As part of The Persistence of Questioning, critical reflections for the future: ‘What is the state of architectural culture?’, Rob Ritzen explores a totally different form of architectural culture: architecture as a civic duty. Drawing on the example of a case study, the author exposes the property market system in Brussels that focuses on the temporary use of space, and the role played by architects in that process.
On the afternoon of Friday 26 February, forty housing activists from the Solidarity Requisitions Campaign, which supports people in precarious living situations, occupied a former retirement home in Brussels called the Pacheco Institute. Through Facebook I received the first message: ‘Building Requisitioned’. Bruzz, the local newspaper, ran the online headline: ‘Squatters occupy former Pacheco Institute in Begijnenhofwijk’, and the news appeared in numerous Instagram posts. Not long after that, friends reported that the police had arrived to clear the building. The next messages reported the arrest and eviction of the activists. The following Monday, an open invitation for proposals for the temporary use of the Pacheco Institute was published as planned, but the activists’ campaign had shifted the debate surrounding the temporary use of occupied buildings.
The many layers of Brussels
Brussels, as we know, is a highly layered and complex city in terms of administration. It comprises one region, two communities, 19 municipalities, federal government agencies, the European Union and all that comes with it. It has therefore a market for office space and, hence, for property developers. In addition, government departments own all sorts of social property — administrative centres, hospitals, police stations, fire stations, prisons and so on. On top of that, there are companies, agencies and organizations active in the housing sector. So for groups that operate from the bottom up by proposing other ways of using space, the city context offers little opportunity to operate amidst all these players.
I have encountered all sorts of city activism in my decade and a bit living in Brussels, often as a follower of a movement, sometimes as a protesting participant, and sometimes through my involvement in city development. This ambiguity does me no favours, since you are either for or against. Together with others, I campaign on behalf of artists who need space in the city. This mostly concerns workspace, but affordable housing in the city is of course also necessary. Groups that campaign for space in the city often find themselves in situations where pursuing one goal makes another goal less feasible or attainable. For example, the prevailing idea is that artists indirectly raise the value of property, as a result of which there comes a time when they themselves can no longer afford to occupy such property. If contradictions surface even within a seemingly unambiguous group interest — space for artists in the city — how can various groups that champion such a cause join forces in their efforts?
Opposition is definitely difficult to interpret: action, refusal, exodus, revolt, battle, negativity, creativity. Many political terms originate in mechanical physics, among them mass, action, reaction, force, movement and revolution. Resistance is a term that fits perfectly in this sequence, in the sense of inertia. That is to say, the property of a body to remain in the state of rest or movement in which it finds itself. For me, resistance as a force within a dynamic field provides a framework for reflecting on interventions for transformation. Shifts rather than victories are more likely to occur within this context. It is precisely amid such power structures and practices that architecture could operate. That is why I do not view ‘architecture culture’ as a matter of exhibitions, lectures, publications and the like, but as the context and set of relations within which architects operate.
Artists in the city
I have been involved from the start with Level Five, an artist collective that highlights the lack of affordable and good-quality studio space in Brussels and tries to tackle the problem partly in a cooperative way. The collective was formed in 2019 when various artists were forced to leave their temporary studio spaces roughly at the same time. A former government office building sold to market parties seemed the only possibility. Although the temporary use of the building was organized by a management company that was notorious for shifting responsibility and costs onto the occupants, collectively renting a space in this building gave us, eighty artists, an opportunity to unite. Our goal was to find a more sustainable way of organizing artist studios and creating a supporting environment for artistic practice.
It struck us that organizing studios for artists cannot be separated from the dynamics of the city and society. Who owns the building and within which development do we play a role? How do we divide the work within the organization? How do we relate to others who need space in the city? At the same time, the importance of studio space for reflecting and experimenting became increasingly apparent, because the space was not completely stifled by these dynamics. What unites the members of the group is involvement in the arts, but the range of practices is very wide, just like the individuals themselves. This is reflected in the backgrounds and motivations of artists in Level Five: homeless, migrants, unregistered, against police violence, LGTBQIA+, ecology, racism, inequality… Such overlaps enable the collective to launch initiatives for social involvement, beyond the self-interest of the artists and their work.
Calculating government agencies
The occupation of the Pacheco Institute had a long history. The building closed its doors for good as a retirement home in 2017, and since then it had remained largely unoccupied. It is owned by OCMW/CPAS, the social security department of the city of Brussels, which ultimately plans to convert it into intergenerational housing that serves a social purpose. In early 2021 OCMW/CPAS invited proposals for the temporary use of the building, though it is unclear why there was so much time between the closure of the home and this invitation for proposals.
Since Level Five had to vacate its space and was urgently looking for alternative accommodation for eighty artists, the Pacheco Institute invitation seemed like one of the few options available in the short space of time available. Yet there were concerns, because the collective included individuals who voiced opposition to police violence and were involved in supporting both unregistered foreigners and homeless people in Brussels. How could we submit a proposal to temporarily use a building that had been cleared by the police? Would our proposal for space come at the expense of shelter for the homeless? What solidarity would we show with unregistered foreigners by submitting a proposal? One option was to join a coalition of organizations that proposed a temporary use with a social goal. But it proved difficult to connect with such organizations since they refused to submit a proposal out of solidarity with the initiative taken by the Solidarity Requisitions Campaign. The invitation could have been seized upon to bring together the network of Brussels initiatives trying to make the city from the bottom up — and in that way to exert more influence on city development and social policy — but this avenue was sealed off prematurely. This was largely down to how the invitation was formulated and the lack of consultation with organizations that supported temporary use of a social nature. Instead, the invitation was made to measure for an organization that pursues a generic placemaking approach in which, similar to physical zoning, functions and descriptions (solidarity, culture, education, innovation, …) are allocated to areas and elaborated later.
Architects provide diversion
When it comes to placemaking and temporary use of space, there are a number of organizations active in Brussels. One of them is Up4North, an organization set up by property developers in Noordwijk. Up4North aims to stimulate, through a process of co-creation, a ‘turning point towards a dynamic, innovative area where different worlds meet, share and connect’. Under the name LabNorth, it brings together 51N4E, Vraiment Vraiment and Architecture Workroom Brussels to present itself as a mediator for temporary use with an eye on future developments in Noordwijk. The epicentre of this effort is located in the WTC building.
Organizations that campaign for the temporary use of space for social purposes usually seek to secure space for people who have less access to it, but LabNorth seems to seize the temporary character as a basis for engaging in design research. It is not immediately clear for whom they are doing this. All activity in the WTC building played into the hands of the design research conducted by 51N4E and served to advertise their suitability for taking on the commission to oversee the future development of the building. In exchange for what they themselves call ‘civic design’, the property developers allowed LabNorth to make free use of a floor of the WTC building. As a result, in collaboration with L’AUC from Paris and under the watchful eye of Jasper Eyers Architects, they eventually landed the commission to develop a small part of the project. So Architecture Workroom Brussels seems to have seized the opportunity mostly as a way of developing its own projects and studies, among them ‘You Are Here’ (IABR).
StamEuropa, a pilot project for temporary use, shows a similar detachment in the role of architects. The project is part of a European regional development initiative aimed at temporary use, called 2nd chance. The City of Brussels is a project partner and the Federal Agency for Public Buildings manages the building where StamEuropa is based. Together with the European Quarter Fund, a company fund within the Koning Boudewijn Foundation with, among others, property developers, StamEuropa mediates the temporary use. The building itself is a concrete shell and requires some investment before it can be used. Because the Federal Agency for Public Buildings is allowing part of the building to be temporarily used, it avoids having to pay a surcharge for leaving it unoccupied. The money thus saved serves as a budget for the European Quarter Fund and for temporary use. StamEuropa organizes this temporary use. Some of the individuals and organizations involved here also figure in Up4North, among them Alain Deneef, coordinator of Up4North and chair of the European Quarter Fund and eQuama (European Quarter Area Management Association). So it comes as no surprise that we again come across 51N4E and Vraiment Vraiment at the start of the process for temporary use. Much of the budget available for making the building ready for use was spent on the foyer and exterior of the building. Employing a refined do-it-yourself aesthetic, the designers turned the lobby, perhaps ten percent of the building, into a setting for debates, workshops and presentations.
It is no surprise that a use is still being sought for the rest of the building. It is no more than an old concrete shell, windows are missing or broken, and basic infrastructure such as electricity and water are lacking. The annual budget that is transferred from the surcharge imposed for unoccupied buildings cannot be used to remedy these issues because it serves as cost coverage for StamEuropa. So occupying a floor of this model project for temporary use would require an investment of tens of thousands of euros. What precarious organization could afford that, especially for a temporary facility?
Architects provide support
The organizations in Brussels active in the area of temporarily using space for social purposes engage in a form of architectural practice that unites societal and cultural functions by itself becoming part of those functions. Consolidating these groups and movements in the city should be the next concerted step. Conditions for temporarily using social property should be more aligned with organizations with social goals. And organizations themselves should create more firm ground by jointly purchasing land and buildings (for example through the Community Land Trust). For the artists of Level Five, the first step is to establish collaborations with organizations for using space for social purposes. This should be based on solidarity, without our presenting ourselves as anything other than artists looking for space in the city.
The title of the intervention by 51N4E and Vraiment Vraiment at StamEuropa is ‘New Ways of Working Together’. Let us read that as an appeal rather than a position: architects looking for a new way of working. Architects have specific knowledge and skills that can support groups or organizations in need of space in the city – not by seeing these organizations as study objects for design research, and not by designing façades for empty buildings. Architects should embed themselves in the groups concerned and learn about which building blocks and tools are needed to develop and consolidate space for them. It is not about civic design but civic duty. That, too, is architecture culture.