Tune in and Turn on

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?

On show at the MuHKA are the Vipcity working drawings, the sheets on which he details the scheme and the design drawings in which Vipcity is ready for the third dimension. The language of the presentation is MVRDV meets early OMA meets Le Corbusier meets Megastructuur. The various city districts are specified as broadacre, generic, dymaxion, unité, powerpoint, brainpower, xxx, yyy en zzz. Sometimes they come together in a unité towards powerpoint. Also included is a fragment of the Vipcity district The Nautical Mile. This 18.51-metre-long model (scale 1/100) accommodates six office buildings as well as space and infrastructure for hotel and catering, sports and entertainment, social amenities, transport and suchlike, which are connected to one another by a cycle track and an overhead tram.

On show elsewhere in the MuHKA is an eight-episode soap opera by Hans Theys. The programme follows Luc Deleu for the past five years and highlights the building of the ‘Niebuur Three-Generation Dwelling’ in the Dutch town of Poortugaal, progress on ‘The Unadapted City’ and on exhibitions in Amsterdam, Brétigny and Antwerp. Also exhibited in the museum are proposals to restructure the port of Antwerp.

Within the museum world, Luc Deleu considers himself an artist rather than architect. He is an artist, he says, precisely because he is an architect. He interprets architecture as a conceptual and theoretical pursuit, not necessarily a pragmatic one. His fundamental attitude is of the modernist Corbusian variety – architecture not as a noncommittal game of linguistics but as a responsible, substantive task. His language abounds with figures, structures, functional patterns and forms, which he organises into three-dimensional trompe-l’oeil. Though not without traces of leftist dictatorial ideology, the elaboration of his urban concept has a detailed scientific feel and veers towards the debate on structure and society in the world. Where all this takes us is not entirely clear. A sort of flat Merzbau in which formal axes, public spaces, mobility and strange forms generate an unknown culture? That lack of clarity can point to respect for the observer, but often betrays a noncommittal attitude. Can the models and drawings be appreciated individually, or are they follies by a committed architect?

In his monumental, formal and artistic universe Deleu loves to flirt with Le Corbusier, Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Haus-Rucker, da Vinci and Michelangelo. Regrettably, Deleu doesn’t dazzle or intrigue to the same extent, perhaps because the path he’s chosen is too noncommittal. Values is characterised by the absence of a chronological line of design and reasoning that would enable Vipcity to be seen, read, and explored. Consequently, the exhibition is simply a fragmentary snapshot. Light on substance, the sparse layout screams out for more. And more there is, but unfortunately it’s spread around Antwerp and Brussels. That probably reflects the philosophy of globetrotter Deleu, but here it simply weakens the impact.

Orbanism is the open concept employed by Luc Deleu. ‘Orbanism stands for a metaphysical and material structuring of the world for the common good, the public interest. Orbanism aims for a dynamic balance between order and chaos, architecture and life, culture and neo-culture. (…) Orbanism denotes solidarity and proper proportions and is eco-centric, balanced and unique; unlike globalisation, which signifies ego-centrism and conflict and is anthropocentric, unbalanced and generic.’

Over the past 34 years Luc Deleu has put together a Flemish-cultish body work made up of designs, writings, and built objects. He designed the Mobile Medium University (1972-1989), three aircraft carriers converted into floating universities to deal with the lack of space on earth; in 1978 he built models of Lego pieces (which were replaced by containers after 1983); in 1979 he designed the Last Stone of Belgium; and since 1980 he has studied the relation between scale and perspective in various installations. Work by him is currently on display at different venues in Antwerp and Brussels. Values is new, while the other works are past classics.

The main element in the Values exhibition at the MuHKA is Vipcity, the latest instalment in Luc Deleu’s idea for the city. It’s an idea he has been elaborating since 1995 with his T.O.P. Office (Turn On Planning, set up in 1970) under the title ‘The Unadapted City’. The following methodology is applied: ‘The Unadapted City is based on an extensive study of the social basis that makes a certain public amenity possible or necessary. First to be determined is which amenities or utilities are needed or desired given a certain population; then these figures are wilfully interpreted and translated into the volumes required; and finally the complex rhythms (arrangements) to distribute these volumes in a non-functional manner are determined.’ Previous districts were Brikabrak (1998), Dinkytown (1998-99) and Octopus (1999). Vipcity, the latest, is designed for 38,000 residents in free-standing dwellings with a 7.5-km-long city axis.