Thin Line between being Radical and Naive

Take one of the assigned plots in Antwerp, Belgium and create a design for the headquarters of the Flemish nationalist political party Vlaams Belang. Or draw a concept for it’s rather extreme Islamic opponent AEL (Arabic European League). How should architects operate in such political, ethnic or religious matters? Is there a role for them at all? Is architecture ‘neutral’ and only about aesthetics or is it acceptable that spaces and buildings propagate implicit or explicit messages? If so, to what extend? Maybe architects even can assist in bridging the gap between different ethnic and socio-political groups?

These and other questions were at stake at the international design seminar INDESEM, organised by the ‘bouwkunde’ student association Stylos annually, sometimes every two years. Eighty students took part, half of them Dutch and half of them from abroad – mainly from eastern Europe and Balkan but also from Turkey and as far away as Canada.

This year workshop theme strongly appealed to the participating architects to be. In Europe, multiculturalism is the hot issue and religious extremism dominates the media headlines all over the world. At the same time star architecture is flourishing. The guru’s attract attention with big show case projects: a museum that becomes the identity of a reviving city (Frank Gehry in Bilbao), a trade centre that is even bigger than the one that got destroyed (Daniel Liebeskind in New York) and a huge media-tower that will be the landmark of a modernising society (Rem Koolhaas in Beijing). Where did the times of social engagement go and what happened to the make-able society?


This year INDESEM shows that the younger generation certainly has ideas about the political and social role of architecture. Ideas however that are not limited by ‘standard’ ideologies of the past and do not easily fit in schemes of left versus right, progressive versus conservative, good versus bad.

One group of students transferred the architect into a urban guerrilla-fighter. With AEL as their client, they gave up with static architecture framed by walls. Dressed in (sort of) army green outfit they presented scenarios for different security levels in the city of Antwerp, the most extreme being an urban war situation. The jury however criticised the lack of a clear ‘ideology’ for this guerrilla concept and showed strong dislike for the act of ‘playing war games’ just for the fun of it.

The idea of a flexible building with separated parallel rooms was another interesting idea. Giving room to all sorts of different groups in society according to a ‘party’ calendar. Since these groups don’t mix anyway – a strong statement in itself – they all want their own space. But there is hope, in a very democratic way the building constantly would adapt itself to the needs of all distinct groups. Another interesting approach was demonstrated by a student group that refused to take on the task of designing any party headquarters. Instead, given these buildings, they created empty and public spaces around them. Everyday ‘light’ tools such as a bicycle, a football or a walkman could function as a small but continuous demonstration against the meaninglessness of ‘heavy’ extremism.

Cage in a cage

The jury selected three winning concepts that will be published in the Architecture magazine A10. In one of these designs the headquarters of Vlaams Belang is shown as a cage within the cage, safe against any bomb attack. A translation of extreme right wing ideas into architecture, materialised as a system of several security gates. On the other hand, AEL gets a ‘sunken square’ with a bunker in it, which creates a great tension with the public square in front of the location. Unfortunately caught in cliché symbolism like oriental carpets and Islamic geometric patterns this group shows courage to use exaggeration and magnification in architectural expression to make the negative and fearful aspects of extremism visible.

Under the title ‘The Mirror and the Box’ a second selected group investigated the capacity of architecture to develop projects for the city that manifest, absorb and reflect conflicts. Reading their inputs from the chosen places and existing social structures, they responded using the pure architectural tools to re-connect and re-compose urban solids and voids. The third winners group – like several others – accepts the social segregation as a fact, but suggests innovative ways to bridge the gap between those groups and districts with different cultures and identities.

Occupied territories

Whatever approach you chose, concluded Deborah Hauptman (assistant professor of architecture theory, TU Delft) as chair of the jury, if want it or not, whatever way you design or build as an architect, you make implicit or explicit choices. To be able to make those choices, you have to define your own position, moral values and ethical considerations. You should at least try to evaluate the social and political consequences of your choices. Not an easy job, since morality is not well defined and sometimes controversial. In Israel for an architect it can be the question: do you build at all in occupied territories or not. But it could also be the dilemma: do I make a plan for the vinex-location Leidsche Rijn which is considered to be the green heart and according to some people ecologically not a sound and solid idea or do I leave the job to someone else who might even mess up more? As one student put it: ‘There is a thin line between being radical and naive. This is exactly the thin line architects walk on all the time.’