Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Capital of Europe 1: Houses

Obligatory holiday picture post

Brussels is bourgeois. So bourgeois that Marx and Engels despaired of this most industrialised part of continental Europe ever becoming revolutionary, and hence it's the perfect place for the headquarters of the bosses' utopia that is the European Union, and for NATO. Thing is, in making Brussels the capital of Europe, combined with the linguistic and tribal chaos of Belgian politics, the EU managed to accidentally create a diverse and I almost hesitate to say vibrant, multicultural city. In doing that the weirdness already at large in the capital is positively amplified, and pointing out this weirdness is key when arguing with little Englanders who seem to imagine the European capital as being full of glass buildings housing potato-measuring bureaucrats. There are many of those, but many, many other things. I'm not going to talk about many of them, but instead about the radically bourgeois architecture of the capital of Europe, and the sporadic attempts to make it less bourgeois. The first part of this will be on houses, the second - sometime this afternoon or tomorrow, depending on whether I do any proper work - will be on public buildings.

Due to an ordinance which made the repetition of buildings practically illegal, apparently more because of a rash of lawsuits between Belgian architects rather than a disdain for uniformity, any Belgian street looks vastly different to any English, German or French street. You don't get terraces, you don't get semis, and hence you don't get repetition. This doesn't actually lead to the riot of ideas you could naively expect, and in poorer areas like that around the Gare de Midi, you get the same architects hanging minor variations on fairly uniform fa├žades. Even in the best instances, it's a matter of small details and dressings rather than fundamentals. In practically every case, we're dealing with three and upwards storey townhouses and flats, without gardens, clinging to the streetline, with very few experiments at anything other than the level of style, design and placement of balconies, materials, etc etc. In this Brussels is especially bourgeois, in that there is much ostentatious individuality, but nothing truly nonconformist or revolutionary. Yet, if you take the view that architecture is scenery, and are not especially interested in interiors (I'm not) then this is not necessarily a bad thing - there is lots and lots to see. Most of these photos are taken in the area around the lunatic 1930s Koekelberg Basilica that towers over the north of the city (more of which in part two!), and which show how the same basic idea can be given all manner of surface treatments. It also marks a rare foray of this blog into the world of uncaptioned architectural porn.

Brussels is where Art Nouveau architecture was 'invented'. All this lot support the general idea of art nouveau as architectural frippery, an irrelevant detour from the true path of modernism. Which is not entirely the case, as we shall come to later. Above you have none of the really wild examples of the style, but rather lots of slightly Victor Horta-esque ornament, fancy ironwork, and occasionally huge windows and other more advanced accoutrements. What is interesting in Brussels is that when Modernism came along, it was for the most part slotted neatly into exactly the same system of streetline and ostentatious individuality. This system could accommodate very tall blocks of flats, and in a couple of cases a bit of Brutalism as well, without the essential rectitude of the streetline being broken up, without buildings going off into their own space and orientating themselves in some more 'rational' manner. As with art nouveau, the most interesting things are small details - the fronts of doorways, the edges of balconies, odd little ornaments. It's the sort of thing proper critics would have called Moderne rather than Modern, although see if you can spot the one of these by a CIAM member. Also, bear in mind this is suburban housing of the interwar years - compare the Tudorbethan semis built in London at the same time, for a pointer to what happens aesthetically when you fail to fully complete your bourgeois revolution.

The two below are by Fernand Bodson, who straddled art nouveau and modernism, mostly in partnership with Antoine Pompe - and who at least had the wit to describe himself as a 'pseudomodernist'. Note the space for cars within the facade.

Joseph Diongre was responsible for this bit of intriguing glam-deco ostentation. Like many other Belgian architects he went from traditionalism to an opulent non-mainstream modernism - there don't seem to have been many Blomfieldesque ragers against Modernismus here. Diongre's most famous Brussels building is this piece of nautical Mendelsohnery, whose stern can be seen for miles.

The Brutalist one at the end has a tap.

To see exactly what makes Modernism as a movement different from this play of styles, the contrast between the Cite Moderne and the houses which surround it (many of which are above) is instructive. The Cite Moderne was designed in the early 1920s by a team headed by Victor Bourgeois, but it is the least bourgeois thing in the area. The Modern City is probably the earliest of the famous White Modernist estates of the '20s (early enough that its derivation from the pre-war ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright and Tony Garnier is easily spotted), and like those in Berlin, sponsored by a housing co-operative. Everything about it proclaims collectivity. Here, maybe because of some legal loophole or other, is repetition, but in an enveloping, friendly manner. Here there is an aesthetic consistency, and also lots of what Brussels had very little of at the time - gardens. This was at that strange point where it was Modernists rather than their opponents who favoured family houses with gardens over flats. There's also a lot of cubic topiary, De Stijl stained glass, games with right angles, and a monument to Bourgeois added at the estate's centre in the '50s. Just to remind you of the politics, the roads here are called things like 'Co-Operation Road' or 'Evolution Road'.

These are new houses being built at the edge of the Cite Moderne, which are scrupulously 'in keeping' - an exemplar of the changing priorities of bourgeois taste if ever there were. On the way back to the Metro station, I spot this Corbusian block. Many of Brussels' poor live in these slabs on hills at the edges, looming down on the bourgeois city.

I accept responsibility for all the photos, except the one at the very top which was taken by Frances Hatherley.


Anonymous Richard Wright said...

One of the most interesting areas for modernist building in Brussels is along the line of the North-South Connection project which (as the name implies) created a six-track through rail route between the northern and southern rail terminals of the city. Planned in the 1930s but only completed after WW2, this was built by the cut and cover method. Looking either side of the fantastic Central Station (by Victor Horta) you can follow the line of the route by looking for the modernist buildings that were constructed over the tunnels.

3:33 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Thanks - I'll be briefly mentioning the Central Station in the next post.

4:09 pm  
Blogger johneffay said...

Brussels is bourgeois.

You didn't make it to downtown Schaarbeek then?

4:44 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

It has a bourgeois ethos!

4:50 pm  
Anonymous Gabe said...

Please elaborate on your negative remarks about our lovely Metro in you next post. Also, the area around Koekelberg, tower blocks included, is less poor than the more central and less tower-blocky areas.

5:05 pm  
Blogger johneffay said...

Ha! You were just too bourgeois with your floppy fringe to make contact with the Belgian proletariat ;)

Slightly more seriously, some of the suburbs round Brussels are anything but bourgeois. The buildings may once have reflected bourgeois aspirations, but the disrepair they have fallen into and the general atmosphere out there would quickly disabuse one of the notion that the majority of the population clung to such things. I used to go out there regularly and the thing that always struck me was the disjunction between the areas where all the EU staff wined and dined and some the places where my friends lived.

5:06 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Yes, that all sounds likely - but for the time when they were designed, these were surely bourgeois areas, and as Gabe rightly points out, the area where I took most of these photos still is (and the tower at the bottom appears to have been made of very swish materials - tho the tower block areas of Heysel look much poorer - still, it's not London so any judgements I'd make on how class is in Brussels now would be tentative at best) I did mention the area round Gare de Midi being still pretty poor also.

5:20 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

btw I won't be expanding on my dissing of the metro system, so suffice to say here that although it's cheap, extensive and very fast, a) it smells, b) the tramlines that go underground are as horrendously cramped as London's Northern Line on a very, very bad day, and c) it lacks a good overarching aesthetic. Which is one of the very few things that London does better than Brussels.

5:30 pm  
Anonymous Gabe said...

It does *not* smell?! And the actual metro trains are never as jammed as London's, even in rush hour. And the tower blocks, also around Heysel, are more likely to house adequately off pensioners, whereas the really deprived areas are actually full of the types of houses in your photos.

5:42 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

On the latter, I sit corrected, and am pleased - towers like those in Heysel would be very different in demographic over here, and perhaps even a modernist cheerleader like myself finds certain habits of mind hard to shake off. So, good - though my point was always that the areas I was photographing show a bourgeois aesthetic, which need not be the case 80 years after they were built.

The metro trains may be less crowded, but I mentioned the underground trams. And it does smell. So nerrr.

5:49 pm  
Anonymous Tim said...

Some of these houses seem to me to be quite Amsterdam School-ish (at least the less craft-y, less showy end of the AS).

That's interesting to me because I didn't notice much of that sort of thing when I was last in Brussels and I had been secretly incubating a random and ill-informed theory that the Belgians had been resitant to ideas coming from that direction.

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