The particular setting, the function, or even the organisational scheme is often what allows us to identify a city. However, the complexity of today’s cities makes a categorical taxonomy a complicated venture that might easily oversimplify and downgrade the multiple characters of a city. Of course, the ‘administrative city’ is about the concentration of an administrative body, but is precisely the coexistence between ‘administrative’ and ‘city’ what allows the first one to be operative. Yet this coexistence is also the source of disruptions and instabilities to the urban environment. Let’s look at the example of Brussels. It is the capital of Belgium but also the capital of Europe, so it has been forced to cope with a double administrative power. The crush between the administrative body and the city has been yet magnified by the fact that the ‘administrative’ is driven by the European Union and the ‘city’ by the Belgian government, two independent agencies. Hence, the institutions of the EU have developed and administrative district within the city by installing a number of extravagant and unrelated buildings. This event has caused trouble to the existing fabric by creating a dysfunctional area that lacks any ambition for the city.
Plan for the Rue de la Loi in the European Quarter of Brussels.
This conflict has raised multiple questions about the relationship between the European power with Brussels as a (default) capital, and especially of how to properly represent this political power in order to engage it with the city.1 Although the institutions of the EU are not exclusive to Brussels (as they also seat in Luxemburg, Frankfurt and Strasbourg), they have eventually labelled the city as the default capital of Europe, which means that it has been recognised as such but not by official means. The discussion, therefore, has been focused on how to acknowledge this singular condition of representing a status that has not been yet officially recognised, so the idea of a Capital of Europe appears as a vague and unclear purpose towards the city. Until now, the claim for a representational landmark has been the natural approach from the governing class.2 However, after setting an international competition for a new plan of the area, the jury chose the most average proposal based on dispersed and autonomous high-rise buildings (fig. 01). This paper aims to be a critique, not to the actual masterplan, but to the approach of considering the ‘landmark’ as the way of representing the European institutions in Brussels, and more precisely, as the way to represent a contemporary administrative institution. Since the conflict has been generated by a misleading belief in the landmark as a symbol, the actual trouble that the city needs to face is the integration of the area to the surroundings. In order to accomplish that, this paper attempts to give an insight to the model of urbanisation by Cerdà, as the way to naturally develop the administrative city by its means of integration and management. In order to replace an image of punctual and dissociative interventions, the EU has to be introduced into the city as a joining Patch,3 in order to generate a rich and meaningful project for the city. ( fig. 02)
The tension between the EU and Brussels started to built up since the European institutions started to indiscriminately occupy the Leopold and Schuman quarter, located on the eastern part of central Brussels ( fig. 03). First with the erasing of the Berlaymont monastery to build the seat of the Commissions, and later with the gigantic construction of the Council, the Justus Lipsius building, the presence of the European institutions started to transform the former residential neighbourhood. The shift from neoclassical palaces to post-modern office buildings, of a dubious urban and architectural interest, perverted an area that once was tightly related to the core of Brussels. The district has started to be perceived as mono-functional, only serving office buildings during their regular hours of operation, and therefore, dysfunctional to the surrounding city. This consequence has been associated not only to the implicit problems of mono-functional areas, but also to the lack of a project that provides identity and recognition of the European government. Yet the fact that the EU has been installing its building in a number of punctual projects has propelled a natural reading of these institutions as a symbolic landmark for the city. The consequence of this misleading under- standing, has lead the discussion to reach a level of contradiction in which the same EU has stated doubts in official discussions about what would
be the symbol that represents Europe in Brussels.4 Paradoxically enough, although the majority refuses the hierarchical model of a capital based on a monumental city, the final agreement establishes that the way of representing Europe should be materialized in the form of a Landmark. In the following lines, I will focus on the resulting urban project by identifying why, and challenging how the EU has used the Landmark as a tool of representation, so I’ll avoid further discussions on the current opinions about the issue. Hence, the outcome of this criterion has in the recent years materialised into an urban project to redevelop the European quarter.
Competition entries: OMA, The project in section Fletcher Priest, Portzamparc, JDS Architects
Coming up from the recent growth of the EU –more than 10 countries have been added to the Union since 2004– the commission stated the need to expand its outdated offices by doubling the current amount of floor area. This need emerged shortly after the official discussions about the European quarter in 2001. Thus, in 2008 the state and the EU set the blueprint of the masterplan and announced an international competition to accommodate new office buildings into the area. By that time, the creation of a proper identity and the integration with the surroundings were the hot topics to be tackled, so they both set up the guidelines for the competition, as seen on the brief.5 Although the competition entries were diverse in their approach, especially to the urban requirements, all of them proposed a particular landmark build- ing to produce a certain degree of significance and differentiation ( fig. 04). The winning proposal by Atelier Portzamparc evidenced, as in contrast to the others, the actual policies from the EU towards the city. First of all, the proposal claimed to improve the public space, by adding residual spaces only made available since the blocks were redistributed in high-rise buildings, in order to obscure the clear intention of the overall plan. What the project proposes, in the end, is an attempt to optimise the relation between the plot ratio and the high of the building, so it can be merely depicted through a simple regulation of highs and alignments ( fig. 05). The city that it produces is a city driven by real estate speculation, where the stakeholders determine the volumetry of the building within the permissive boundaries of the plan and yet the budget. Hence, the proposal establishes the notion of the landmark through a number of towers that will be driven by fortune, different from others that proposed a stronger and more cohesive image of the European government. This choice gives us an insight of the internal policies of the EU, which lacks the ambition to reaffirm and demonstrate its institutional relevance in Brussels. Therefore, the plan propels an average image of the European government, and it neither fits in a true generic and managerial plan nor a rotund representation of an established power.
The project in section
Hence, the need to position Europe within Brussels has been betrayed by the fake need to position the city as the capital of Europe. Yet the idea of a symbolic gesture has fooled the actual role of both. The nature of this problem, therefore, lies on the misleading image that the institutions propelled during their installation in the city. The result of the unplanned construction of former institutional buildings created a misleading belief on the land- mark as the only way to represent the European government in Brussels. In fact, this conviction came as the simple consequence of placing buildings in a low-density housing context. Now, with the new plan for the European quarter fostered by the committee, the EU has unveiled the lack of interest to give a concrete image, otherwise bureaucratic, and to remain uncertainty hidden behind real estate developments. The true nature of the EU is therefore, against their will, more clear than ever. On the one hand, there is not a unique and clear power behind the agency of the EU who is willing to determine and state the European power as one, so the president in charge is little more than an elected public employee. We shall not compare for instance the figure of the president of the United States with the president of the EU. On the other hand, the majority of the politicians that attend positions in the European commissions are either subservient of their own government or minor politicians. As a matter of fact, the job of the EU is mostly a bureaucratic machinery and less a political power. Fair enough, the multiple functions that the institutions play would require a more in-depth analysis, but for the sake of the argument, we should accept a common perception of the EU as a purely bureaucratic agency. Hence, both the lack of a de ned real power and the image of an administrative institution contradicts the very idea of a symbolic and determined capital city, and yet a representation through the traditional image of the landmark. Perhaps now, the landmark should represent instead the absence of a unique power overtaken by bureaucratic machinery.
Let’s now look at the landmark as an urban tool, what represents and what should be the natural shift to a consistent plan for the EU in Brussels. The idea of the urban landmark and how it operates in the city was clearly stated by Kevin Lynch in his depth analysis of the city The Image of the City.6 Alex Lehnerer also established a criterion to determine landmark buildings and, in addition, posed the strategic use of them as a responsibility from the state.
The Landmark (source: Kevin Lynch)
Trump Tower (right) next to the UN building
‘A building’s significance is determined by its contrast with the immediate vicinity and its lucidity of form. It lies within the powers of the city administration to encourage these distinctions to emerge more strongly in a given project, or instead to attenuate them. Such decisions are con- tingent upon the corresponding strategies of differentiation.’ 7
The instrumentalization of the landmark has indeed the purpose to generate a certain relationship with the built environment ( fig. 06). As a matter of fact, the ‘landmark’ can only be perceived in contrast to the others. How- ever in a city, it generates a specific moment that will eventually change or disappear. That was the case of the UN building in New York, which once set the highest point of the surrounding until the Trump Tower surpassed it ( fig. 07). In addition to that, the city generated around the landmark creates a static condition of the urban environment, whose elements can only dialogue with the concrete and established landmark. The fact that the EU is being conceived as a set of landmarks, that can only evolve to an ultimate and top end landmark, starts to create suspicions not only about the representation of its own nature, but to the potential contribution to the city as a dead end purpose. Hence, the actual project conceived as finished group of high-rise building denies from the beginning any possibility of integration with the surrounding by establishing a top-down plan that provides a ready-made image of the city. Perhaps, it should instead consider the event of time as a crucial mechanism of integration, especially needed in a long-running project such as this.
Walter Gropius, 1928 Siedlung Dammerstock
To explore the static urbanity of the landmark, or group of landmarks, we could analogously relate the urban project to those developed after the 3rd and 4th CIAM, when the city became an overall functional problem rather than a study of their neighbourhoods and a discussion between the ground and the building form. The modern housing projects of the 1930s, such as the Siedlung Dammerstock by Gropius, fostered urban development’s where the project became unitary, monolithic and simultaneous, and the absence of time from the work suggested a lack of will to incorporate the surrounding.8 As a result, these projects have filled the outskirts of European towns and cities with the inability to represent anything more for the city than isolated incidents ( fig. 08). A similar isolation could be posed to the current project of the European Quarter, now from the uniformity of a plan that produces a number of static towers constrained by their heights and alignments. In fact, thinking that a plan that produces towers, driven by real state speculation within a concentrated area, is an opportunity to engage with the city seems a naïve, or rather too smart, proposal for an area already detached from its ur- ban context. Instead of regarding only the construction, if the project would look at the city as an urban process, with different layers and actors that intervene in, it would be able to produce a more dynamic and integrating development. For instance, a project that disentangled these elements and pursued the idea of integration, rhythm, and time was the one of ‘Urbanization’ by Ildefons Cerdà. Thus, a new revision of Cerdà’s theory could unveil a different approach to the problem of integrating the EU in Brussels, and therefore, raise a new possibility to develop a more resilient and coherent project for the European quarter.
According to François Choay, the planning that emerged on the second half of the XIX century, including Cerdà’s, should be qualified as ‘critical planning’9. The term refers to the response given against the terrible reality that most of European cities were suffering. The virulence of the industrial revolution produced a high demographic concentration that left cities into ‘a complete absence of control’10. In addition to the invention of the steam engine, the railway was a technical improvement that made ‘the urban typology a predominant factor’11. Cities started to be overcrowded and the poor conditions in which people had to live were becoming a major socio-economical concern. The critical planning therefore, was submitting the city, for the first time, to a critical examination, and Cerdà was one of those who committed his career to find a solution for it. He doubted that the old cities were able to adapt and accommodate the new generations, especially under the unprecedented conditions of the industrial revolution, so he endeavoured to give a response for the society in terms of urban organization. He even coined the term ‘urbanization’ to tackle etymologically a concern that wasn’t explored before.12
One of the highlights of his theory, that we should acknowledge, was the concern and use of time on the process of urbanization. In his project for the Eixample, in Barcelona, Cerdà was very aware of the agents that take place during the process of development so he distinguished the different layers that build the city. In fact, the potential of his project was determined by the accurate design of a particular one, which in the end has been the prevailing and ruling one: the ‘layout’. Together with ‘construction’ and ‘division of land’, he anticipated three actions that will allow the different moments of urbanization to take place on its own pace. We can distinguish then two moments; the first one, unitary and controlled, where urbanization and land division take place as a concentrated and managerial action of the plan; and the second one, more open and fragmentary, as the one that involves construction with its multiple phases of design and development. Hence, the ‘figurative force of the project’13 lies on the layout, as the moment of highest
anticipation and concentration of decisions. Later on, the process follows the division and occupation of the land, now released from a unitary plan, so they can develop in a slower rhythm to build up the necessary richness and diversity of the city. Yet ‘urbanization’, ‘plot division’ and ‘construction’ had their own pace and moment into the whole process, but they were all equally incorporated into Cerdà’s plan. Above all, the layout still remains as the absolute expression of the process of urbanisation, which allowed to the following ones to produce a range of multiple variations.
The neighbourhood of ‘Poble Sec’ next to the Eixample (bottom)
Cerdà claimed to propose a ‘radical solution’ for the unwilling situation that the society of his time was experiencing. However, he posed his solution in between an attitude of doing nothing, and an extreme destruction of everything. Thus, he was not aiming to create something from scratch nor tabula rasa. So although his proposal for Barcelona was an expansion of the city sitting in the empty fields outside the former city, his theory of ‘urbanization’ appeared, not only as a theory for further urban expansions, but also as a proposal for the refurbishment of the inner city. His will to integrate the proposal to the existent context, was one of his main goals, demonstrating an attitude by far more sensitive and conscious with the history than most of today’s approaches to preservation.14 He came up with a solution that, on the one hand, solved the principal problem of mobility, and on the other hand, accommodated the growth of the old city towards the surrounding villages in one go, which in addition, it can still be seen today on the layout. Using it as an instrument and strategy for the project, once it is decided, it allows the management of future interventions dealing with the uncertainty of time and the multiple actors that will eventually get involved. This flexibility therefore, is also useful when intervening in the existing city, as the point of reference between what is stable and what moves, between infrastructure and volume, between time and space. Often Cerdà’s plan has been related to the colonial city, because the similarity regarding the orthogonal grid in which the latter was founded. In colonial cities however, management was a primary issue, so the grid was the most efficient way to deal with it. In the Eixample though, the grid is also accepted as the most efficient form of managing the distribution, but it came as the result of a thorough design of the unit module of the plan, which is not the block, but the intersection of the four corners. The layout then, is the expression of the systematic repetition of the intersection. Hence, we shouldn’t confuse the grid in Cerdà’s plan as the ultimate expression of a managerial layout, but as a result of the repetition of a subtle but powerful parameter of reference between the various built forms and its transformations in time. Thus, the intersection becomes the fundamental urban space, it manages de construction and it is also the strongest and most characteristic image, in this case, of Barcelona.15 ( fig. 09)
Now, if we look back at the European quarter, we might find new insights to tackle the shortages of the current plan. For instance, let’s confront the actual static urbanism with a more dynamic and adaptable one. The city of the actual plan, focused on the idea of the landmark, merges management and project into the static image of the building (or group of buildings), whereas the idea of urbanization, and its prevailing ‘layout’, manages the dialectic rhythms of urban form and enables a full range of possibilities by articulating what is stable and what is moveable. The landmark, on the contrary, simply stays until the moment that is replaced. On the other hand, the representation of the administrative city deserves a different approach. It is no longer a matter of ‘representation’ but a matter of fulfilling the demands of adaptation, and thus providing a consistent project for an administrative agency, such as the EU, should be the creation of an adaptable and coherent framework that is consistent to its true bureaucratic nature. Its image, and then form of representation, will follow accordingly with its honest result. As stated above, hierarchies and certain spatial relationships are false or non-existent in the contemporary city. In fact, the representative image of the EU has been always there. Whether we like it or not, it is already rep- resented by its landmark buildings. Therefore, considering a redefinition of them will not change any mean of representation, or what is worse, it won’t provide anything else to the city, so it will remain as static as ever. The European quarter has been conceived as a set of landmarks so far, in contrast now, it should be read as the potential inclusion of a new city within the city of Brussels, a new patch, consistent with its own nature, as it was in the XIX century when it was conceived to accommodate aristocratic palaces, and it was determined by its revolutionary orthogonal layout… Understanding the potential of the layout as a mediator between the present and the future, and as the synthesis of the form of the city might be the steps to follow Cerdà’s lesson in favour of Brussels. ( fig. 10)
How to strategize the layout to introduce a new city into an existing one?
Yet looking at the socio-political and cultural background of Cerdà’s time and comparing it to today’s, we should examine how urbanisation is still a prevailing tool to operate in the city, although it was aimed to solve a particular problem that no longer exists today. Hence, we might look at urbanisation not only as a mechanism of pure management, through the use of a scheme against representation and so forth, but also as a mechanism of integration and as an answer to a socio-cultural threat for the urban integrity. Pursuing that ‘threat’, perhaps in the form of a demand, an improvement, or a simple turn of an established model, i.e. different transportation, economy, etc., might be the question to confront today an urban project of such entity. In the case of the Administrative City, the main argument should stand for a new conception of the bureaucratic power in a city, accepting its administrative nature in the form of a managerial development instead of becoming a self-representation in the form of a landmark, which is nothing but a remaining induced concept for an institution.
Cerdà studied and designed the layout and the street, and gave a specific answer to the demand of a technological improvement of his time. Today, the new urban demands may not come from an unprecedented technology, but might be found on the actual demands of the stakeholders and the market. In Brussels, the increase, followed by excess, of office buildings could be a plausibly analogous demand to the city, as the one in Cerda’s time. There is no doubt that the office building has become the paradigm of the administrative city, and it should be critically addressed like the street was once explored. Yet exploring the nature of bureaucracy might be the next step to conceive it as a tool instead of a threat. As stated by Charles Perrow, the understanding of bureaucracy as the most efficient way to operate complex organizations has not yet acknowledged, and thus explored. The typical flaws and unwilling procedures are, according to him, the result of a wrong appliance of bureaucracy.16 Exploring how to produce a consistent plan for a bureaucratic agency therefore, might be the answer to deal with the problems of the European quarter: from the need of a true acceptance of its identity to a contribution to the existing city fabric.