In a 1968 book, Belgian architect and urban planner Renaat Braem called his country “the ugliest in the world” and criticized the disorder in its urban plans and the government’s lack of initiative to take care of it. A few years earlier, even the American art historian George Everard Kidder Smith had argued that the country did not contribute enough to contemporary architecture. Even today on social networks, there are profiles that collect images of what are considered to be the ugliest houses in Belgium because of their futuristic or completely bizarre shapes.
In the last twenty years, however, things have improved, at least in Flanders, where, thanks to an innovative public tender launched by the local government, more than 300 buildings have been built, which are very popular even outside Belgium and are considered interesting examples. on modern architecture.
Flanders is located in the northern part of the country and overlooks the North Sea. They are home to some of Belgium’s most famous cities, such as Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges, and over 6 million people (more than half of the Belgian population), mostly Flemish-speaking. In 1998, the local government established Vlaams Bouwmeester’s office (literally “Flemish architect”), which gave him the task of developing projects to rebuild the area: they must take into account the needs of local authorities, the interests of citizens and investors and must also have a show attention to aesthetics.
The first call came two years later: it was looking for architects or architectural firms to create buildings of public interest and architectural and landscape works. More than 700 projects have been presented in Flanders since 2000, and almost 350 have been realized, of which 70 are described in a catalog entitled Celebration of public architecture recently published by Jovis.
The projects have resulted in the construction of public kindergartens, museums, libraries, nursing homes and water silos as well as several administrative buildings. One of the best known and most valued is the one that houses the headquarters of the Port Authority in Antwerp, designed by Zaha Hadid’s studio – one of the most famous architects of recent decades – and is grafted on what was once a fire station. Many other works have been created by international studios or studios by promising young architects.
The headquarters of the province of Antwerp
This is how advertising works. The government-appointed architect announces plans to be built twice a year, and interested architects must submit a portfolio and letter of intent rather than a drawing. At this point, the chosen ones are invited to discuss the project together – for a fee – taking into account the main functions of the building, the customer’s needs and the aesthetics that convince most: very often the final project is the result of a work shared by several architects and not by one simple study.
Oost Campus, an administrative and cultural center in Oostkamp, just outside Bruges
One of the projects implemented through the advertising is the Merksem kindergarten, which is located just outside Antwerp and houses almost 150 children. It is a one-storey building surrounded by a park and its shape resembles a donuts: in the complex there are also rooms dedicated to the staff who take care of the maintenance of the park and their vehicles, which greatly fascinates the girls and kindergarten children .
According to Guardianwhich in recent days has dedicated an article to the projects realized thanks to the tender, bringing together and collaborating more architects is a particularly innovative system that should also be taken into account by other local authorities and governments in other countries: not only because it brings together different ideas, but also because it is an opportunity for smaller design studios to work on large and interesting projects, usually entrusted to more renowned architects.
For example, the kindergarten and the depot in Merksem Park had been thought of as two separate buildings, but thanks to the discussions that began with the tender, it was understood that the design of them as a single environment provided an opportunity to save money and get a more functional space. The Spanish architect Carlos Arroyo had instead convinced to change the original project with the construction of an administrative and cultural center in Oostkamp, just outside Bruges: he had proposed to renovate an existing industrial plant, avoid building one from scratch thus saving money and ’emission of tons of greenhouse gases.