Private Brussels

Guillem Pons:

Offices are a common subject of economic speculation. Planned by managers and developers, they have become total commodities of the real-estate market. As a symptom, the European Union’s administrative buildings are almost identical to commercial offices, despite representing a public and democratic institution. The EU has come to express a post-political attitude, in which economic consensus prevails over social or democratic aims.  This has rendered the EU’s developments devoid of any civic ambition to contribute to and ameliorate the city. Administrative buildings have become dysfunctional to the city, sealed containers with no or little interaction with their surroundings.

The Leopold Quarter in Brussels
Left: Before the European occupation (1950). Right: After its transformation into the so-called ‘European Quarter’ (2007)

In Brussels, the office typology has developed in its most agonising form, since public institutions have surrendered control over their premises to the opportunism of the market. Thus, the dissertation, based on the analysis of the alienating case of the European district in Brussels, challenges the failures and missed opportunities of privatised architecture and technocratic masterplanning. It proposes that the ‘interior’ emerges as a meaningful instigator of new civic space, and as a means to subvert administrative buildings from within, especially, since normative provisions of public space seem to have become insufficient and unsuccessful, only reinforcing self-referential symbolism. The ‘interior’ opens up the possibility to reason urban space beyond its conventional notions: streets, squares or parks. Yet, the ‘interior’ allows integrating both inside and outside of the building, expanding the field of urban design to a new area.

Rue de la Loi, main street of the European Quarter in Brussels during non-working hours.

Europe’s Capital Never Sleeps

Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union, a political-economic union that operates through a system of supranational institutions. Since the EU’s main task is to produce legislation, regulating every aspect of human activity in Europe – from boiling mussels to growing apples or building parapets – one would think that its own premises should be under control as well. However, the EU occupied buildings in Brussels are far from representing a civic or democratic institution. Instead, their offices are hardly different from typical corporate office buildings. Their architectural ambitions are generic, a sort of efficiency combined with the
 vanity of very idiosyncratic materials, such as laminated-glass curtain walls, natural stone claddings, or streamlined ornamentations. The EU buildings in Brussels represent the reluctance of commercial architecture to contribute to the city, mirroring a post-political situation in which civic institutions have succumbed to a market economy.

Recent practices in the European Quarter of Brussels are evidences of this problem, and neatly describe a process, which far from civic or democratic, has always been pro t-oriented. Indiscriminately occupying the former Leopold quarter, the EU has historically accommodated its premises in an ad hoc basis, without any planning, and only following the opportunism of the real-estate market. The result today is an alienating and mono-functional quarter that is perceived as a free-standing episode disconnected from the city. By the 2000s –and especially after the Treaty of Nice of 2001–2 the negative impact that the institution was already having in the city, forced the European Commission to mobilise a competition to expand and renovate its obsolete premises. So in 2008, after a series of official debates regarding the impact of the institutions in the city, the European Commission in partnership with the Brussels Capital region, and the municipality of the City of Brussels, launched a competition to put an end to the general discontent. The brief was mainly interested in the creation of a ‘landmark’ that could highlight the symbolism of the institutions, while encouraging the improvement on the liveability of the area.3 This a priori stress on the legibility of the institution, albeit under a landmark, was finally a conscious ambition to propose an explicit engagement with the city. However, the winning proposal was far from a truly ambitious civic project, but rather unfolded its most technocratic vision: the masterplan seemed only concerned with the real-estate speculation and its own feasibility, away of envisioning a better urban environment finally lead by the European institutions.

The winning proposal, by the Atelier de Portzamparc, fails to amend the failures and missed opportunities of the past, and proposes again a field of autonomous and unrelated office buildings. In a way, it elucidates the post-political situation in which the feasibility and the economic consensus of the masterplan seek the requirements of the market, prevailing before any deliberate contribution to the city. Thus, the so-called improvement on the liveability that the masterplan claims, is meant to be achieved by the mere provision of pocket spaces subtracted from the existing urban blocks. A provision simply deducted from the regulation of heights dictated by the masterplan. The values that ultimately the approved masterplan puts forward are very far from social or civic ambitions, promoting a streamlined happening of privatised development, and a continuity of restrictive and unimaginative technocratic urban planning.

In this conflict between unambitious public institutions and burdened commercial developments, the dissertation enters to address a twofold question; on the
one hand, it pursues the ambition to bring back the agency of institutions when developing its own premises, and therefore, how can public institutions overcome the burden of commercial buildings –a kind of architecture that undermines institutional (civic) ambitions–?; and on the other hand, in order to combat the limitations of the economic framework, how can disciplinary practice move beyond the possibilities of technocratic urban planning, whose ultimate goal is to make the project economically feasible?

Being aware of these two concerns, a critical analysis on the masterplan for
the Rue de la Loi already rises a number of questions, not only relevant to the case of the EU in Brussels, but also relevant to contemporary city development. These questions can be identified under the following terms; ‘privatisation’ as the standard development mode that produces alienation and restrictions to the urban fabric; the reliance on the figure of the ‘landmark’, as a means of representation –nowadays reduced by developers to icon–; ‘preservation’, which ambivalently seducing the economic sector (travel & tourism) and the historical and cultural heritage, has entered into European cities as a Trojan horse; and ‘centrality’,
as a relevant asset to any institution claiming agency into the city. These four terms underscore the context in which ‘institutional administrative buildings’ are developed, and provide the ground for the dissertation to set up the argument that reformulates ‘administrative buildings’ at large.

In the light of this general reformulation of administrative buildings, the dissertation proposes the idea of the ‘interior’ (or ‘interiorisation’) as the possibility of providing an urban space that is accommodated by the building itself. The idea precisely lays on the same commercial architecture, where different idiosyncrasies and specificities reveal a potential that goes beyond the idea of the office as purely ‘generic’ or ‘typical’.4 Usually manifested as responses to the socio-economic and political context, these ‘interiorities’ represent an effective alternative to urban or civic spaces. Taking this possibility, the ambition of the dissertation is precisely to embrace the potential of ‘commercial architecture’ to hijack it from within and instigate an alternative to the conventional provision of public or civic space.

In short, the research proposes the ‘interior’ as a new category of urban space for the discipline of urban design, challenging conventional notions of public space, such as streets, squares, and so forth. In this formulation, the role of the European Union and Brussels is essentially the backdrop of the project, where the struggle has become more explicit: a public institution being harnessed by market economy and being unable to create a space for its civic representation. Thus, the dissertation framework is set on public institutions, as the agents that can foster a typological regeneration for administrative buildings. Brussels therefore, is the test-ground to propose the four designs that challenge the contextual conflicts arisen from private development and technocratic urban planning. Considering the private developer too eager to increase his revenues, the transformation of administrative buildings from commodities to civic or political functions, is understood in the dissertation, as an ambition and responsibility ultimately lead by democratic and public institutions. Perhaps opening the door to other agents to explore the possibilities of the ‘interior’ as a deliberate self-provision of urban space.

Typical Office

In the work of the new Rationalists, the city and its typology are reasserted as the only possible bases for the restoration of a critical role to public architecture, otherwise assassinated by the apparently endless cycle of production and consumption.

The story of the office is told by a constant antagonism, between Europe and America, which encapsulates –into its typology– the clash between western cultures. In Europe, according to George Steiner, one of the main characteristic of cities is the accumulation of successive layers of history, and the unavoidable presence of the past into daily life.6 This heavy presence encompasses every aspect of the urban experience, whether it comes from the narrowness of a former medieval street, or from the juxtaposition of a shiny and façade of an office building, next to an ornamented one of a baroque palace. And in the
latter, the mirrored surfaces generate a specular reflection of its surroundings, magnifying its exposure to the historical urban context. Under this circumstance, the European office building has inevitably emerged from the negotiation of the strong layers of history embedded into the urban fabric, inextricably relating building with civic spaces. Hence, the European version of the office building has its roots in the contested domain of the city.7

Ford Foundation, NewYork. Kevin Roche (1968)
Example of interior projected as a response to the context.

The transformations that the office building has suffered throughout its history, have been allowed by a very specific correlation: a large critical mass of users and a relatively flexible accommodation of its programme. Being
a space of fundamental production and social interaction, the gradation from
the enclosed office cell towards the shared and common spaces, is smoothly interweaved by an almost seemingly transition, since provided by light or even transparent partitions. Therefore, the most significant and extreme cases of
this typology happen when the difference between working and shared space becomes explicitly exacerbated, one driving the other and vice versa. Think of the Burolandschaft case, where the distinction between individual and shared space simply disappears, removing the possibility of enclosed and private spaces. In the case of the atrium, the shared space becomes the driving element, rendering the space of production as simple grey or generic mass. In the light of this distinction, I propose the notion of ‘schism’ to de ne the contemporary office building, as a typology that presents two differentiated yet complementary and inextricable parts. This installs the idea of ‘duality’ into the typology, elucidating the two main categories that essentially de ne it. If the Koolhaas’ typical plan was focusing on the generic one, it wasn’t acknowledging its obvious counterpart, the specific. Hence, the office enters into the design question as the possibility to explore a deliberated polarised scheme.

Design Project: Interiorisation

The ‘schism’ of interiorisation:
the guest (generic) and the host (interiorisation).


Along these lines of typological analysis the design mission starts with the following question: how to transform the dysfunctional administrative building, from a mere commodity of the real-estate market, to a typology that takes advantage of its duality and acknowledges the possibility to engage with the urban fabric? In other words, what is the form that, as Massimo Cacciari puts it, allows the office to shape the contradictions of the city?20 In the former cases, the Ford Foundation or Portman’s Atlanta, the general strategy to instigate a typological contribution comes from the interior. It is then, from the reasoning of the interior, or in other words from the ‘interiorisation’, that architectural and also urban ambitions emerge. The process to achieve these interiors however, is not a unidirectional proposition, but it emerges from a dialectical process with the broader context. Hence, the interior is able to attain a larger context and

therefore move beyond the immediate scale. For instance, one could imagine
the repercussion of an interior hosting a concert arena or a seasonal skating ring amid the congestion of a dense tissue of administrative and sealed buildings. The ambition to create a repercussion to the urban scale, from the reasoning of the interior, stands as the main ambition for the design project.

‘Interiorisation’ attempts to be an idea that addresses the formation of a civic or public sphere in the light of administrative buildings. It anticipates indeed different entities, namely atriums, entrances, squares, plinths, and so on, proposing them as one of the same kind. For example, one could perceive ‘interiorisation’ in Mies Van der Rohe’s Seagram’s plaza (1957) as well –despite today being the corporate manifestation par excellence–, since it contributed to the city’s lack of public spaces.21 In the same way, Portman’s atriums in Atlanta are yet a more explicit version of the same idea. In short, ‘interiorisation’ enters as the possibility of accommodating productive and meaningful urban spaces that are integrated with the building itself.

The design proposal envisions a typology conceived as a double-sided entity: one more fixed and permanent, and the other more susceptible to transformation
or temporal. Hence, ‘interiorised’ spaces are fixed elements that assure urban development, hosting and articulating the other side, which takes place during a limited period of time –e.g. the lifespan of an office building typically 20 years– being able to remain, transform or disappear. This development process requires in turn the coordination of this parts. Since the project is fostered by a public institution, and precisely is about claiming back its agency, the design proposes, first and foremost, the creation of an Office for Urban Development Management. This office is established to coordinate the following urban scheme; first, the parcelation of the land into functional plots, preventing the constrains of limited land availability; second, it stablishes strategically the ‘interiorisations’ in place, as solid infrastructures that will later articulate the generic side of its developments; finally, it will manage the future transformations adapted to the site.The overall design mission of each of these design strategies is to, in addition to explore the possibilities of ‘interiorisation’, bring propositional spaces that challenge the current conventions of dysfunctional institutional administrative buildings. By means of simple architectural tactics (cover, limit, topography and enfilade), the space and form of these buildings attempts to transform its use and representation. The brief for the design is to integrate in the new layers of ‘interiorised’ spaces the provision of public and welfare spaces. This spaces will range from co-working areas –highly demanded by self-employed people– to leisure and reproduction ones –such as swimming pools and night clubs. In addition to that, conventions to access, circulation, use and representation are also subverted to instigate an institutional reform. The following descriptions contain the overall ideas of the design, which reframe, in addition to the interior of these institutions, the surrounding urban context. ‘Trace’ proposes an alternative layout to existing infrastructural ways; ‘Frame’ is about setting limits to an ill-de

The overall design mission of each of these design strategies is to, in addition to explore the possibilities of ‘interiorisation’, bring propositional spaces that challenge the current conventions of dysfunctional institutional administrative buildings. By means of simple architectural tactics (cover, limit, topography and enfilade), the space and form of these buildings attempts to transform its use and representation. The brief for the design is to integrate in the new layers of ‘interiorised’ spaces the provision of public and welfare spaces. This spaces will range from co-working areas –highly demanded by self-employed people– to leisure and reproduction ones –such as swimming pools and night clubs. In addition to that, conventions to access, circulation, use and representation are also subverted to instigate an institutional reform. The following descriptions contain the overall ideas of the design, which reframe, in addition to the interior of these institutions, the surrounding urban context. ‘Trace’ proposes an alternative layout to existing infrastructural ways; ‘Frame’ is about setting limits to an ill-de ned area; ‘In fill’ introduces a set of structures to preserve the traces of existing morphology; and ‘threshold’ attempts to create a centrality with a diffuse centre.

‘Interiorisation’ as provision of urban space integrated to the building. 



The small grain of the area contrasts
the large developments of the business district.

On the occasion of the competition for the European quarter in 2008, the idea to decentralise the European district by building new premises was further considered as an alternative to redeem the failures of the past. Extending from the north-west to the city centre, the area in Tour et Taxis, a former goods train station, became
a potential site for its immediate availability of land and closeness to the city centre. Although the project was never developed, the following proposal explores the contingencies of the site in two different locations. ‘Infill’ explores the potentials of a pre-existing tissue, and ‘Frame’ explores the difficulties of the tabula rasa.

Site Plan

The design is set to accommodate 200,000 square meters of office spaces.  Yet, the challenge is to make the hosting structures flexible enough in order to accommodate different densities and programmes overtime. If the development of offices suddenly curtail, or the housing demand becomes urgent, the porticoes will remain meaningful to the tissue, preventing the consequences of an aborted real estate venture, which oft render affected areas dysfunctional and prevent from resuming development. Thus, the proposal attempts to mitigate the abuses of property development, and realises that there is a need to address the problem of real-estate development transforming previously established areas. How then to consider pre-existing and pre-configured urban fabric when developing larger office buildings? How can ‘preservation’ become a proactive tool to mediate between the past and the present, foster economy of means, and promote revaluation?


Tabula rasa condition in the vacant siteTour etTaxis.

The second design for the site in Tour et Taxisis located on the vacant land of a former goods transportation hub. This complex was once connected to the railway system through an extensive train depot that, once removed, revealed an empty area of 18 hectares. Its vast size and availability contrasts the density of the land closer to the city centre, yet its good location is not enough to encourage its occupation. Although remaining factory sheds provide an opportunity for potential future large scale activities, the precarious and almost absent urban infrastructure has prevented previous attempts to generate such success. The challenge to this location is therefore to propose a scheme able to generate a matrix –or a context– that is able to accommodate unknown programmes in an unknown time. The response will have to avoid the horror vacui that the site suggests, whilst
at the same time prevent the total ‘filling’ of
the space. The design must strategize for the accommodation of the ‘void’. In other words, the mission of the design is to play with the uncertainties of time and to anticipate an eventual process of urbanization.

Site Plan

Overall, the building’s mission is to mediate the interior spaces of typically administrative environments with more open urban ones. This intention is addressed through a provision of amenities and welfare spaces. The juxtaposition of activities in similar halls removes any hierarchy of use, whilst folding a symbolic representation into the very sequence of interior spaces. This conglomerate of activities also seeks to rationalize an institutional transformation, from the hermetic bureaucratic offices to a concentrated building that identifies itself with the attributes of the city. The interior in this case confronts the question; how to provide an (interiorised) urban space that is legible for what it allows rather than for what it symbolises? How to move beyond the ‘landmark’ favoured by corporate real-estate development?


The site’s edge is densely occupied by railway administrative buildings fortifying the access to the train station.

Located south from the city centre, the Midi Station in Brussels represents the counterpart
to the financial district in the northern quarter. The Midi Station acts as the main city gateway through which regional and international railway lines arrive. Furthermore, it is located
in the very heart of the Senne valley, revealing the urban landscape of the pentagon at a glance. For these reasons, the city is currently attempting to reinvigorate the area by enhancing its visibility, not only at an infrastructural level, but also as a reference to the surrounding neighbourhoods. The provision of public space, namely pedestrian streets and plazas, is a crucial asset to the area in an attempt to balance the large area occupied by the railway track bed. So far, the combination of infrastructure and business offices have led to the densification of the urban blocks and to the typically ill-defined surroundings of train stations.

Site plan

The Galleria Umberto I in Naples, brought about a public and private partnership, was
an attempt to provide a space for the city, that delineated clearly its boundaries. In this case, the ambition of the design is to move beyond the restrictions of land ownership. If the realms of public and private space are typically –and also ambiguously– differentiated between ‘street’ and ‘edification’, the proposal attempts to make this differentiation ambiguous, providing a contested arena of ‘shared ownership’. In this locus, the ‘interiorisation’ attempts to subvert the logic of privatised spaces confronting them equally with a common domain. How then is
the interior de ned to become a mediator that liberates the urban space from this ownership distinction?


The orthogonal urban pattern of the European quarter, unique episode in Brussels.

However the attempts to decentralise, and achieve a large representative scale in the city, the European quarter remains as the default seat for European institutions. So far the EU and the Belgian government have lead the district to a poor urban condition, in which the lack of urban ambitions and the complicity with the private sector, has resulted in an ungoverned agglomeration of built masses. Yet, since the 2008 master- plan for the Rue de la Loi, the city has focused its attention to some of its main features, namely the monumental axis of La Loi Street, the characteristic orthogonal urban pattern, and the residential character of its boundary. Without much success, the current masterplan for the Rue de la Loi was only concerned with the feasibility of the development, turning away any attention to the integration and amelioration of the area.

Site Plan

The overall programme for the proposal –offices combined with provision of welfare space– follows the same scheme as the previous designs. The challenge is to create a relevant programme that relates to the city at large, fulfilling needs or putting forward further intensifications. In this case particularly, the need of a residential programme for the European district could be an asset implemented under the umbrella of the EU. The structure of the development, split into a plinth and a generic tower on top, considers this possibility of interchangeable developments. This would be encouraged by the host/guest relationship proposed in the idea of ‘interiorisation’, allowing the ‘guest’ to be any kind of development that supplies the needs of the site.

Ground floor of the four design schemes

Read the whole dissertation here.

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