Driving through Belgium | part II

Belgium | April 2009

According to statistics Belgium is 99% urbanized. Driving through it, one is forced to rethink one’s “Chinese” perception of urbanization. Belgium is fully peri-urbanized, offering a strongly mixed territory of housing developments, roads, warehouses, churches and open fields. Some coined “nebular city” for this development which is most visible in Flanders, located in the Northern half of the country.

Flemish architects, academics, urban researchers and critics appropriated some years ago the Italian concept of the “città diffusa” in order to describe their habitat. They translated this first into the Dutch “nevelstad” and then into the English “nebular city”. In 1999 the Italian architect, critic and nowadays editor-in-chief of Abitare, Stefano Boeri published “The Diffuse City“, a more appropriate translation of the term, in which he makes following analysis of this condition:

Cities that no longer have edges, that look today like nebulas dotted with a swarm of buildings standing in isolation or heaped together incongruously. The new urban dimension that has been laid over the top of the modern city examined in the books by Rossi, Gregotti and Aymonino, though without cancelling it out, reflects a society where the number of people and forces capable of modifying space has increased enormously. And this in turn has radically altered the relationship between the principles of difference and variation that had been codified in the texts of urban morphology thirty years ago. Today the principle of difference no longer acts in the way it was thought to at the time between the nineteenth-century city and the Renaissance one, between the public spaces of the periphery and the great industrial zones but between the individual molecules of an urban organism that has expanded enormously: between the suburban house and the adjoining shopping centre, between this and the adjoining block of apartments, between the car wash and the industrial shed with attached residence, between the bypass and the small area of farmland.

Belgium | April 2009

In Flanders, the contrast between the city and the countryside has ceased to exist. Although mentally there is still a separation, physically one moves from one node of urban life to another; the connecting roads are flanked with houses. Movement here means through eroding physical boundaries between city and nature, merging it all into a semi-urban pattern. In 2002 the Belgian architect Xaveer de Geyter published “After-Sprawl: Research On The Contemporary City”, a research on the actual state and potential transformation of this condition. Although largely known to many architects, few has been written so far about the work of Xaveer de Geyter, one noted exception being ‘The Urban Defender’ by Naomi Stead. She writes de Geyter’s vision down as following:

But while architects have a long tradition of being both intellectually and aesthetically snobbish about suburbia, De Geyter takes a middle ground. His position is distinguished by a simultaneous pragmatism and hopefulness; the answer, he argues, is not to reject the suburban sprawl outright, or to endlessly complain about it. “It’s not like we think the car should be the centre of our lives. There are many voices today against the car, but in some sense we are against this, because it’s a false discussion so long as two thirds of the Belgian population actually wants to live this way. Our work is a reaction against this dichotomy, it is dealing with the actual existing situation.” The answer is to embrace sprawl as a reality, to see its positive potential, and to admire its vitality. In this way, this diffuse condition can be seen as a rich and productive field, indeterminate and therefore full of possibilities.

For now, some unsnobbish snapshots from the land of the after-sprawl.

Belgium | April 2009

Pictures by movingcities.org

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