Europe without European Architecture

The deSingel in Antwerp recently hosted the closing event of ‘How do we make Europe II’, a lecture series organised by the Flemish Architecture Institute (VAi), Antwerp Architects, Stroom and Artesis Hogeschool. The honour of concluding the series fell to architect, critic, researcher and novelist Christophe van Gerrewey on a summery evening in a stuffy and sparsely populated music hall.

Sevilla, Spain – photo Michal Osmenda

Christoph Grafe, director of the VAi and moderator for the evening, opened proceedings with a number of critical questions. What is Europe? And if we know that, is there such a thing as European architecture? Such questions hinted at the many concepts that are difficult to define or open to multiple interpretations. And that makes these questions impossible to answer. But questions all the same, according to Grafe, and they are hugely intriguing and urgent. As this earlier evenings made clear, such questions lie at the heart of a widely held wish to define architecture through European cultures and to draw on these cultures as a source of new architecture.

After the earlier lectures full of European positivism and ‘hands on’ approach, with contributions from, among others, Juhani Pallasmaa and Paul Shepheard, Van Gerrewey presented a 90-minute vision on the notion of European architecture that reached a conclusion that was greeted unenthusiastically and was misunderstood by many people.

Van Gerrewey started by arguing that if Europe exists, then European architecture must also exist. The most obvious definition, then, would be that European architecture is everything built within the borders of Europe. Such a conclusion is, however, bogus, he argued. “That definition is based on politics and geopolitics and, moreover, ignores architecture.” The competition design for the new library in Ghent by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, for example, is much more an expression of Japanese architecture in Europe than of European architecture by a Japanese architect. An answer to the question whether European architecture exists must therefore come from elsewhere. Van Gerrewey started his search by looking at some studies about European architecture that were published during the 20th and 21st century.

The most recent attempt in the quest for an identifiable European architecture comes from architecture historian and critic Hans Ibelings in his book European Architecture since 1890, with its accompanying subtitle From Lapland to Sicily, from Cracow to Glasgow. “Ibelings fails with this book”, said Van Gerrewey. “He makes no critical distinction between what’s representative and what’s not, and makes use of the strangest of categories.” “Historiographical models by colleagues are used selectively and then discarded again.” “The border of where European architecture can be found coincides precisely, not by chance, with the Europe defined geographically after the fall of the Iron Curtain.” Van Gerrewey’s dismissal of the book continued in this vein for some time. European Architecture since 1890 was driven by “the latent conviction that architecture serves society, expresses it, and shapes it.” Van Gerrewey wondered whether the very opposite was true. This thought, not immediately obvious, was not pursued any further unfortunately. Van Gerrewey concluded his analysis of Ibelings’s book with the remark that “The text is an exceptional adventure”, but “betrays a deaf and deafening brutality”. Van Gerrewey was alluding here to what he sees as the naive and historiographically questionable way in which Ibelings presents the complex material. Without any cynicism, however, he had a word of thanks for the author: “He has demonstrated the complexity very clearly.”

A number of researchers have made similar attempts to Ibelings over the years, among them JJP Oud in 1935, Nikolaus Pevsner in 1943, and George Everard Kidder Smith in 1961. These efforts were not entirely unsuccessful, but they turned out to be of short-lived relevance. They have one thing in common though – and this is perhaps also true of the study by Ibelings — and that is that they all amount to quests to find a communality at a time that Europe was or is threatened — moments of crisis in which there was or is a need for a clear identification or even definition. This is most clearly evident in the book An Outline of European Architecture by Pevsner, which was first published during the First World War. Pevsner employs his own system of categorisation in which just the façade, the building volume and the interior of the building are important. “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture,” as the German-English critic once famously said. And thus he determined what good European architecture is, and which particular works of architecture express what is good about Europe. Yet Pevsner’s worldview proved limited. For example, he described the now widely acclaimed chapel in Ronchamp by Le Corbusier as a building that will bring chaos into the world. Moreover, he dismissed America as a footnote of European history. “This sort of historiography has become impossible,” Van Gerrewey rightly noted.

It is beyond dispute that Europe was the leader in architecture for a long time. Almost all the works featured in the 1932 exhibition about the International Style in the MOMA in New York came from Europe. This was, according to Van Gerrewey, the last important group expression that can be linked to Europe. The ‘European model’, as he calls it, has spread successfully across the world, but is now no longer European. As far as he’s concerned, the European architecture project is largely a thing of the past. Or to put it another way: “It is the past”.
The history of the built environment, however, reveals the undeniable unicity of Europe. It boasts cities based on medieval patterns and its architecture defines itself in relation to its unique history, as Ernesto Rogers wrote. In Europe we hold a winning card in the genius loci. Yet musealisation threatens to strike. With an image of the new City Hall in Ghent by the Flemish architecture offices of Robbrecht & Daem and Marie-José van Hee, Van Gerrewey emphasised his concerns about the future: “If this is European architecture, then Europe is nothing but a tourist attraction now.” ‘Pasting and stacking’ buildings to produce images is not only cynical but also counterproductive, he argued.

Is this the conclusion then? No, said Van Gerrewey. He views Europe as an exceptional treasure that is buried time and time again until it is unearthed once more. It is an operative history. European architecture is a mosaic of identities, a constant stream of new opinions about architecture that can generate an identity needed at a particular moment in time. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term ‘paleonymy’, which belongs to the family of neologisms — old words that acquire a new meaning so that they survive in language. Van Gerrewey sees Europe as a paleonymy. According to him, the promise for the future is a Europe that “is at the service of society by first ignoring it.” “If that happens, the future promises to be wonderful!” This is the way we must make Europe: hiding before discovering.

Van Gerrewey didn’t get any less cryptic than this. One thing was certain, however: his total conviction that this will have to happen without a European architecture. Nonetheless, it was striking to note that almost all questions from the audience were based on the conviction that a European architecture does exist. Many people seemed to misunderstand Van Gerrewey, perhaps deliberately. This was in some measure down to the moderator Christoph Grafe, who answered almost all audience questions himself, thus unashamedly showcasing his own ideas while Van Gerrewey stood rather uncomfortably beside the stage. This demonstrated a lack of respect for the guest speaker, and more importantly, it stifled all debate about Van Gerrewey’s strongly constructed argument, a debate that could have been conducted but failed to materialise as a result.