Between 2003 and 2006 I followed and participated in the discussion around the presence of the European Union in Brussels. On several occasions I published my vision on this topic. At the time this debate on architecture, politics and representation attracted a lot of attention. To say the least; it was sensational. Finally it felt like some was happening. And the whole spectacle ended in a circus tent! Welcome to the wonderful world of urbanistic illusions, architectural hocus-pocus, iconographic juggling, representational acrobactics and see the city with the multiple identity crisis. Take a seat on the front row!
In 2001, the Belgian Premier Guy Verhofstadt and the Chairman of the European Commission Romano Prodi decided to establish a think tank on the identity and image of Brussels as a European capital and as a city. A bracing storm was to blow its way through the European Quarter. Under the motto ‘the more daring, the better’, the Erasmus Group was free to unleash its intellect on Brussels and Europe. It marked the start of a quest for the identity of a city and a continent which were doing all they could to avoid having one. This resulted in an architecture competition for the European Quarter which was subject to the Belgian and Brussels way of dealing with architecture and the city; non-inspired, hostile towards progress and debilitating in its suggestions. From then on I started calling the European Quarter Ground Euro. In the mean time Rem Koolhaas teamed up with the European Union and worked on the The Image of Europe exhibition, which opened in September 2004. Around the same time the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, started with their ‘Capital Cities’-research. First victim was Brussels. Their study has resulted in a concrete project for Brussels as a worthy capital of Europe.
A short overview of my comments and analysis;
Intrigues in Brussels – The future history of the European Quarter
The expansion of the European Union is causing headaches for several of its member countries. Not only are the EU members expected to clarify and coordinate their economic, social and political agendas and interests by the end of 2003, but it is already obvious that the European institutions are virtually unprepared for incorporating the planned extension in policy, let alone putting it into effect. The expansion is not just a matter of geography; it also forces the EU and its institutions to undertake reforms which will make it possible for new members to take an active part in European policymaking. This means more ministers, more parliamentarians and more ‘Eurocrats’ coming to the European capital to do whatever it is they do. On top of that, the Treaty of Nice (December 2000) stated that Brussels is to become the seat of the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Europe from 2004 onwards. The expansion and reorganization of the European Union inevitably entails a functional and programmatic redefinition of the European Quarter in Brussels. This project has been on the Belgian and European agenda since early 2001, and high aspirations have been entertained for its architectural quality. Brussels would become the ‘capital of Europe’ and shake off the shabby image it had hitherto inflicted on Europe. The EU would at last acquire the aura it had always wanted and deserved. It was a noble-minded effort, intended to ring in a new urban design and political era for Brussels and the EU.
The concept of the European Quarter is retroactively generic; in the race to become a capital, it satisfied every one of Europe’s demands. Quality, image, identity and morphology were the last things Europe and Brussels cared about. And because of this, paradoxically enough, the district became the very epitome of European identity and the crisis of modernism, namely the inability to communicate an ideology. The European Quarter has thus turned into a vast poker table, with Europe betting like a blind gambler on square metres of floor space and Brussels in the role of croupier raking in the construction projects. The tangible results were paid out to Europe, without a word being uttered about the image. (read full text)
To explain the entire recent malaise surrounding ‘Ground Euro’ would take me too far here. For that I refer readers to my analysis in the next Archis (2003-1). In short, after analysing ‘Ground Euro’, an ambitious think-tank (Koolhaas, Eco et al.) came to the following conclusion: the European Union deserves a capital with an architecture and urban design capable of communicating with its citizens; the area needs to be coherently reconsidered in terms of both buildings and infrastructure; and after years of political terror the inhabitants of Brussels had to be released from their paranoia. No problem, the Prime Minister assured us, and he promptly promised international competitions, transparent structures, openness and multi-functionality for the area. A few months down the road and the outcome is bewildering: no results, top bureaucrats who consider missing signatures a lack of vision, compromises, and last but not least the sale of land on ‘Ground Euro’ to the chief contractor, turning the ‘global concept study for the Quarter’ into a Fata Morgana. Rarely has ‘transparent structures’ been a more apt term to describe the reigning façadism of the city’s politics of urban design. (read full text on Archined)
Brussels Fascinations | Rem Koolhaas and the European Conviviality Revolution
After Rem Koolhaas had been eliminated under questionable circumstances from the tendering process for the European District, the PSK took it upon itself to give his concepts for a ‘European Project’ a second chance. After all, a lot needed to be done in order to reanimate the poisoned relationship between Brussels and Europe; like a jealous couple, they accuse each other of neglect and dismiss every attempt at reconcilement as pushy. The intention was to analyse this relationship in the ‘La prise de l’Europe’ workshop, at which neighbourhood associations, local associations of architects, international architects, politicians, philosophers of culture and European professors were invited to bear witness on 30 and 31 May. AMO looked, saw and took note. (read full text)
The Image of Europe
In The Image of Europe exhibition, Koolhaas/AMO constructed an epic history of Europe and the EU with multiple ambitions: to provoke a new iconography, to devise a communication strategy, and to construct a narrative for a continent that certainly has been and still seems to be splintered by political quarrels between nations. If The Image of Europe was sold initially as propaganda to effect change in a complex situation, it should also be considered the hard outcome of the Erasmus Group’s soft discussion on Europe three years ago, the present result of which is without a doubt a construct of realpolitik. Even though we live in an age of the image, right now, nobody seems to be interested in the image and perception of the European Quarter. It has become Ground Euro, a black hole. Only when Europeans begin to understand the image of Europe, will they be ready and able to construct Europe’s image. (read full text on MediaMatic)