Wednesday, July 07, 2010


I'm not a Eurosceptic, I'm a recovering Euro-optimistic. Partly, although the idea of a European Superstate is quite appealing, this was for entirely parochial reasons. In Sweden, joining the Euro would have been a shift to the right, here it would have been a sharp turn leftwards; if in Poland or Croatia the Welfare State must receive the neoliberal scalpel as a condition of EU membership, here the main objection to the Maastricht Treaty was the 'social chapter', which would have enshrined in law some minor continuation of the post-war consensus. Obviously I'm aware that it was only ever an exclusive, fortified enclave, but I wanted to swallow the lie of Europe, at least in principle. Now, as Greece is picked apart by the northern parts of the EU, it's more difficult than ever to imagine European Unity as something other than the Washington consensus with nicer architecture. Even so, it was pleasing to spend a particularly virulent outbreak of post-colonial melancholia in Maastricht itself, the birthplace of the European Union.

Maastricht is what Daily Mail readers who have never been to Brussels probably think it's like - unbelievably clean and neat, austere even when slathered in chocolate box ornament, dominated by bureaucratic buildings where our vegetables are malevolently measured. Brussels is not this, it is architecturally and otherwise a riotously exciting place; Maastricht is this. Lots of it looks like the picture below, dense, heavily urban but so obsessively preserved it's impossible to glean much pleasure from it:

...but for the purposes of this post it is the district planned in the 1990s, at the same time as the signing-in of the Euro and the signing of the Maastricht treaty, that will be receiving attention. This is an area called the Ceramique, built on the site of a large Ceramics factory complex. It is EUtopia.

The vast square is known as Plein 1992, to celebrate the year of the Maastricht Treaty's inception. It's wholly in the fine tradition of gigantic windswept plazas far too large for any conceivable function; and, in blistering heat, it certainly didn't offer much in the way of shade -instead its purpose is to be contemplated. I did this for some time.

Although the tower block is by Alvaro Siza, most of the Ceramique was designed and masterplanned by Jo Coenen. His architecture here is an example, perhaps, of what the PFI psuedomodernism of the Blairite era thought it was doing - a modern architecture that was essentially conservative, without any of the aggressive features - concrete, angularity, dissonance - that it had once had, but with all the things PFI architecture couldn't be bothered with, like detailing and fine materials. Its actually a very well-used square, but sheer size manages to make it desolate regardless.

Even some slight Alsopisms manage to come across as neat and sober.

Most of this I don't so much like as admire, for its refusal to be ingratiating; but there is one part of this complex that is actually quite exciting in its minimalism. It has something of the cold intensity of Ludwig Hilberseimer, 'softened' by a public park on the riverside.

This is an immensely long housing complex along the Meuse designed by Luigi Snozzi, and it's fun to imagine the planning meeting if such a thing were to be proposed in the UK. 'What, you mean it's just clad in brick? With no bits of wood attached? No bright colours? No wavy roofs? What will people think?' There's nothing to break up the length, but the redbrick and the vegetation all around make it feel decidedly more humane a place than all the riverside Blairboxes.

This is the sort of thing I want from the EU, and it is, I imagine, what eg Robin Carmody means when he writes about the idea of a Europe that is everything neoliberal Britain is not. Internationalism, Rationalism, Sachlichkeit - straightforward, but decent in its lack of romanticism or pizazz. Boring in the best possible sense - boring because 'interesting' was decidedly complicated and unpleasant in this part of the world. I would gladly live here.

Oddly, though, many of the buildings around make quite similar gestures and use similar materials, but are never as convincing - mainly because they try and make something monumental, something which is like the old buildings only without all the ornament, gables, frippery and whatnot. Like the somewhat domineering Mario Botta buildings above...

This post concludes with an attempt to puzzle out Aldo Rossi, again - fittingly enough, as he obviously decided at some point to take the veritable weight of Europe on his architectural shoulders, to embody its history in all its complexity rather than efface it, as does the sachlich EU-architecture of the Plein 1992 - rather than an optimistic wiping the slate clean, a representation and montage with that which went before. Sometimes, the result is just a mess. But there's always something else going on other than mere pomo jollity, though it never quite seems to convince, except at the level of occasionally fascinatingly strange objects. The Bonnefanten Museum, at the heart of this Euroland tabula rasa, has both of Rossi's impulses.

First of all, it totally refuses the prevailing mild-modernism, has other games to play. On the one hand there's the use of various odd little readymades or domestic objects made architectural; the toy flags above, for instance, or the Mario Bros pipes which run up the cupola. This is itself quite impressively strange, monumental without being obvious; a striking urban thing, whose actual function seems opaque. But there's something else in Rossi, something much less interesting, where he veers towards the boredom of 'vernacular', which eventually resembles High Art Asda. The service areas of the Bonnefanten Museum, for instance...

And the entrance, where the two sides seem to be brought together - the meditative intensity of De Chirico, the contextual cowardice of an Asda...and curiously, given that Rossi's evident intention was to create a 'locus', an urban centre of montage and movement, it's the long, minimal and uncomplicated housing block which actually features some human activity, some life. This is as cold and empty as the Stalinist architecture Rossi loved (though it lacks its madness), and like it, it has the arguable virtues of kitsch. If there's hope in this EUtopia, it lies round the corner, effacing the traces.


Blogger Michael Dembinski said...

if in Poland or Croatia the Welfare State must receive the neoliberal scalpel as a condition of EU membership...

Sorry Owen, much as I admire your architectural writing, I would like to ask you how you think welfare states should continue to be funded. If you think that individual and corporate taxpayers should keep shelling out ad infinitum so that bureaucrats can retire at 52, you are living some kind of economic make-believe absurdity that is bound to come crashing down sooner or later.

I'm no libertarian (the State must Regulate, though only as much as is necessary) but there's only so much public sector absurdity an electorate can swallow.

9:43 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Michael, I don't think this is really the time or place, but the economic make-believe absurdity I am living in is currently one which throws unprecedented amounts of money at bankrupt banks, and hence, I suspect, one which can afford decent pensions.

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