Atomium | Brussels, 2004

The future history of the European Quarter

by Bert de Muynck | Archis #01, 2003

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,

The debates which took place on the concept of a ‘European capital’ failed to produce, at any level of administration, the insight, will and capability needed to translate the concept into architecture and urban design. On the contrary, the contemplations of an ambitiously conceived think tank on the identity of a future European capital merely led to a persecution complex in Brussels circles. The history of the concept study for the European Quarter is that of the degeneration of a soaring European aspiration into a spineless Brussels pseudo-realpolitik. This downfall may be blamed on total indifference to the potential of a contemporary urban vision, on the dominant social tendency that parades ignorance as attractive open-mindedness, and on the sloganeering municipal constitution of Brussels. It is a lowering of standards whose origins go back several decades. For one thing, the European Union has lacked the vision to build qualitative goals into its institutional location policies, resulting in ‘typical Brussels situations’. There has also been at most sporadic discussion of the concept of a European identity, leading to years of neglect in design and communication. Furthermore, Belgium has lacked any real contemporary debate on the nature of a ‘metropolitan’ Brussels. To illustrate this, I will reduce the history to four low points: a brief history of EU policy and its notion of identity, the call for tenders for the European Quarter and the responses it attracted, the political responsibilities and European ambitions of this Brussels maiden voyage, and the position in all this of the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

European Quarter | Brussels, 2004

Brussels, Capital of Europe

Back in the 1950s, the European Community decided on a three-pronged location policy: Brussels, Luxemburg and Strasbourg. Brussels subsequently developed into the European epicentre, and the Community into a single, large enclave within Brussels. The bewildering urban character of this zone sprang from an accidental meeting in a city hall between a nineteenth-century street pattern and a twentieth-century property development sector, resulting in a historical high point of chaotic architectural masochism.

The short history of Brussels as European capital began in 1951: the European Coal and Steel Community proposed Brussels, Belgium put forward Liège, and Luxembourg was chosen; but, under pressure, Brussels was adopted as a temporary base. While Luxemburg and Strasbourg politely ushered the European institutions out to locations on the urban periphery, Brussels placed its inner city at their disposal. The high rents the city would be able to pocket played a not insignificant part in this, and all the EEC cared about was office space. The main European premises in Brussels was the Berlaymont Building. ((This building is to become the property of the EU Commission in 2004. It brought in 15.4 million euros per annum in rental. It was finally sold for 552 million euros, with a symbolic payment of 1 euro for the land the building stands on.)) Around this behemoth, a 30-hectare ‘European Quarter’ was conceived in 1973 to meet the ever-growing demand for floor space. After construction of the new building for the European Council of Ministers, directly opposite the Berlaymont, in 1994, the EU itself at last became the owner of a building in Brussels. The architecture and the urban implantation of this building demonstrate neither vision, European ambience and identity, nor urban integration or independence. It is purely functional: easy to guard, safe and large enough.
Thus Brussels met every European expectation in accordance with its own standards. The reasons are numerous. Brussels suffered (and suffers still) from a shady alliance between politics and the property sector while the EU for its part took fifty years to decide on a permanent base so that discussions on location policy have only now intersected with debates on identity and ambience. On top of this, the EU’s presence altered the urban fabric of Brussels in a weird, postmodern way, thereby bundling its customary opponents into an urban tele-time machine headed towards a ‘Brussels renaissance’. The lobbying of the proponents of this postmodernism is now bearing fruit and their urban visions, once dismissed as pathetic, are now regarded as the only answer. The result is that the radicalness of the dominant urbanity is underestimated which in turn leads to the ideas of earlier metropolitan and populist pressure groups being overestimated.

This concept does not apply to all cities where European institutions have settled. But any qualitative interpretation for the European institutions is down to the initiative of the city concerned. Strasbourg, for example, aspired to link quality to image out of a sense of self-respect. The design of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg was – for the first time in 40 years – decided by competition, on the initiative of the mayor of Strasbourg, Catherine Trautmann. ((For further enlightenment on the history of the concrete elaboration of this plan, I refer the reader to Carola Hein, ‘A home for European democracy?’, Archis no. 1, 1999, pp. 52-59.))

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.

European Quarter | Brussels, 2004

The European Identity as of 2001

In the latter part of 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. ((The think tank, also known as ‘the sages’ or ‘the Erasmus Group’, consisted of the following members: Gerard Mortier (former director of the Salzburg Festival and one-time intendant of the Muntschouwburg Theatre, Brussels), Umberto Eco (Italian semiologist and author), Bronislaw Geremek (Polish historian), Nicolas Hayek (Lebanese-Swiss entrepreneur who created the Swatch), Agnès Jaoui (French actress, scenarist and cinematographer), Rem Koolhaas (Dutch architect), Maryon McDonald (British anthropologist), Pasqual Maragall (Spanish politician, former mayor of Barcelona and expert on urban renewal), Juan Ignacio Vidarte (Spanish economist and director of the Bilbao Guggenheim), Michel Crozier (French professor of the sociology of organizations), François Schuiten (Belgian artist and cartoonist) and Geert van Istendael (Belgian journalist).)) 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.

The discussion about the metropolitan status and identity of a European capital concept is not a new one. Jacques Derrida expressed it, in the early 1990s, as follows:

It is henceforth no longer necessary to link the cultural capital to a geographic-political capital, yet the question of the capital still resounds and still more loudly. ((Jacques Derrida, ‘De andere koers’, Archis no. 12, 1990, p. 39-44.))

It is the same question that was posed early in 2001. A central point of Derrida’s argument is the decentralization of cultural identities to which media networks impart a kind of omnipresence. Derrida sees the cultural identity of Europe as one that is just as much self-oriented as shaped by ‘the other’. Another question is how that capital can escape the traditional idea of controlling, uniforming and standardizing. It is those two questions that must be thought about in a single exercise. For Derrida, that way of thinking develops a strategy which orders a cultural identity around a capital that has more power the more mobile it is. Derrida described how to initiate this development in 1990:

Arguments, political-institutional practices, must therefore be found which take the alliance of the two contracts upon themselves: the capital and the other of the capital.’ Briefly put, Derrida sees an impossibility of combining the two, but therein lies the art of the exercise: ‘is the experience of the impossible not the essence of responsibility?

In recent history, it is that specific impossibility and responsibility that people have evaded by splitting up the concept of a capital yet again.

European Quarter | Brussels, 2004

The first meeting of the nine ‘European sages’ of the Erasmus Group took place on 30 May 2001. Umberto Eco focused the debate about ‘the “soft” capital’ on the diverse Europe that was turning into the Europe of diversity: the typical ‘multi’ aspect of Europe such as multi-cultural, multi-linguistic and multi-religious. A single European culture would be replaced, in his opinion, by a network in which the capital city would be the server for distributing the European capital’s ‘software’. ((‘Thus, the capital of the European Union should become a foyer culturel, a centre for the confrontation of diversities.’ Umberto Eco, ‘Brussels, Capital of Europe’, p. 12.))

On 19 September 2001, Rem Koolhaas explained his vision of ‘the “hard” capital’. Koolhaas conceptualized two aspects of the European identity: one through communication, and the other through the built substance of the European institutions. He analyzed the history of the European Quarter as a vast traumatic experience that served as an excuse to evade the modernization question. ((‘This trauma (a traumatic experience in the heart of the city) has now turned into an alibi, because it allows them not to seriously confront the issue of modernization or the new scale of the European project, thus remaining locked in a defensive position.’ Rem Koolhaas, ‘Brussels, capital of Europe’ (published by The Group of Policy Advisors (GOPA) of the European Commission, p.13.)) Koolhaas proposed a solution through design: a new, circular path of demolition and new construction around the existing buildings of the European Quarter was required to upgrade the existing situation aesthetically, politically and scenically.

European Quarter |  Brussels, 2004

Euro-Archipelago

Koolhaas’s ‘hard’ solution is a hybrid of a tabula rasa and the preservation of an existing situation. His idea, an extension of his ‘green archipelago’ concept, which in turn is the blueprint for Koolhaas’s thoroughly metropolitan ideas, is both ingenious and ruthless: Brussels and Europe both need a new start, and that can be achieved by replacing the existing mess by a transparent urban plan and high-grade architecture. Koolhaas sees the theory of the green archipelago as consisting of ‘two diametrically opposed forces – the bolstering of those parts of the city that deserve it, and the destruction of those parts that do not’. ((Rem Koolhaas, ‘Zich het niets voorstellen’, Items no. 24, 1987, p. 20.)) Only then, Koolhaas believes, can Brussels, as city and capital, communicate with the EU and its inhabitants in a qualitative and contemporary way. In this ‘Euro-campus’ model, the built structures enjoy the same importance as the empty areas which taken together acquire the status of a forceful urban ‘nothing’. It is that ‘nothing’ that becomes unsuspected and invisible, and moreover acceptable in this problematic context: ‘So it is a question of a rather opportunistic attitude, since what is not built is invisible, and therefore acceptable’. ((Rem Koolhaas, ‘Atlanta, Paris, Singapore’, Lotus no. 84, 1995, p.121.)) The metropolitan challenge lies in the problem of connection, namely, how can an open urban zone be made of the existing European enclave within Brussels? How that zone is to be filled in is food for another discussion. Openness and connection of the architecture with the existing fabric are not essential preconditions for the making of a communicative statement, as Koohaas illustrates with this ‘slightly overdone’ example: ‘I would like to mention the example of New York’s World Trade Center as a building that was outrageously different from its context in terms of scale, that was not connected, but that nevertheless took its place in a very convincing way in a very old part of the city’. ((Rem Koolhaas, ‘Brussels, capital of Europe’ (see note 6), p. 14.)) The date was Wednesday 19 September 2001, and Koolhaas was busy transforming a trauma into a justification.

Orphan Brussels

The outcome of this consultative forum at a European and federal Belgian level, was a report with recommendations, including a record of the discussions that had taken place and the intentions that had been declared. A cautious optimism emerged, because the political establishment – indeed, the Belgian prime minister himself – backed a transparent approach in Brussels. But, to paraphrase the proverb, one politician does not make a policy. The forthrightness of the following comment (in response to the final report of the think tank) paradoxically exposes the prime minister’s lack of insight: ‘The Belgian people do not have a strong sense of national identity. …Federal states very often do not have strong capitals. For these reasons, Brussels is an open space that can be developed into a modern European capital without creating tensions with the role of Brussels as a national capital’. ((Guy Verhofstadt, ‘How to develop a real Quartier Européen?’, lecture, Brussels, 22 April 2002.)) The idea that Brussels can develop into a modern European capital without tensions testifies to an enormous naivety and idealism. The lack of a unified identity or of a clear urban aspiration means that anyone can claim his or her image of Brussels as the true one. It is such pie-in-the-sky discussions that provide certain pressure groups and political factions with a golden opportunity to proclaim their even less imaginative urban visions to the public. It is also precisely that ostensible loyalty and the avoidance of tensions that expresses the crisis of the European Union and its capital. Thus the maxim of the EU is usually compromise rather than vision, both in arguments about identity and in its expression. History teaches us that Brussels is the orphan offspring of a federal marriage of convenience, burdened with a multiple personality syndrome and stalked by an imaginary suitor, Europe. The burning question of how Europe and Belgium view the identity of that child, may still give her a marvellous future.

Federal intentions versus the task force

In the spring of 2002, much work was made of a single, prestigious plan: the general outline study for the European Quarter, including a new European Congress Center. Not everyone is convinced, however, of the communicative and logistic utility of this scheme. The fact that the Brussels Capital-Region had no voice in the think tank for Europe and Brussels rankles with Minister-President of Brussels, François-Xavier de Donnéa, who is also in charge of planning and urban renewal for the Brussels region. On 14 May 2002, he unilaterally instituted a task force on ‘Guidelines for Brussels–Europe’. Officially, the agency existed prior to 2002 and had the following status: ‘The agency will resort directly under the Minister-President’. ((François-Xavier de Donnéa, ‘Brussels Hoofdstedelijke Raad’, meeting of 19 December 2001. It was incidentally De Donnéa who issued the license for building the European Parliament, when he was Minister-President of the Brussels Capital Region in the federal government.)) De Donnéa leaves no doubt about his vision for Brussels: ‘Brussels is prepared to accommodate this expansion with European assistance, as long as it does not impair the urban fabric of Brussels, disrupt life in the neighbourhoods, displace Brussels residents or turn Brussels into a soulless megalopolis’. ((François-Xavier de Donnéa, ‘Persmededeling – Richtlijnen Brussel-Europa’, Brussels, 14 May 2002.)) This statement appeared in the communiqué issued in May 2002, in which it is possible to read between the lines that if the expansion does not take place in accordance with his provincialist urban idea for Brussels, the European and Federal Belgian plans will not stand a chance.

European Quarter | Brussels, 2004

The European and Federal Belgian intention is thus faced at an early stage with the rigidity of the Brussels government, which is behaving like a warder of the city’s European asylum center. This ill-judged standpoint thus ignores the purpose of this urban exercise: the design of a European Quarter that both Brussels and Europe deserve. The reason is not hard to find. Neither Regional nor Federal Belgian governments have the requisite audacity and intelligence to opt for a vision and the concomitant quality. Jacques Delors once asserted that the destruction of the urban fabric of Brussels is not so much the fault of Europe but of poor Belgian management. Nobody has yet contradicted this remark.

An invitation to tender: the joint Federal and Regional approach

The Regional–Federal coordinating body, which approaches the European role of Brussels with rather more resolve, marshaled its forces by issuing an invitation to tender in the Belgisch Staatsblad on 19 July 2002. ((‘On 14 June 2002, a memorandum was placed before the Council of Ministers concerning development of the European Quarter Schuman-Leopold. The Council of Ministers decided that the Federal State and the Brussels Capital-Region would together prepare a broad urban draft study for the European Quarter Schuman-Leopold.’ In i: ‘diensten van de eerste minister – de ontwikkeling van een globaal stedebouwkundig concept Publié le : 2002-07-19 N. 008639 Page : 5129.)) Little objection could be raised to this plan, and a new start seemed to be dawning. The urban planning abuses of Brussels were forgotten, the precipitate style of De Donnéa now appeared to be tempered, and a joint project was in the making across the various boundaries of authority, policy and ambition. But once again public polemic stirred. The invitation to tender was issued just before the holiday season, and immediately raised the ire of ‘disturb’ (an architectural society) and the critic Koen Van Synghel. In substantiating their criticism, they pulled out all the stops on incompetent urban planning and political visions. ‘The architects (i.e. “disturb”) reproach the Federal government for in this way giving more opportunity to well-connected architects than to the imagination,’ Van Synghel fulminated. ‘On the pretext of saving time, the procedure of inviting tenders has now been used. …A competition is, by definition, open, an appeal to the imagination and a good basis for public debate’. ((Koen van Synghel, ‘Dubieuze procedure voor Europese wijk’, de Standaard, 30 July 2002.)) The interest-mixing property development spectre, which lurks behind political smoke screens of this kind, was present in this instance too.

From ‘commitment’ to ‘compromitment’

By early August 2002, dissatisfaction with the procedure was growing and, through ignorance, alarm was rife about the risk of missing a good urban development opportunity which would enable Brussels to improve its image. When it became known, on 10 August, that Rem Koolhaas was among those competing for the tender, the debate intensified. The timing of the study and public suspicions about the intended outcome – Koolhaas as the prima donna – testified to a shortage of strategic political insight and subtlety. Koolhaas was already a member of the think tank, and in that capacity he had proposed a spinoff of the ‘green archipelago’. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the think tank having proposed an international competition that Koolhaas and his firm should have entered a watered down version of this in alliance with the Brussels office of his former employee Xaveer De Geyter, and proposed the ‘Eurocampus’.

European Quarter | Brussels, 2004

There was no shortage of plausible sequels to pull out of the hat. If Koolhaas were indeed to win, the procedure followed would be open to challenge on the grounds of ‘insider dealing’. That would create scope for speculations, legal challenges and vulgarizing lobbying, which would be bad news for the initiative of the invitation to tender. Should Koolhaas indeed win, it would expose the weak spots of the Federal and Regional policies: an inability to opt unequivocally and in unison for ideology, identity and contemporary urban design (something that however cannot be taken for granted if you opt for Koolhaas).
It also became clear that the think tank’s proposal to hold ‘an open international competition’ was being ignored. By mid August, absolute uncertainty prevailed about who could compete, the criteria for selection, and who would take public responsibility for the decision. Openness and transparency suddenly looked very remote. By now, the prime minister’s earlier promise was beginning to look distinctly dubious. The exposure provided by an open (even if for a limited number of entrants) competition of an international, well organized and professionally adjudicated character, which would give Brussels the worldwide status of ‘European capital city’ that the both city and Europe so urgently need, seems to be turning into exactly the opposite. An enormous gulf has opened up between the promise and the reality. The ‘commitment’ flaunted by the premier in the think tank seems to be turning into a very strange kind of ‘compromitment’. What has emerged, however, is the identity of those who will select ‘three to five’ firms from the submitted entries: anonymous officials from the various ministries involved in the invitation to tender. This uncertainty and lowering of ambitions naturally works to the advantage of De Donnéa’s behind-the-scenes task force.

24 ideas for the European Quarter

By mid September, the rumblings about the public invitation to tender and the position of Koolhaas were growing. Now it was the turn of the neighbourhood committees from the proposed European Quarter, who reduced the polemics around the invitation to tender to the issue of Koolhaas. No mention was made of the other 21 candidates – the debate was narrowed to one about the entrances to the European Parliament, and the public keelhauling of Koolhaas. ((The argument of the pressure group ‘Coördinatie Europa’ was as follows: ‘The first statement by Koolhaas, an architect’s architect, raises our worst fears. He appears to be more interested in symbols rather than in working with the residents.’ Chris Ceustermans, ‘Europese Wijk zit niet te wachten op Koolhaas’, de Standaard, 11 September 2002.)) The insinuations and speculations began. It also transpired that two urban planners who had been lurking in the political wings were now prepared to put in an appearance on the Brussels stage. The first was De Donnéa with his task force, and the second was Isabelle Durant, Deputy Prime Minster of Belgium. The latter, as a member of the Federal government, has long been in charge of the European Quarter portfolio, and in 2001 she proposed a plan that tidily adhered to the zoning plans. Their plans – or the mere fact that they exist and have now become public and so acquired the status of ‘plan’ – do not extend the debate in a favorable way. By mid September 2002, 24 proposals awaited further elaboration, each with different aspirations, each with a different image, a different identity and a different concept of Europe’s future: one Verhofstadt proposal (actually consisting of 22 tender submissions), one De Donéa and one Durant.

The disquieted neighborhood, united in the group ‘Coördinatie Europa’, was invited to an audience with De Donnéa on Friday 13 September. The minister-president soothed them with the following words: ‘François-Xavier de Donnéa assures Coördinatie Europa that not a stone will be moved if it conflicts with the Regional Zoning Plan or with the Regional Development Plan’. ((François-Xavier de Donnéa (press release) ‘Persmededeling – François-Xavier de Donnéa ontvangt Brusselse Raad voor leefmilieu en wijkcomités uit de Europese wijk om te luisteren naar en informatie te geven over de toekomst van de wijk’, Brussels, 13 September 2002.)) In making this statement, De Donnéa vigorously drew the European mantle around his own shoulders. His promise invoked the threat of a Brussels straitjacket for which every submitted proposal would have to be measured: the GeWOP, the dubious urban guidelines for Brussels.

The die is cast, but nobody knows why

At a Federal level, discussion about the spectacle that had been played out was limited to an inevitable statement from the prime minister that there was no question whatsoever of there being a preference for Koolhaas, and that the procedure followed would be adhered to. This answer was naturally the only possible one in light of the antecedents, but by denying any preference, it does rather skew the issue. Nothing is denied but the existence of a preference for Koolhaas, who is effectively placed at the centre of the debate while nothing is said about the others. The latter thus remain untainted and subject to compromise.

Towards the end of September 2002, the decision was taken at a federal and regional level about which four firms would be invited, on the basis of their tenders (a few sheets of A4 which served as credentials), to elaborate the concept study. Exactly who these were was not revealed at first, although it was announced that Koolhaas was not among them. It appeared that the way Europe and the prime minister wanted to deal with the European Quarter had borne fruit. But the promise of high-quality reconstruction and new build had to be met and by early October, there was still no word as to which international and Belgian architects had their guns trained on the European Quarter.

Relief arrived from an unexpected quarter – not from the Belgian press, but from the Dutch. A press release appeared on the ArchiNed website on 15 October; its title, ‘Koolhaas not invited to design EU Quarter because of procedural error’ was in itself no cause for alarm. Only when the extraordinary explanation underlying the term ‘procedural error’ was revealed, did it become clear that Brussels was back to square one. The term ‘procedural error’ refers to the lack of a signature on one of the documents submitted with the tender. The suspicion of Reinier de Graaf, OMA associate and project leader for the European Quarter, raises a pertinent question about the way the procedure was handled in Brussels when he remarks: ‘And I don’t even know whether it’s a refined conspiracy or staggering incompetence.’ The truth is that a refined competence exists in Brussels for acting conspiratorially – and it has existed for decades. For the benefit of anyone still interested in the other candidates, I quote here, for form’s sake, the standpoint of De Donnéa’s policy researcher: ‘The fact that four Belgians have been selected is purely coincidental.’ It thus looks as though Belgium and Europe are going to miss their date with the future, unless one of the four Belgian firms is able to summon up the verve and surrealistic style necessary to transform ‘the accidental encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table’ ((Comte du Lautréamont, in Rem Koolhaas, S,M,L,XL, The Monacelli Press, New York, 1995, p. 844.)) into an urban design. It would be an achievement of which Koolhaas might be jealous, and in favour of which he would incontrovertibly sacrifice his prospects of eternal fame.

European Quarter | Brussels, 2004

Brussels on a blind date with its European future?

In the European Capital, a notion about urban planning and architecture is a fragile and unmanageable thing. Recent history is full of attempts to introduce and justify other plans, agendas and interests. The fact that the Belgian federal government maintains close contact with Europe and has formulated an ambition (not, you will note, a vision ), witness the intention of the think tank, for the role of Brussels as the European capital, but has to rely on the authority of the Brussels Capital-Region for its concretization, raises questions about urban planning possibilities in Brussels. The questions arise because the discussion does not focus exclusively on what should be built, but primarily on how and what of the possibilities for that today. It says a great deal that for the ‘reconceptualization’ of a precarious urban area and for the communication of a European identity, Brussels opted for an ‘invitation to tender’ which must be adjudicated by bureaucrats who ferret out ‘procedural errors’, rather than for a competition with an international jury. The involvement of the Belgian federal government seemed like a step in the right direction, but it is becoming clearer all the time that the regional government is faint-heartedly exploiting its position to the full. It would be most tragic if a Machiavellian tactic (combined with the lack of determined action on the part of the federal government and the European Union) were to saddle the city of Brussels with the frustration of compromise and with an architecture and urban design which are degrading and unworthy of the community. But it is also clear that the European Union and the Belgian prime minster are not free of blame in this respect. The initiative and idea for the think tank was unquestionably praiseworthy, but now that a concrete interpretation has to be given to the expectations, they seem to have evaporated. Well, if that is the tactic to be used for wooing new member states…

In Brussels, the complex structure of federal Belgium, the weak-minded architectural policies of the Brussels government and the lack of a solid European vision, invests every European question with a Brussels image. The resulting gulf thus splits the landscape of European identity asunder, revealing the EU’s lack of vision, initiative and location policies and (reinforced by the position of the Brussels government and the ludicrous resurrection of second-rate urban visions due to effective lobbying) the impossibility of a dignified client role for Europe. ((But the EU also lacks an effective channel of communication to clarify its intentions towards its capital city. Either nobody has thought about it, or nobody considers it important.)) In Brussels, one has thus ended up in a stalemate; depression is rampant, muteness rules, and quality is not mentioned. The EU’s lack of a high-quality location policy and vision leaves the way open for a visionless interpretation with ephemeral reflections on the European identity. In the current debate, the potential collision of European civilization with the economic and cultural fault lines between individual member states adds up to the tenuous concept of ‘European identity’. The discussion has been an intellectual issue for over a century now – see the theories of Ortega y Gasset and of Huizinga, for example – but the way in which it must be given form is new. It seems that this recent history does not bring us one step closer to the communication and the identity of the European Union; a negativist could easily convince us otherwise, however. Brussels and the EU must seek out the experience of the impossible, cutting right across various levels of administration, and draw their legitimacy and identity, both institutional and with regard to urban design, from that responsibility. Not until that possibility for communication and disclosure of intentions has been fulfilled, can substance be given to expectations of ‘a new course’ – not as a compromise, but as a beacon of vision.

The still unanswered question is which of the four remaining practices, ultimately to be reduced to one, will perform the necessary dredging operation of clearing away the sedimented architecture and the decaying urban conditions of the European Quarter to reveal a ‘green archipelago’. Or will they simply follow the flow from the bank and stand by as the seething, self-destructive city goes under? One thing is certain, the European Quarter will not look the same in a few years time. The question is, to what extent will that change Brussels itself? The concept study for the European Quarter was a first date with the future, the building of a new European Congress Centre will be a second. The latter result can only be awaited with trepidation. So if we hold out any hopes both for Belgium’s capital and for the European Capital, let us bear in mind the following sentiment, a combination of Andy Warhol and David Bowie: ‘They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.’

 

“The future history of the European Quarter” –  by Bert de Muynck | Archis  #01, 2003

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