Brussels, Marx & PepsiCo

‘Europe’ turned 50 last weekend: perfect timing. The public presentation of ‘A Vision for Brussels / Brussels Capital of Europe’ by the Rotterdam-based Berlage Institute coincided nicely with the festivities marking the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. A few thoughts on a mediagenic manifesto in the form of a book and an exhibition.

Fanfare, pomp and circumstance surrounded the opening of the public display of ‘Brussels Capital of Europe’ – a studio project now well over two years old – at the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels on March 17. The star cast included Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, EU Commission president Barroso, and prominent representatives of the city’s political elite. In passing – under the auspices of Brussels’ architectural society, gathered en masse – they also presented the accompanying publication. Given the extensive media coverage to date, the initiative has already proven a resounding success. But, as a manifesto for Brussels as Capital of Europe – and, therefore, as a provocation – is it any good?

The exhibition is on show in a few shadowy little backrooms (turn right out of the main hall, follow signs for WC/Cloakroom) of the BOZAR. Not the most uplifting setting but one that exhibition designers Office Geers/Van Severen clearly made the most of. The decor is intentionally sober: two fairly small spaces connected by a long empty corridor, each defined by walls of pure white canvas set in frames of clean steel. White, in polemical contrast with the orgy of images that adorned Circus Koolhaas only a couple of years ago. Room One (darkened) shows a short film in which project leader and exhibition co-curator Pier Vittorio Aureli takes us through the ideas behind the urban proposal. Now and then his flow of words is interrupted by historic footage and fragments of interviews with famous locals like writer Geert van Istendael, opera manager Guy Mortier, and that inevitable twosome Verhofstadt/Barroso. Centrepiece of Room Two is a large slick urban model. Upon entry one is left in little doubt: in these spaces the bitter earnest of the architectural project is proclaimed. This is a manifesto in which (yet again) Architecture Saves The City.

The sorry fate of Brussels is well known: a 1.000.000-soul conurbation consisting of 19 tiny municipalities gathered within one administrative region. A city without civic pride or coherence – sullied, knocked about and badly banged up by the old boys from the country club – and trapped in a dead-end cycle of masochistic building and breaking. At best it is a curiously intriguing, charming and surreal hotchpotch, an ideological graveyard. Meanwhile the EU institutions, which have their (temporary) home in Brussels’ Schuman district, play the role of willing accomplices or, possibly worse, uninterested onlookers. Indeed the accumulated Eurobunkers – with the exception of the Berlaymont building, once proud, now renovated beyond redemption – are of a colossal, mind-numbing mediocrity.

In this respect the starting points of the Berlage manifesto are crystal clear: no compromise, no half measures. Out with the song of praise to the ‘Vacant City’ (Brussels 2000). Politically correct celebrations of cheerful urban chaos (Studio Open Stad) are over. Architecture, arch-guardian of the public good, imposes order (Why Architecture? – Order Is), and confidently forms and represents the collective and institutional realms. Evident analogies and parallels provide a positive answer to the question whether Brussels is really suited to become the true capital of Europe. The crisis of identity and representation currently besieging Brussels (its disparate multi-colouredness) clearly mirrors the crisis at a European level. Starting from this observation, the Berlage project boldly goes on to embrace the symbolic and ideological reorientation of the European continent as a whole.

In their flight forward the makers of A Vision for Brussels show a lot of guts. The Europe they project, and for which they design a capital, is a fully-fledged European Union that will needle many a Eurosceptic. A federal superstate not unlike the US, a power block with mature political institutions and with a patently insignificant role for the (former) member states. This Europe, according to the text in the book, puts a distance between itself and the turbo-capitalist continent of Asia and imperialist America, ‘a leap towards a new political utopia beyond the hegemony of world capitalism’. In the process, Brussels is briskly elevated to full-fledged representational capital. In a heavily charged simplistic-symbolic gesture (dialectic mirroring across an equally caricatural axis) nine locations are earmarked to accommodate large institutional or otherwise significant functions: acupuncture with a big needle (a gorgeous oxymoron: relaxing urban massage with a sledgehammer…ministering angel descending like a ton of bricks). A constellation of urban artefacts, symbolically spread across the Brussels region, represents the supposed archetype of European Urban Culture: the archipelago.

From this point onward paradoxes start piling up merrily and things get quite amusing. Depending on your mental constitution, the architectural urban artefacts proposed by the students will either make you leave the room shaking your head, foaming at the mouth, or roaring with laughter. By and large, the schemes are so mediocre, pompous or banal that you sincerely hope that this is a cheeky provocation. The ‘bundled’ deconcentration of European representational functions across the patchwork of Brussels – and hence the partial dissolution of the Schuman ghetto – is an interesting if somewhat obvious proposal. Mais c’est le ton qui fait la musique. Suddenly, ‘Europe’ finds itself not only colonising one district. Instead, it now takes over the whole city. Where every right-minded person is likely to discern something of a split between the truly public and the purely institutional – friction between the civitas of Brussels and ubiquitous Europe – the Berlage team predicts the flourishing of a fertile agon, i.e. harmonious political exchange instead of tough conflict of interests. Welcome to Utopia: ‘Against the hegemony of the creative class, the inhabitants of the capital city will pursue a new urban and communitarian life style, based on cosmopolitanism, solidarity and the sharing of living space. The main ideological horizon of the cosmopolitan class will not be the incentive of competition and sociality in advantage of economic development, but the interminable practice of translation – the process of exchanging and displacing conceptions about the world by different communities of people… In the activity of translation… irreconcilable differences are neither denied nor exaggerated, but subjected to the political and historical question: who are we, and how do we relate to each other? …The city itself is a tangible condenser of political life and all that this entails.’ (Brussels – A Manifesto, p. 71). In a city which, as a whole, primarily functions as a political machine newborn Homo Politico-Europaeis naturally feels wonderfully well at home.

1 Leopold Quarter: a process of gradual transformation

2 Theatre (view from the Central Station towards the city centre)

Given this adventurous ideological setting, the imagery deployed to illustrate the story and the designs is rather interesting. While the exhibition and the book open with a mighty cross through Norman Foster’s SwissRe building – the Agora taking the place of corporate Priapism as institutional spatial paradigm – the Photoshop din is a touch more ambiguous. Gordon Bunshaft’s glorious PepsiCo façades provide the decor for monumental voids where the new citizen can play out his existential political rituals; sumptuous Skidmore-Owings-Merrill business lobbies form the backdrop to socialist wellbeing. In any case, the collages – just like the spaces they are supposed to depict – are bursting with architectural clichés, quotations and references. The monumental sculpted heads (Socrates, Plato, Beethoven, Marx, Lenin and the rest) on the public roof of the new European Parliament are supported on inevitable Superstudio grids. Koolhaas pools and other absolute, metropolitan frivolities pass by in an endless parade of hackneyed images. 1972: I miss it too, sometimes.

The exhibition in Brussels falls short in that much of the above is only revealed after close reading of the book. And that, sadly, is often pure torture. Given the deliciously explosive polemic potential – see the splendid lengthy quote above – the text of the ‘manifesto’ is generally weak. It lacks precision. As the syntax of pure architectural form is proclaimed to be a matter of concern, a little more seductive simplicity and power in text would do no harm. An occasional beautiful sentence does a power of good, pleasing as it is when form and content coincide. The book is saved by essays from philosopher Mario Tronti, historians Leloutre and Strauven, and the short coda from grand master Elia Zenghelis.

A gaping chasm remains between the towering ambitions and brave starting points on the one hand, and the cleverly orchestrated media hype on the other. The project itself – the designs, the images, the language – lacks depth and critical mass; it simply doesn’t cut the mustard. If, nonetheless, the project succeeds in bringing about a sustained and transparent debate about the identity of the Belgian-European capital, then the value of A Vision for Brussels cannot be overestimated. It will therefore be interesting to see what the symposium planned on May 9 will reveal. Feelings run high with regard to this project, and that is a quality in its own right. From my point of view, however, the sensible answer to Prince Aureli and his valiant warriors can only be: ‘No thanks: none of this, ever, anywhere’. So, dammit Brussels (wherever you’re hiding): get your act together and bite back.