In a park on the edge of Antwerp, a low donut-shaped building stands among the trees, resembling a friendly flying saucer nestled in a clearing. On one side, the large picture windows of a kindergarten open onto a raised terrace where the children play with a view of all the greenery. On the other, a zigzag wooden canopy houses the park’s maintenance depot, filled with trailers, gardening tools and staff facilities.
It may seem like an unlikely couple under one roof, but it has benefits for both of them. A huge panoramic picture window in the kindergarten courtyard gives children a front-row seat for a live, Bob the Builder-style show of pickup trucks, diggers and lawn mowers, their floor raised for a better view. Meanwhile, daycare staff and park rangers share a dining room and rest area, meaning spaces are more generous than if built for a single group. The architecture elevates both, its simple materials and crisp detailing elevating the structure beyond the quality of your usual city park shed.
Designed by Brussels architects 51N4E, this small building is one of more than 300 public commissions built in Flanders over the past two decades through a remarkable process known as the Open Oproep du Vlaams Bouwmeester, or the Open Call of the Flemish Government Architect, to use the much less amusing translation. As unlikely as it may seem, the project has made this small part of northern Belgium some of the best new public buildings in the world.
From an octagonal public housing scheme and a sculptural water silo to a campus of pastoral care homes, the diverse range of projects appears in a new book, Celebrating Public Architecture, which highlights 70 examples of recent ” wonderful years” of Flemish civic design. It’s a stunning production for a region of six million people, with sleek libraries and special educational needs schools, plus spectacular concert halls and bridges – in a place once dubbed “the ugliest country of the world”.
This is the verdict of Belgian architect and urban planner Renaat Braem. He was not alone. In the 1961 book The New Architecture of Europe, American art historian GE Kidder Smith was equally blunt. “Of all the European countries, Belgium is the least excusable for not contributing more to contemporary architecture,” he writes. “Having a perfectly literate and capable population and an exceedingly high standard of living, the mediocrity of its architecture can only be explained by the indifference of its officials, the insufficiency of its educational system, and flabby materialism.”
There’s a reason why the Ugly Belgian Houses blog has become cult: there’s a lot to choose from. But the past two decades have seen a quiet revolution. The turnaround is attributed to a momentous occasion in the late 1990s, when then-finance minister Wivina Demeester had to inaugurate two new government buildings in the northern district of Brussels – an area known for its office buildings. grimly banal. She was so appalled by what she found there that she spurred her fellow ministers into action, establishing the position of government architect in 1999, with the appointment of Bob Van Reeth, who launched the first call opened soon after.
Unlike the toxic culture of open international competitions, which sees countless architects waste days of unpaid work to compete in a beauty contest of never-before-seen forms, the Open Call is targeted – and paid. Twice a year, projects are announced, ranging from museums and offices to dementia care homes and crematoriums. Rather than drafting a design, architects submit a statement of intent and samples of their work, from which the Bouwmeester team selects 10 – a mix of larger and smaller, local and international firms. The democratic process has seen Pritzker Prize winners drawn alongside recent graduates, unheard of elsewhere.
The client then invites three to seven of the companies to meet on site, discuss the project and develop a design – all participants being paid. It is a discursive and collaborative approach, focusing on selecting the right team rather than a final design. As Florian Heilmeyer, editor of Celebrating Public Architecture, notes: “It is precisely this focus on architecture as a shared creative process that sets Open Call apart.
The results are richer. The kindergarten and park depot were originally intended to be two separate buildings until discussions during the open call made it clear to the municipality that they could save money and end up with a better building for both parties if it combined the two. Similarly, the brief for a new administrative center in Oostkamp, on the site of an industrial hangar, did not specify the maintenance of the existing building until the Spanish architect Carlos Arroyo showed how the hangar could be reborn. radically – and saving tons of embodied carbon in the process.
Besides the many ingenious background buildings, quietly improving the unloved corners of Flemish towns, the book also shows how the Open Call also spawned the occasional municipal icon. Xaveer de Geyter imagined a twisted harlequin tower dotted with triangular windows for the Antwerp province headquarters, while Coussée & Goris and RCR Arquitectes built a dark steel nest for the De Krook library in Ghent. Zaha Hadid’s signature port authority building Havenhuis in Antwerp might not be to everyone’s taste, but the client is apparently delighted with its cantilevered home.
A notable feature of the book, from a British perspective, is the number of UK-based architects who have found opportunities to build in Flanders, in ways that would be unimaginable back home. From Sergison Bates’ library in Blankenberge, to Witherford Watson Mann’s court and social housing in Gistel, to Tony Fretton’s town hall in Deinze, these firms have all done larger-scale public projects earlier in their lives. career they could not have dreamed of building in Britain.
It’s not hard to see why, given the current state of the UK sourcing culture. As the Grenfell Inquiry has shown all too clearly week after depressing week, the process by which public authorities buy construction work has become riddled with deadly incompetence and institutionalized neglect. It is a process of contractual redistribution that sees a project divided into several separate “packages”, from which the maximum number of consultants can benefit – while the public loses in quality, security and value.
For architects, it is a closed workshop. If you want to build a school or a hospital, you must have built one before, ideally several. Your office must be of a certain size, meet onerous minimum turnover requirements, and have an expensive level of professional liability insurance to even qualify. The result is that the same large firms win the bulk of the projects, with little room for innovation, as younger and smaller firms are excluded. The same is true in many countries, especially the even more risk-averse and litigious United States, where young architects are mostly confined to a lifetime of commercial layouts, exhibition designs or homes. private until the age of 60.
The open call represents a different path, which public authorities around the world would do well to emulate. The British government, in its misguided quest to introduce ‘beauty’ into the planning regime, is completely focused on the wrong target. The issues facing UK cities and regions have nothing to do with style, but everything to do with how the built environment is acquired, created and maintained – with lasting consequences for us all.