Whiplashes in words and pictures

A bang on a kettledrum signalled the opening of the new extension to deSingel in Antwerp on 1 October. The art centre underlined its clear ambition with a programme that includes dance, drama, music, and a widely announced Braem exhibition. Beautifully presented but in a gallery slightly too small, ‘Renaat Braem 1910 2010’ features the remarkable body of work of a loner with a social conscience born a century ago.

Renaat Braem

The function of music
Though somewhat sullen and prone to making grandiose pronouncements, Renaat Braem (1910-2001) would no doubt have been amused that the opening of a retrospective on his work coincided with a lecture in the concert hall next door by piano maestro Alfred Brendel entitled ‘Does classical music have to be entirely serious?’ Not because Braem, despite his often cynical commentary on the Belgian housing culture, enjoyed to dance in the privacy of his own home, but because music to him was inextricably bound up with architecture. After the many styles he began picking up in his young years, learned to control through drawing and then decidedly pushed aside, music eventually became his final benchmark. ‘The environment around us is an unending symphony for our consciousness — heaving like Wagner here, as rhythmic as Bartók there, as choppy as Duke Ellington jazz elsewhere. […] Architecture can be all of this. For sensitive souls the parallel between spatial composition or architecture and music is evident.’ That’s a quote from Braem’s autobiography Het schoonste land ter wereld (= ‘The most beautiful country in the world’), a distinct testimony of a man born with a graceful hand and no shortage of opinions.

The new exhibition gallery at deSingel is situated where the old white-concrete building by Léon Stynen encounters the just-completed, floating extension by Stéphane Beel. With sloping wall surfaces, labyrinthine spaces and expressive fenestration, the ghost of Le Corbusier haunts both buildings. It was the 25-year-old Braem, however, who in 1935 became a trainee of the Swiss pioneer of black-rimmed glasses and then became his Flemish counterpart. For just like Le Corbusier, Braem revealed himself to be both a rhetorical and architectural phoenix of his own contrary movement: a ‘Braemist’ as he wrote himself, pulled free of the stringent communist dogmas of his youth and averse to the emerging liberal excess that he incessantly attacked, sometimes with so much ardour that his nose would start bleeding.

Lacking any specific routing, the exhibition features an interrupted elliptical wall in the centre that encloses a chapter devoted to the evolution of Braem’s ‘biomorphical’ dwellings. The exhibition space is roughly divided into three themes: architecture, urbanism and an audio-visual section featuring audio recordings and film footage in which the architect is critically questioned about his futuristic visions and his outspoken commentaries on the building tradition and lifestyle of the Belgians. As early as 1968 Braems published a cutting pamphlet entitled Het lelijkste land ter wereld (=‘The ugliest country in the world’), the results of his humanist ideology in which, using modernism as a vehicle, he advocates the remoulding of mankind through architecture. In that, ‘light’ and ‘air’ were the magic words that shape the ingeniously inventive projects he dreamed up for Belgium, first as a student and later as an influential designer.

Preliminary study of Arena neighbourhood, Deurne

Flowing cities
Two of those projects are presented here on big sheets of drafting paper and still exude the utopian ambitions of times past. ‘Lijnstad’ (The Line City), a student project featuring parallel strips of park, transport, housing and recreation along the Albert Canal, still owes a debt to constructivist examples. ‘Band City Belgium’, which Braem envisioned thirty years later as a solution to the painful urban condition of the country, is an unleashed futuristic masterpiece that could easily serve as an illustration in the novels of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Wonderful spherical shapes and colour explosions reflect Braem’s firm belief in a future in which the choking old cities stretch along ribbons to form a network of ecological residential chains. The question of the relevance of these reveries is perhaps not so important; after all, such expressions are an acquired right of avant-garde urbanists — just think of The Unadapted City by Luc Deleu or the unravelled New Babylon by Constant Nieuwenhuys. All of these seem to constantly deny the basic human need for palpable squares or dwellings with doors at street level in favour of fighter-jet architecture raised on pilotis. Nevertheless, with a little fantasy you can easily wind such a linear metropolis around itself and watch it become a somewhat inflated garden city by Ebenezer Howard: when all the shouting is over, avant-garde and traditionalist can’t but keep on treading on each others’ shadows.

The heart of this exhibition consists of the splendid drawings by Braem. Looking at his carefully crafted perspectives reminds you suddenly that it wasn’t so long ago that 3D imagery came about through a direct exchange between the hand and the brain. In every sketch you can feel the focused control, and gradually you see the meticulous lines evolve into colourful strokes in an architectural language that succeeds in distancing itself from every previously established style. The transition from abstract to more figurative motifs occurs in small measures, from an initially stylised functionalism to the almost organ-like plans of the 1950s that protect the occupant like shells. Among the many projects and photographs, a couple of masterpieces stand out: the library in Schoten; the Brauns, Alsteens and Van Humbeek houses; and the snakelike Middelheim Pavilion. They playfully contrast with the monochrome concrete sculptures made some years previously and show that with these fluid buildings Braem had reached the pinnacle of his ability. Hopping from Gotham City to Barbarella, he designed Gesamtkunstwerke for the ordinary man. Totally controlling space and drawing on the principles of colour psychology, he created fanciful buildings in which sculpture, graphics and fascinating organic forms flow into one another.

Braem’s study in his home-cum-office in Deurne. Photo: Vitor Cataluna Ribeiro

Too little of the same
The exhibition therefore offers a clear and accessible portrait of the architect, yet it’s unfortunate that an important aspect of his sizeable body of work remains unexamined. For just like Le Corbusier, Braem was always active artistically. He wrote, sculpted, painted and gave lectures. Close to the exhibition entrance are four sketchbooks, presented somewhat modestly beneath a plastic cover. Yet it is precisely in these colourful outlines that the bubbling impulses and seeds of Braems oeuvre disclose themselves. The alternative — digitising these pages or blowing up some of them to poster size — could have lent more substance to the exhibition. All the more so since Braem and his wife made many tours that inspired his view of life thoroughly and that he captured delicately in countless pen drawings. He was moved to tears by the massive Egyptian and Mexican structures, while he plainly dismissed Roman architecture as ‘humbug’. It is regretful, therefore, that scant attention is paid to his hard but often hilarious texts — he called Flanders ‘a zone of repulsive ugliness’ — and that his painted and sculpted experiments are even completely overlooked. A regrettable omission that is perhaps not the fault of the exhibition makers but rather of the limited size of the new gallery; Insufficient floor space seems to have restrained a more ambitious overview befitting a centenary tribute. Rather bizarre, because it is precisely here that the renewed Kunstcampus (= ‘Art Campus’) wants to stand out in a contemporary manner by using the whole building as a display window. The big circulation hall may well be the perfect place to show paintings, enlarged quotes or a few sculptures, yet all the visitor encounters here is a patchwork of photographs without too little explanation to help the reader.

Even so, by no means can one call ‘Renaat Braem 1910-2010’ a failed exhibition. There is simply too much quality material on show, and the audio and video fragments offer adequate critical comments on Braem’s radical views. When Braem was eleven years old he devised a code language to conduct secret conversations with his playmates. Through powerful drawings and compelling imagery of his built works, this exhibition shows that he did the same thing all over again as a mature designer. With ever increasing subtlety Renaat Braem crafted a highly personal idiom that centred on mankind and remains highly imaginative and comprehensible to this day. As a visitor one can’t but depart in cheerful spirits back into the reality of Belgium, which is – if not the ugliest – gradually becoming the haziest country in the world.

Library in Schoten (1968-1974). Photo by Anja Van Eetveldt en Maurice Nijhuis