Brussels Fascinations

Rem Koolhaas and the European Conviviality Revolution

by Bert de Muynck | Archis #4, 2003

In late May 2003, the PSK (Palace of Fine Arts) in Brussels organized a sequel to the controversial study for the European Capital by Rem Koolhaas. The multiple reasons were the impasse in which the dossier had landed in the preceding months, the observation by AMO that they had forgotten to involve the main local interested parties in the debate around their previous attempt, the dogged determination of a Belgian art centre to project itself as an ‘open house’, and the hope of several Belgian intellectuals that the traumatic relation between Brussels and the EU could be healed by Rem Koolhaas. AMO organized a two-day workshop in Brussels, titled ‘La prise de l’Europe’ (‘The Conquest of Europe’), to determine the state of play and as a follow-up to the debate between Brussels and its role as the European Capital ((For further information on that debate, see the article ‘Intrigues in Brussels. The future history of the European Quarter’ in Archis no. 1, 2003.)). The starting point was an analysis of the trauma Brussels had suffered by accommodating the European Union, which was now being used as an excuse to sidestep the issue of modernization. It turned out in retrospect that AMO had opted for a strategy of a ‘conviviality revolution’ headed by ‘a synthetic army of consultation monsters’, and that Koolhaas had altered his former analysis of ‘trauma’ into one based on ‘paranoia’ ((Koolhaas used terminology like ‘the conviviality revolution’ and ‘a synthetic army of consultation monsters’ to describe the period of the late 1960s and the 1970s (Rem Koolhaas in Wonen-TA/BK, no. 11, 1978, pp. 17-20). The workshop in Brussels was described as a public forum intended to represent and reanimate the ideas of 1968.)).

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 ((Participants in the workshop included Stefano Boeri, Reinier de Graaf, Rem Koolhaas, Mark Leonard, Dieter Lesage and Erik Swyngedouw.)). AMO looked, saw and took note.

Rem Koolhaas presented a sequel to his study for Brussels as the ‘hard’ capital of Europe, in which he tackled the way the EU leaders communicate the concept of Europe to the public at large. That communication, he concluded, is totally lacking in eloquence or attractiveness – in striking contrast to the mass antiwar demonstrations of recent months. The poor communication by its leaders also affects the European Capital. Koolhaas compared the relation between the problems that beset both Brussels and Europe to matrushkas, nested Russian dolls. This metaphor made it easier for him to jump from one level of scale to another (from global to local) and to treat the tensions that characterize the EU (different nationalities, unity and diversity) as the principal parameter (intercultural, multi-political and diverse) at a Brussels level as well.

His political analysis of Europe – the tension between cultural unification and the preservation of identity, which AMO had previously combined in its proposal for a European bar code – seemed to have been lifted from Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’, with Koohaas launching the vision of China some day forming part of Europe. He illustrated the lack of excitement the European leaders impart to their summit meetings by showing a photograph in which the ministers are ceremonially signing the document admitting the new members to the union – in Athens, against the backdrop (so Koolhaas explained) of the Acropolis, the very cradle of European civilization, carefully touched out. Le Corbusier’s rien ne va plus seemed to have made a brief comeback. Koolhaas’ ongoing analysis of Brussels as the European Capital was described as ‘psychoanalytical’. For example, he drew up a ‘genealogy of the trauma’, in which urban developments of the preceding thirty years were put in their place. This genealogy was a mix of local and global events, in which connection he resorted to a paranoid rhetoric that identified an illusory simultaneity between ‘9-11’ and the demolition of one of Brussels’ modernist monuments, the Martini Tower. Koolhaas characterized the influence of Europe on the urban condition as ‘paranoia’, in which a countermove like the ‘déclaration de Bruxelles (1980)’ took a prominent place, among other reasons because it was picked up elsewhere in Europe, as nicely illustrated by the success of Rob and Léon Krier. The latter have been busy since the 1970s promoting the large-scale reconstruction of the European City based on a neoclassical building typology, with a rigidly hierarchical structure of streets and squares, an approach that is also warmly welcomed by the anti-urban forces in Brussels. Koolhaas’ critique of their ideas is not new, as testified by his dissatisfaction with the Kriers’ plans in response to the IBA in Berlin, but the specification of Brussels as the point of departure for that movement made an answer imperative. The strength of Koolhaas’ arguments on Brussels lay in the fact that he took the wind out of the sails of his opponents in the debate by questioning the concept of the ‘European Project’. In a reaction to his first study, one of those traumatic Brussels pressure groups turned up with the following solution: ‘Construire l’Europe, c’est construire la ville européenne.’ ((Marc Frére (chairman of ARAU) in Le courrier de l’ARAU, no. 57, p.11.))

By both demonstrating the (symbolic, political and cultural) diversity of Europe and pointing out the uninspired character of European designs meant to illustrate the idea of the ‘European City’ in the 1970s and 1980s, Koolhaas spiritedly analysed the stalemate that the idea of ‘Brussels, Capital of Europe’ had reached, although without proffering any particular proposal. Not without some humour, he categorized all the Brussels pressure groups which were incapable of a proper appreciation of the ‘bureaucratic-picturesque’ architecture and urban design by and for Europe, and which meagrely countered them with ‘la ville européenne’, as paranoid, while Koolhaas himself opted for the ‘Eurocampus’ in combination with a meticulous scooping-out operation for Brussels. Answers as to what next for Brussels as the European Capital were conspicuously absent; that was the job of the workshop.

That workshop delivered a roundup of commonplaces: Brussels is the only place where Europe can present a distinct profile, Brussels–Europe is bereft of any idea about planning, Brussels is cosmopolitan, Europe lacks the means of representing its power, as well as the myth of Invisible Europe and the need to represent Europe in Brussels as hegemony in order to elicit a non-paranoid counter-reaction. With an eye to the future, namely the follow-up workshop in September 2003, AMO attempted to instigate a dialogue between the ‘locals’ and the ‘globals’. This strategy of a ‘talking cure’ seems to be a valid approach to engaging the context, but the noncommital, convivial style dooms it to failure. It was at no point made clear what context was being referred to, what methods were foreseen for controlling the process, and what European location policy would succeed in reconciling the locals with the globals. This was the fault of the matrushka analogy Koolhaas used in his analysis – it implies a simple similarity of shape and denies the obvious differences between levels. It would have been more interesting to perform a strategic lobotomy on all the dolls at once, and so to discern some operational connections. The awareness and the notion of a cyclical continuation of this process apparently brought neither the organizers nor AMO to the idea that it would then be necessary to fully inventorize the context (and then to objectivize, politicize and prioritize it as well). The conditions and consequences of the Brussels–European location policy and the accompanying argumentation both in the short and the long term, must, after all, be clarified, including the impact of the expansion, the European Convention and NATO. That the decades of denying this urban issue and of fobbing everyone off with empty promises has landed the Brussels–Europe relation in a traumatic straitjacket of paranoid accusations, was once again crystal clear, despite the inferior symptomatology.

Evidently, as Koolhaas also pointed out in his presentation, the relation between Brussels and its role as the European Captial has been dogged by a succession of traumas with far-reaching consequences. The strategy Sigmund Freud once devised for breaking out of a similar situation was based on the reproduction of those traumas in chronologically reversed order, noting that it was ‘completely impossible to penetrate to the primary trauma, which generally had the most intense effect, if one omitted traumas of a later date.’ ((S. Freud, Over psycho-analyse, Amsterdam (Maarten Muntinga), p.22)). For Brussels–Europe, that primary trauma lay in the diffuse battle array with which the ‘conviviality revolution’ of European location had been waged since the 1960s. The renewed attempt by Rem Koolhaas to penetrate the defences of Fortress Europe, sublimates that trauma on the one hand by repressing it and calling those who stand at its head paranoid, and on the other hand by the wish to strive for a higher goal, a more attractive representation of European summit conferences and leaders, and the incorporation of China into the EU. It is becoming more and more apparent that because of this Koolhaas remains the great helmsman of the same ship that once discovered America and is now intent on sailing back to Europe. Or, as Dalí once wrote, ‘So as he rowed, surrounded by wide-awake, paranoid seamen, it happened that Columbus discovered America.’ (( Salvador Dalí, Mijn leven als genie, Amsterdam (De Arbeiderspers), p. 94.)). The question remains whether or not AMO will find, consequent to its workshops on Brussels–Europe, a strategy that will shake its motley, somnambulist crew out of its lethargy rather than, like the Medusa, just drifting round in circles on ‘Bleurope’. Drawing up a ‘road map’ for Brussels–Europe–Brussels and signing on a more proficient crew might be an excellent idea to start with – good alike for Europe, its capital city, and its communications.

“Brussels Fascinations” by Bert de Muynck
Published in Archis #05, 2004