An anonimous iconography for the capital of Europe

Unlike other traditional European capitals, Brussels is not defined by its metropolitan size or its monumental scale. Despite having a modest scale, city’s geopolitical relevance is one of the most significant worldwide (1). Brussels is simultaneously an autonomous region (Brussels Capital Region), the capital of Flanders, the capital of Belgium and the capital of the European Union. Brussels barely counts on more than one million people living within its political boundaries, but it is the centerpiece of the “Flemish Diamond”, a larger metropolitan area of more than 5.5 million inhabitants.

Since these roles overlapped, the city has turned into an urban lab of ideals and idealisms. The capital, as a power and cultural center of a larger territory, is meant to define and shape the politics that keep that territory united. So, it is committed to be a common, symbolic and representative element of the identity of the population inhabiting such territory.

Being aware of this, different political actors in Brussels sought to shape their different and “innovative” political-territorial configurations: It was Charles of Habsburg, who designated Brussels as capital of the Flemish Brabant, at the time when Europe was reconfigured according to the power ties among the imperial families. By the nineteenth century, the territories were organized in nation states and Brussels should contribute to built up a Belgian national identity. A century later, in the context of postwar globalization, Brussels assumed again the role of capital of a new post-national setting: The European Union. Thus, Brussels shifted from a provincial town to an ongoing project of construction of a political and cultural capital.

The Justice Palace

Once designated “Capital of Belgium”, Brussels should become the icon of the new state, which was founded upon the principles of justice and equality of the Constitution of 1830. It was not possible to conceive a capital without buildings representing its grandeur. Therefore, the King Leopold I delegated Joseph Poelaert the construction of a monumental building that signifies the sense of pride produced by the new nation.

Palais de JusticeThe Justice Palace building sought to evoke the absolute supremacy of justice above the individual (2). Its architecture is a miscellaneous of huge proportions: the dimensions of the hallways and stairs, the lenght of the cornice and the huge dome on top differentiated it from any other further construction as well as announced the imposition of an extremely rational criteria. It was the largest building built in the nineteenth century and exceeds in dimensions to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (3). Its construction works required expropriations and demolitions in very dense areas of the Quartier de Marolles, which was a typical working class neighborhood. The expropriation and relocation of most of the resident caused the local population refusal of the new icon. In allusion to Joseph Poelaert, the term “Skieven Architect” (devious architect) became one of the worst insults (4).

The monumental scale achieved urban dimensions with the implementation of the “Besme’s Plan” (5). Following the urban tradition of the nineteenth-century, Brussels based its expansion outside the walls in a structure of axes and monuments (6). The Senne valley concentrated a high population density and the high level of water pollution was the argument to undertake major infrastructure works in the city center. The vaulted river channeling offered the possibility of building new boulevards and monuments, wiping out much of the historical heritage and permanently dissapearing the Senna river from the collective memory of Brussels.

Was it necessary to appeal to colossal architectural works for strengthening the role of Brussels as capital? Although this monument clearly responded to the city’s need of being positioned like other European capitals, its construction caused the rejection of the local population without becoming the symbol that identified them. Today, despite its grandiloquence and patrimonial presence, the rationality and rigidity that feature it make it difficult to adapt to new uses, its spaces are too expensive to maintain and its dimensions do not admit an urban diversity that responds to the richness contained in the small scale that the building replaced (7).

Expired Futures

The small scale was incompatible with the ambitions of greatness of the new state’s capital; to give the city a new scale implied that the existing must be replaced (8). The 19th century’s great demolitions were replicated in the tabula rasa of the 20th century, allowing radical transformations and the pursuing for new monumental forms inspired on functionalism and standardization.

After the first world war, the construction of new symbols tried to lift the national morale and anticipated an era of “progress”. Coming into the criteria that led to the channeling of the Senna River, the North -South junction represented the most dramatic infrastructural project of the 20th century. New excavations and topographical modifications were followed by more demolitions that set the platform for a modern monumentality.
At the end of the second world war, new ideological trends constructed lifestyles associated with mobility, global economy and mass culture, far away from traditional urban models. La Cité Administrative (1955), located on the layout of the junction, sought to concentrate governmental functions, giving shape to a ceremonial square in what used to be a previous historic popular neighborhood. Meanwhile, La Cité Modèle (1956-1969) followed the CIAM principles, it was voluntarily differentiated from the “chaos” of the historic center and provided an exemplary housing.

Just as the Justice Palace did, these structures seem not willing to dialogue with to the new urban dynamics: La Cité Administrative, was unable to adapt its impeccable volumetric composition to the political restructuring of the country. Consequently, the whole complex lost its governmental character and gave the city a disused impervious urban front. On the other hand, La Cité Modèle was not totally concluded. Today, its community infrastructure has been inattentively preserved and its towers are isolated from the city dynamic (9). During the following decades, the modernist neighborhoods of that generation were blamed of becoming ghettos and contributing with social segregation affecting the population (10).
Facing the postmodern era, Brussels became home to major international institutions (NATO, European Commission, European Union) which generated a high demand for office spaces. As consequence, the transformation process stopped being rational and modern, and initiated a phenomenon of urban sprawl that just obeyed the property speculation called Brusselisation, which promoted the progressive destruction of much of the urban heritage. An international indignation movement reacted to the announcement of the demolition of the Maison du People of Victor Horta in 1964, nevertheless it has been replaced by a twenty six- storey office tower (11).

Massive and mono functional office buildings, sometimes desvinculated from public space, hosting European institutions, took over the historical Quartier Leopold. The same happened with the Quartier Nord due to the construction of the Manhattan Project, during the 70’s. This project gave shape to a vision of the city as International Business Center. Therefore, the term Brusselisation is used today pejoratively to describe “the destruction of the city during peace times” (12).

The creation of icons by means of destructing the city’s critical mass, the construction of world business centers detached from their immediate urban context and the imposition of unique interests (either political or economic) on top of the different visions held about a territory, were the criteria that defined the capital of Europe. The previous cases represented ideals of future conceived under the rational criteria of different historical moments. As soon as these ideals changed, the shapes that symbolized them “expired”. In words of Octavio Paz:

“The Architecture is the incorruptible witness of history, because it is not possible to talk about a great building without recognizing on it the witness of an era, its culture, its society, its intentions (…)”.

Inspiring Futures

Ideals change progressively and they are manifested in humans’ everyday habits. The city has the capacity of responding spontaneously to these changes, but not under the static way of huge and imposed projects, rather within the transformation of the urban tissue where inhabitants construct their daily life. In this regard, the evolution of Brussels as capital might be interpreted as the history of a conflict between its icons and urban tissues.

However, due to its condition as place of exchange, Brussels is also a place where the vast majority of cultural diversity and global sense converge. Today, what better defines Brussels as capital is the multiple number of languages spoken on its streets, the gastronomic variety offered by its neighborhoods, its cultural and ethnical diversity, which are best represented by the urban tissue than by monumental forms. Thus, to become a common place for different cultures and territories, just like the “capital of Europe” is meant to be, the formal response to the capital condition lies on the recognition and strengthening of the identity treasured by these tissues.

In this sense, some urban planning instruments suggest a change of strategies. The states’ investment in projects of local neighborhood renovation has motivated the construction of good quality service infrastructure as well as social housing projects at the local level that reconstruct blocks and rehabilitate disused buildings, creating and recuperating public spaces. This inspired us to think about a different future for the capital of Europe, far away from the absolutism of the master plan and the author’s urbanism, and more focused on the development of flexible and plural strategic plans, that promote an anonymous iconography built day by day.

(Text: Sedaile Mejias and Diego Luna Quintanilla / photos :Diego Luna Quintanilla // This article was published in Shht#2 Underground, January 2014 )


(1) See the article: For the Capital City by Pier Vittorio Aureli, in: Brussels Capital of Europe, Urban form, Representation, Architecture, Rotterdam, Berlague Institute, 2006, p.25.

(2) “Les salles et les escaliers évoquent par leur taille et leurs proportions la suprématie absolue de la justice par rapport à l’individu » in : Heirman, M. ; L. Van Santvoort, Le guide de L’Architecture en Belgique, Bruxelles, Éditions Racine, 2010, p. 130.

(3) Curious and constant comment in touristic information guides and other reviews about the Justice Palace. See:, and Lonely Planet: Belgium and Luxemburg, 2010, pp.83.

(4) According to Brussel’s tradition, the term “Skieven Architect” resulted from a modification in Bruxelloise dialect of the term “Chief Architect”, used by most of the construction workers of the Justice Palace, whose majority knew the English language, when they referred to Poelaert. A well-known bar located in the Place Jeu-de Balle in Les Marolles, alludes to this historical episode.

(5) Victor Besme’s “General Plan for the extensión and bautification of the city of Brussels and its surroundings” supported the new monumental interventions that sought to strength the national identity: the Cinquantenaire Park and the Sacre Coeur Basilique were built up to conmemorate the 50th and 75th Nation’s anniversary respectively. The last, is the biggest building Art Deco in the world and its construction was interrupted by the two world wars. Finally, it was inaugurated in 1969.

(6) The transformation of the Royal Parc (which has evolved from being a Royal garden to a recreational public space) was the starting point for the city’s expansion. The appearance of urban developments like the Leopold Quartier, whose expansion during the 19th century set Brussels’s expansion beyond the ancient medieval pentagon, was associated to an image of Brussels less provincial and inadequate for its role of capital.

(7) In response to the current necessity of renovation and change of use of the Justice Palace, the Régie des Bâtiments et le Service Public Fédéral Justice launched the international ideas contest “Brussels Court House: Imagine the future!” in 2010. The aim of this competition was to develop a contemporary vision for the future of the Justice Palace and its surroundings. See the exhibition: Architecture for Justice. Brussels Courthouse, Imagine the Future! In

(8) In the article De la Cité à la Capitale Européenne, (Bruxelles Architectures de 1950 à Aujourd’hui; Bruxelles, AAM Éditions, 2012, p.7 ) Brussels is referred as “a city of houses”, therefore it is said that “a city of houses does not evolve, nor is being replaced or kept just like it is to construct aside”.

(9) M. Heirman, L. Van Santvoort, Le guide de L’Architecture en Belgique, Bruxelles, Éditions Racine, 2010, pp. 207.

(10) The restructuration of these housing complexes often resulted in bulldozing and reconstructing. The demolition of the Pruitt Igoe project in St Louis (UUEE) became an emblematic icon of the failure of this type of urbanization. This was claimed as “the end of modernity” by Charles Jencks.

(11) See the chapter: Le Grande Deparage, in Bruxelles Architectures de 1950 à Aujourd’hui, Bruxelles, AAM Éditions, 2012, p.57.

(12) Ibid.