‘The Spanish are coming!’ In the sixteenth century such news would have prompted the citizenry of Brussels to raise the city ramparts, but today they are welcomed with open arms. The reason is simple. For they are bringing us something special: urban design, architecture, and the ‘cohesion’ in between.
Friday February 7 a decision was taken on ‘Ground Euro.’ From the invited proposals for ‘the development of a global urban-design concept,’ the winners turned out to be a Spanish-Belgian alliance: Aries, Idom, Moritz et Simon, L’Atelier, Jordi Ferrando and de BVBA SPECULOOS (no kidding!). The reason for the choice is still unknown. No pioneering television shows or flamboyant architects who captured the essence of a traumatic experience in a single image, just hard-boiled officials who know what can’t be done and what’s not allowed. No attractive images here, only pure unadulterated content: ‘a 50-page book brimming with ideas.’ Those ideas can be summed up in a few words. ‘Ground Euro’ will be a combination of ‘mixité, atmosphere and coherency,’ according to urbanist Benoit Moritz in de Standaard newspaper of February 8, 2003. What’s more, he goes on, ‘No master plan is needed, just cohesion.’ But the question is what use are these good intentions to us. We know they are not new but articulated, almost literally, in the invitation for bids on 20-07-02: ‘La mixité du quartier européen et la diversité d’activités doivent être stimulée afin que l’intégration du quartier européen dans la ville de Bruxelles puisse être renforcée.’
What, then, are the credentials of the Spanish-Belgian alliance? First there is Idom, touted as the brains behind a new urban-design concept for Bilbao. What we weren’t told, of course, was that the concept was the result of ‘Bilbao Metropoli-30,’ a non-profit association of public and private parties, set up in the late 1980s, which developed a strategic plan to revitalise the Spanish metropolis. It began by tackling co-operation between public departments, resulting almost a decade later in an architectural titan and symbol of the global ’90s. Then we have Benoit Moritz, urban designer from Brussels, recently quoted as saying: ‘Ainsi, à Bruxelles, les lieux de la création architecturale contemporaine ne sont pas ceux dans lesquels se situent les enjeux urbains majeurs (Quartier Léopold, Quartier Nord, Centre Ville, ).’ The ‘Quartier Léopold’ referred to is ‘Ground Euro.’ So we can only wonder about the motives for his current involvement. Finally there is Aries. In early 2000 it conducted a study of public transport and mobility in the European Quarter, proposed a second high-speed train terminal for Brussels (which, strangely enough, doesn’t stop at the airport), and argued for an infrastructure tunnel beneath ‘Ground Euro.’ This study was taken on board in the redevelopment plan for ‘Ground Euro’ as presented in the Mayor of Brussels’ unilateral book of ideas, the so-called ‘Brussel-Europa Guidelines’ (spring 2002). That these guidelines have had more impact than the ideas put forward by the think-tank is made clear by a recent statement from the Mayor of Brussels. ‘And as you are aware,’ he said, ‘the city authorities in Brussels have the last word on every stone that is laid, because we issue the building permits.’
So where to now? The alliance has been given six months to do its ‘thing’; the chief contractor, meanwhile, is erecting two new office buildings in the area; the authorities in Brussels can continue to issue all sorts of permits; and the federal authorities can contemplate what to do with the public space on ‘Ground Euro.’ Creating order out of all this retrospectively will be a huge challenge – and that in a city lacking the kind of contemporary ambition that brought urban success to Bilbao. In the meantime, two competitions are also under consideration. Nobody quite knows why, but promise is debt, Prime Minister Verhofstadt must be thinking. To me, however, it would be much more interesting to debate the whole process now, to do away with pointless discussions about dynamic coherence between static organisations, and to seek a contemporary, strategic, urban coherence and level of ambition at a European-Belgian-Brussels political level. For therein lies the only future and ambition for ‘Ground Euro’ and Brussels in general. We can then properly assess Spanish-Belgian alliances on their merits.
One small detail: the urban ideal of Benoit Moritz and the Mayor of Brussels is ‘Euralille’. There are people who can explain for the mayor exactly what political vision and willpower turned that project a European archetype of urban renewal.