes to town.
There seems an innate sense of balance in Flemish urban design that privileges social life and performance, in keeping with a public affinity for dance, music and theatre. Ghent’s stony, monumental fabric may outwardly belie that reality, but closer investigation reveals the flexibility of the Flemish, even here