Leo Van Broeck

Leo Van Broeck's vision

Within the framework of rapid global transformation processes, our architectural profession is changing fundamentally. As Isidore Zielonka recently said in a debate: Â«we are not living an economical crisis, but a process of global mutation». Just sit and wait until this crisis goes away is not an option. We simply are too many. If today everybody would have our standards of living (one cannot blame them) we would need 4 planets. And within 70 years the population of this planet will reach the double (13 to 14 billion people). Which means by then - if we don't act - we'll need 8 planets. Â«Surface that captures sunlight» is the only engine that keeps everything going: heat, energy, food, oil, life itself... including the economy. Any turnover of goods and services has a spatial impact. So we must face a simple truth: we are nearing the end of the era of growth. Now, what can or should we do? Reducing global natality is a political issue; inventing new market models based on viable stagnation instead of unlimited growth is a job for economy wizards. The domain where can or even must play an important role is the issue of land use. We, architects, planners, developers, we work in the vanguard land use, we are the Â«teeth with which mankind eats surface».

WE have to change the course, politicians can't because the message Â«this planet is not completely ours» is not the best one-liner for a popular election campaign. WE will have to shape the presence of the human species on this planet, re-think space use and choose for density. 

The future will be urban or will not be. And this brings us down to the essence of our profession: urban design is more important than architecture. To make architecture we always have to look at the bigger scale. Â«Think global, act local» has never been more true than today. In spite of what modernism already tried to teach us (freeing the profession from the constraints of style, form and ornament), our profession kept on falling in the same trap: reducing architecture to an aesthetical  issue. Architecture on the contrary should not be beautiful, it should be good.

I'll try to explain this with a few examples. The problem of the building complex of the European parliament is not the question whether it is beautiful or ugly. The problem is that it's overall shape is not much more than an aesthetic form: the symmetrical prolongation of the Luxemburg-axis of the Quartier Leopold, probably requested by old fashioned urban design rules. The site however is mediating between TWO urban tissues: not only a symmetrical grid but also a complex organic urban tissue of the Maalbeek valley, of the Leopold Park and Etterbeek.

This basic question, Â«how to mediate between different parts of a city?» was never asked, nor by the client nor by the designers. We know the result: blind ground floors, mono-functional mass, no good porosity, empty windy esplanades... It is amazing to see how the boosting life on place Lux drops down to total lifelessness only one step behind the old small Luxumbourg station building. The problem is not only related to the answer, it starts with the question. One would expect that the Â«house» of the government of a complete continent would be the subject of one of the most ambitious architectural competitions ever, no? To my great surprise I recently heard that the European Community regulations forbid the EC to build; this way it is reduced to a real estate client that can do nothing more than lease square meters of office floor. And changing the aesthetics of the façades will not be sufficient to turn a mere real estate operation into an opportunity to improve the city. A similar example could be the KBC building along the canal. Strong and very specific aesthetics in post modern style. But two façades in the back are wrapped in barbed wire. Nobody ever asked how the project could mediate between a formal and almost ceremonial boulevard along the canal and a problematic immigrant neighbourhood in the back. If they did, probably access control would be located on the second floor, and the soccle would be filled with Magreb bakeries and hallal butchers... In the same way the South Station is totally autistic towards the neighbourhoods that surround it. In each of these cases it is not the looks of the buildings that are main problem, it is the lack of 'urban design'. If the question is wrong the answer can never be right. Every time we design we have to zoom out and ask ourselves this one question: 

What can the building give back to society? More than ever this is the potential relevance of our profession, certainly if want to have any chance at all to make high density city life liveable and accepted by all.

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