In 1968 the Belgian architect Renaat Braem published a manifesto on his native country called “The Ugliest Country in the World”. In 1979, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Belgian independence, architect and artist Luc Deleu (T.O.P. Office) laid ‘the last stone of Belgium’ in his small front garden in Antwerp. Today, rather surprisingly, Belgium still exists. Some snapshots and background to a 99% urbanized territory.
Renaat Braem is one of the primary exponents of post-war architecture in Belgium. He completed his studies in architecture in his native town of Antwerp, with a visionary plan for the creation of a 100 kilometer ‘lineair city’, right through the heart of Belgium. As the only Belgian ever to do so, Braem was in 1936 apprenticed to Le Corbusier, who recommended him for CIAM membership the following year. In “The Ugliest Country in the World” (1968) manifesto he denounced the absence of town and country planning in Belgium. As most Belgian architect he had a love-hate relationship with the architectural and urban development of his country, of which “The Most Beautiful Country in the World” (1986) manifesto bears witness.
In “How Belgium Got Its Present Look” Belgian architecture critic Francis Strauven gives a short and poignant overview of the tensions, comparing this with the development of The Netherlands, embedded in this small European territory:
Whereas in the Netherlands the landscape has largely been preserved, in Belgium it has been almost entirely overrun by building. Buildings spring up on just about every road, both the major and minor ones, including former country lanes, and it is not only housing of every type and size, but also, scattered amongst them, a variety of retail and catering businesses, offices and showrooms, small and medium companies – a varied mixture in which not a jot of planning is to be found. If the Netherlands looks like a model of environmental planning, in many ways Belgium seems to embody its opposite.
Architects not seldom feel a sense of despair and relief to work in this condition. Exemplary for this is the work of artist and architect Luc Deleu (T.O.P. Office), whose The Unadapted City-project (1995-1999) presents a culmination of his thinking, which also can be found in his ‘Orbanistic Manifesto’ (1980). The aforementioned Francis Strauven described the work of Luc Deleu as anarchistic, conceptual and concerned:
In 1970, shortly after graduating, he had emphatically already taken leave of architecture, going on to assume: the role of a conceptual artist-architect. In the course of the seventies he launched about 75 ‘proposals and recommendations’ for the transformation of the environment, from the development of urban agriculture and horticulture, including public poultry and urban dung heaps to the restoration of public transport, the conversion of monuments into social housing, and the installation of mobile marine cities using recycled passenger ships and supertankers. Deleu’s anarchistic attitudes were based on a clear ecological awareness. In the ‘Orbanistic Manifesto’, which he published in 1980, he pointed to the problem of worldwide malnutrition and the limits ofnatural resources.
In 2004, the Muhka, a contemporary art museum in Antwerp, displayed the work of Luc Deleu in a show called “The Unadapted City“:
This organism conceived as a 22 km long linear city(1), was designed for 120.000 inhabitants. Its distribution scheme is of quintessential importance for the development of The Unadapted City, because it formulated its underlying principles which are at odds with the usual way of organising an urban development. Subsequently, an atlas of facilities for large-scale urban developments, consisting of 10 plates in different languages (according to the inspiration of the moment) was developed.
Is Luc Deleu a realist, idealist or visionary? To be honest, it’s a question I’d prefer not to answer. After seeing the exhibition Values in Antwerp’s MUHKA, I’m occupied by just one question. What purpose is served by the work of Luc ‘Self-Power Man’ Deleu, the self-appointed orbanist?
For now, some snapshots while moving through Belgium.
Pictures by movingcities.org