Belgium – An open call
Mercilessly reviled as possessing the ugliest homes in the world, Belgium is now home to some of the most intriguing architectural gambits in Europe. Stephen Hitchins takes a look.
A PLACE TO change trains, a country to drive through quickly on the way to somewhere else; a country at the heart of Europe with the scars of former battlefields and memorials scattered across Flanders. Belgium: what was once called ‘a small country with small horizons’ now sits at the heart of Europe. The story of European integration, from Messina to Maastricht via the Luxembourg village of Schengen, meets in Belgium. The country is an opaque mesh of decision-making channels with three autonomous regions, and three language communities, with separate parliaments and territorial boundaries of regions and language areas that are not identical. but overlap. Unsurprisingly, in 1993, Umberto Eco said the language of Europe was translation. In Belgium you sense he got it right.
Ah, those silly games: name ten famous Belgians. There is far more to the place than the Ghent Altarpiece, Georges Simenon, Magritte, Audrey Hepburn, Tintin, and a handful of great football players. A country famous for its beer, frites and chocolates, and an international reputation for its eyewatering system of taxation, Belgians may well be the world’s least patriotic people.
From the 16th century until the Belgian revolution in 1830, Belgium, at that time called the ‘Southern Netherlands’, was the site of many battles between European powers, and dubbed ‘the cockpit of Europe’. It is a painful title to bear. Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme are all within a few miles of each other outside Brussels, where, today, NATO has its headquarters. In 2010, King Albert II, in a speech at the Royal Palace, defined his people’s characteristics. They were, he said, modest, open, creative, pragmatic and good at compromise. They also possessed ‘the ability not to take ourselves too seriously’. With its status as the permanent seat of the European Council and Commission, its own complicated system of overlapping governments that few people from outside ever try to come to terms with, Brussels seems to be the city Anglo- Americans love to hate. Not loving Brussels is a cliché.
The new town hall for Deinze was designed by Tony Fretton. Image Credit: Peter Cook
In my youth, Brussels was a dark, rainy, unfriendly, unseductive, unappealing, charmless place. The gloom, the rain, and the formality of the place really were overwhelming. Antwerp was just the same. Ward Daenen, an editor at De Morgen, one of the country’s Flemish dailies, explained: ‘Do you know the Flemish expression, “happy with a dead sparrow”? It means being happy with nothing. That is how we Belgians are.’ Belgian humility is rooted in the country’s complex history and culture. It is small and usually plays the role of facilitator. If architecture and design in Belgium ever get a mention, it is usually in the ‘another ugly home’ category. Contemporary interpretations of so-called ‘typical domestic architecture’ are patronised by commentators. But, Flanders.
View of one of the balconies within the De Prinsendam complex. Image Credit: Peter Cook
The Vlaams Bouwmeister, the Flemish government architect, does not build anything, and does not determine who builds what where. He or she is responsible for developing the long-term vision for the region, to contribute to the preparation and implementation of the architecture policy, and to select designers for public contracts. Those projects to which designers can apply are published twice a year in the Open Oproep, the Open Call. It is a very specific type of competition and unique in Europe. It is, in fact, a selection procedure rather than a competition. Tailored for all kinds of projects from urban master plans to individual buildings, it has operated since 2000. Every department and municipality in Flanders can consult the government team about a project and then work on developing the brief and inviting submissions. The government architect (the appointment is for five years) works as a consultant throughout the process but the decision-making remains with the client. Over 700 Open Calls have been made, and over half of them have been realised.
Once the handful of design teams are chosen (three to seven are usually selected based on their portfolios, architectural statements, and other qualifications) two briefings are held, one on-site. The process has ten distinct stages. Entrants are required to have a minimum of one realised project in their portfolio. The procedure is anonymous until the shortlisted practices meet the jury for interview. The government architect is required to select a diverse range of approach and a mix of established and young agencies. Recognising that in most cases ideas will be substantially modified during client discussions, proposals are more of intent than full preliminary designs. Each shortlisted firm receives the same amount of money to cover the costs of making a submission.
The De Prinsendam apartment complex in Amsterdam was also developed by Tony Fretton. Image Credit: Peter Cook
Appointed in 1999, the first government architect, Bob Van Reeth, had plenty of experience of competition, hence his belief that the usual focus on a finished design was a mistake. That led him to set up the system with its emphasis on ‘project definition’ together with an appreciation of ‘the cultural dimension’ of public building. It was in his search for diversity of approach that he always included talented young designers and firms from outside of Belgium. Striking a balance has not always been easy but the built results have justified the policy. His standpoint on experience that ‘you do not need to have designed three schools to be able to build a good one’ has proved sound. In the eternal search for quality, it was the insistence on dialogue that he established between the various parties to a project that has proved its continued success. There is no aesthetic approach, no style, and no replicable exterior characteristics, but rather there are ‘inner values’ of simplicity, immediacy and suitability, together with some ambiguity, that appear to have consistently triumphed.
Before the 1980s, there was no Belgian building culture, the most important architects being mavericks like Victor Horta, Henry van de Velde, Juliaan Lampens and Lucien Kroll. Nothing much connected them.
In a much-quoted article from 1968, Renaat Braem described his homeland as ‘the ugliest country in the world’, leading to Belgians fl aunting that in the ‘Ugly Belgian Houses’ blog. However, the years since the 1980s have been considered De Wonderjaren – the wonder years. Legend has it that in 1998 when the fi nance minster, Wivina Demeester, was required to inaugurate two new buildings in the north of Brussels, she was so appalled by the new construction that she initiated the establishment of the Vlaams Bouwmeister in a politically-independent advisory capacity to promote the improvement of public architecture in Flanders. Th e level of trust in the position and its continued relevance is in large part due to the role’s most eff ective instrument – the Open Call. It is hard to name another European country in which the number of good fi rms has grown as consistently and impressively since the start of the new millennium or has produced as great a diversity of well-executed projects as Flanders. Of all the winners, a surprising number have been British.
The Solid 11 project is a seven-storey, 8,000 sq m mixed-use development in central Amsterdam. Image Credit: Peter Cook
Like most places, Flanders is grappling with an ageing population, the challenges of urban sprawl and the aff ordability of housing. Pulling together regional policy and local initiative, the Woonwel housing association, together with the town of Gistel, came up with a project that sought to integrate reasonably priced housing, social welfare and quality architecture. Witherford Watson Mann won the project for the master plan in 2003. Th e fi rst residents in the new buildings did not move in until 2015 when a new community started to take shape.
In 2002 the city of Antwerp put forward a new vision for the historic harbour quarter of Schipperskwartier. It had become a notorious red-light district. Th e area was made up of 19th-century terraced housing, closed blocks of buildings, and small squares, with one of these being in Falconplein. Th e master plan reconnected the site to its forgotten history and Caruso St John was one of a number of fi rms responsible for designing new buildings that included housing for sale and rent, offi ces, studios, retail and communal facilities like a kindergarten. The project was completed in 2021.
Tony Fretton worked on a new administrative centre for Deinze from 2008 to 2016. A town of around 43,000 inhabitants it sits 20 minutes’s drive south-west of Ghent. As part of a larger scheme for the restoration of the historic city centre, one of the most ambitious projects was for a new town hall. In choosing a pivotal location opposite a 14th-century church and on the edge of the town’s main park, the two buildings re-orientated the municipality towards the River Lys, a tributary of the Scheldt. One building contains a double-height council chamber that is adorned by a visible public artwork, Th e Book of Hours, by Jorge Macchi.
Located in the northern Dutch town of Den Helder, the Molenplein project occupies a long site between two canals. Image Credit: Peter Cook
Th e façades are configured as loggias to provide shade and informal spaces away from the working areas. Th e larger building contains the offi ces and service centres. Both buildings benefit from natural light, and are naturally ventilated, with ground sourced heating and cooling. Together they enclose a public space along the river that has been integrated into the overall landscaping scheme that was devised by Marie-José Van Hee and Robbrecht en Daem.
Admired internationally, in 2019 Edwin Heathcote called Fretton Britain’s most unsung architect. On an earlier occasion he was asked to name the best new building in London, and he surprised himself by blurting out the Lisson Gallery – a place that opened in 1992. Mesmerising. 1992! ‘Sometimes the blurted out answers are the best,’ Heathcote admitted. A tiny but very infl uential project, alongside a considerable amount of work in Britain, Fretton’s ability has nevertheless, for a long time, been best observed outside the UK.
A concept drawing for the proposed design of a mixed-use project by Tony Fretton in the Swiss town of Neuhausen Am Rheinfall. Image Credit: Tony Fretton Architects
In the Netherlands his firm designed several residential projects in Amsterdam: apartment buildings in Houthaven, De Prinsendam, and the Andreas Ensemble. Also in the city, built with ultimate flexibility and intended to last 200 years, a building called Solid 11 faces the van Lennep canal, and currently the firm is completing the third phase of housing along Den Helder Molenplein in Groningen in the north of the country. In Switzerland there will be a major building in Neuhausen Am Rheinfall, and in Copenhagen there is a new apartment building in the complex and historically significant district of Frederiksstaden. Also in Denmark, completed to great acclaim in 2008, the Fuglsang Museum is as much about landscape as it is about art. As remarkable as any of its projects, that was followed in 2009 by the British Embassy in Warsaw, with a blast-screen façade of glass, a project that is also well suited to its parkland setting. Since the turn of the century, Britain has been attempting to rebrand itself through its embassies. Fewer sumptuous palaces designed by latter-day George Gilbert Scotts, and more buildings that advertise self-confidence in a modern way; out with imperial superiority, in with the understated refinement of Tony Fretton. Thus, in Poland, a sleek, minimal box of glass and bronze set between neoclassical stucco buildings in Lazienki on the edge of the city. It was the first embassy to be awarded BREEAM Excellent status.
The Westkaai residential towers in Antwerp, featuring the work of three different architectural practices all in a row. Image Credit: Peter Cook
‘Designed in Hackney, built in Belgium’ has a strange ring to it. But in Fretton’s case, a steady stream of projects, nominations and awards over the last 15 years make the unlikely not so remarkable. The offices of the European Foundation House Centre (EFC) are located just behind the Belgian Parliament on Rue Royale in Brussels. EFC is a non-profit membership organisation of more than 230 foundations and corporate founders.
As part of the social and environmental responsibilities of the association’s members, the aim was to develop an existing building as sustainably as possible. Originally designed in 1988 by architects Samyn & Partners and clad with natural white stone, and with double glazing, according to the energy performance expected at the time. The entire existing structure of the building is made of concrete. In 2011 Fretton made a feasibility study with the aim of demonstrating how to transform an existing office into a passive building. In 2013, it won an award as the first renovated passive building in the Brussels Region.
A new building in the historically significant Frederiksstaden district of central Copenhagen, which completes the classical square of apartments around the Marble Church. Image Credit: Peter Cook
Then there was the prize-winning Westkaai residential towers in Antwerp, 165 homes wrapped in Flemish brickwork, and a mixeduse development in Ghent: Dunant Gardens. But it was in Deinze that Fretton had his first success with the Open Call. A number of things flowed from that: an ability to win competitions, and more work in the Low Countries that in themselves became very influential in the firm’s work in London, heralding a move to a trabeated brick architecture in the majority of its architect-led residential projects and some of its office work. They also introduced the idea that a development could be broken up into groups of buildings which appear to have been cohesively developed over time.
Many countries contain a city, sometimes more than one, that has acquired world fame while at the same time being an overlooked destination for busy visitors. In Europe, these cities are often places with long histories that morphed into industrial, commercial or trading hubs. Cities like Hamburg, Lyon and Turin can perhaps be seen in this way.
In Belgium, Antwerp is one of the most striking examples of this phenomenon of simultaneous fame and neglect. It is one of the great historic cities of Europe. Hectic, sprawling, intriguing, ‘There’s something free and artistic about the life here, if one looks for it, perhaps more than anywhere else,’ van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo from Antwerp in 1886. ‘There’s gusto and people enjoy themselves,’ the famed artist wrote.
For a city whose culture has depended on trade since its inception, on an openness to whatever innovation comes through its docks, the burden of tradition is less stifling in Antwerp than it might be for young artists in less changeable cities. It is unexpectedly both Europe’s second busiest seaport and located 50 miles inland from the sea.
Fuglsang Kunstmuseum is a purpose built regional art museum designed by Tony Fretton Architects to house the Storstrøm Art Museum’s permanent collection of Danish fine art. Image Credit: Peter Cook
For much of the past half millennium, its character has been defined by this geographical quirk. Sheltered in a nook of the Scheldt estuary, it is at once quintessentially European – a city of medieval cobblestone streets and Gothic Flemish Renaissance buildings – and directly connected to the globe-spanning shipping routes entered by the North Sea. Accordingly, it has been one of the continent’s essential trade hubs, as well as a prolific incubator of the avant-garde.
Isolated from the city, the Antwerp Port Authority building is a lonely presence in an industrial area, a spectacle without an audience, a presence on the northern skyline. It regularly appeared, lurking in last year’s compelling Irish-Belgian TV drama, Hidden Assets, in which the port area played a crucial role. The building had won an Open Call in 2008 that linked its building to a proposal for solving the city’s indescribable traffic jams.
With Brussels, Antwerp has the unenviable record of the worst traffic congestion in Europe. The two cities even beat Milan. Their ring roads are the twin centres of a spider web of highways that are impossible to evade. Travelling across the country, there is no option but to pass at least one or both cities, even if you do not need to be there (and the same is true for the rail network – half of all trains go through Brussels). In Antwerp, the transformation of a listed 1922 fire station into the port authority’s headquarters may look like the city’s largest diamond, but it will no longer sit at the cutting-edge of solving the traffic jams.
The British Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, eschewing imperial pomp and grandeur for a more modern show of diplomatic prestige. Image Credit: Peter Cook
Featured in the original visuals of the competition entries was a monumental viaduct connecting the port to the city, linking both banks of the Scheldt, and completing a ring road, that would resolve the traffic problem. By the time the building was completed in 2016, following a referendum, the bridge had been cancelled to be replaced by a two-kilometre tunnel, part of a 15km-long section of the Oosterweel Link, and the largest infrastructure project in Flanders now due to be opened by 2025.
Once completed, the quays of the disused Kattendijk dock, with the Port House close to its northern edge, slowly filled with housing – apartment towers by David Chipperfield, Diener & Diener and Tony Fretton – extending the city’s borders in the direction of the port. The port building designed by Zaha Hadid is as overpowering as might be expected, an iconoclastic vision of the future, and one that, according to the Flemish government architect, Tania Hertveld, succeeds. ‘Not everyone is particularly fond of the chosen design by Zaha Hadid. But the commissioner got exactly what he had asked for in the project definition: a spectacular building that catches the eye of every visitor to Antwerp and that was designed by an international starchitect. It is a merit of the Open Call that commissioners can decide for themselves how they want to show their organisation to the outside world.’
The Antwerp Port building, designed by the renowned British-Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid. Image Credit: Peter Cook
‘Catches the eye’ it certainly does. Faithful to her deconstructivist ideals, dismantling remnants of academic Modernism, a philosophy summed up in a MoMA catalogue of 1988 by Mark Wigley and Philip Johnson, ‘Deconstruction gains all its force by challenging the very values of harmony, unity, and stability, and proposing instead a different view of structure: the view that the flaws are intrinsic to the structure’ but one that in the eye of Christian Rapp, another contender in the competition and, since 2016, city architect of Antwerp, publicly called it ‘a nightmare realised’ shortly after completion, expressing the view of many of his colleagues. A €28m project ended up costing €63m, the irregular façade of opaque and transparent triangular glass panels only offer fragmented views out, the desks designed by the architect are not rectangular, and clearly the needs of the 500+ staff were not the first consideration of anyone involved: not the designer, nor the client.
What was a deconstructivist dream for some became a glittering nightmare for others, a signpost towards the city, an alien spaceship, totally irrational, and one of the city’s main attractions. As to whether it was necessary or appropriate will be debated for generations to come – or at least until that tunnel is finished.