As austerity measures sweep across the European continent, the freshly installed Flemish government abolished the position of Vlaams Bouwmeester, or Flemish Government Architect, last month. This news follows after the City of Antwerp had abolished the position of Stadsbouwmeester, or City Architect last year. Though it is difficult to translate this job title, the Vlaams Bouwmeester essentially is a Flemish Government Architect, who advises the Flemish government on the construction projects they commission, and who provides support to local boards in architectural matters. The office consists of a government architect and a supporting staff of 20 specialists. The first Bouwmeester took office in 1999; the current one is only the third (and the last?) to ever hold the position.
The abolishment of the position after just 15 years is particularly painful given how hard-won its establishment was. Being fed up with political favoritism, 28 architects sent an open letter to the prime minister in 1988, stating that it needed to be done with awarding government contracts based on political affiliation (it took another 10 years for the position to be created). At that time, politicians often determined which architects would be involved in governmental construction projects, sometimes leading to an odd team of designers with various party affiliations. With government-commissioned projects threatened to become a proxy of political coalitions, architectural quality became of secondary importance. As a result, Flandres had some of the most unimaginative public buildings, forming a “white spot on the architectural map of Europe”. The Stadsschouwburg, or city theatre, in Antwerp comes to mind as an example of the type of clogs that symbolize this era (it has since been renovated, thankfully).
The architects demanded more architectural competitions, opportunities for younger generations, and the establishment of a government architect, inspired after a similar office existing in the Netherlands.
The Flemish Government Architect is primarily known for the establishment of the open Request For Proposals, or “Open Oproep” in Dutch, which allows domestic and foreign architects to compete for public construction projects. This allows younger talent to compete with more established firms. Architecture firms submit their candidacy, and the government architect reviews their portfolios. Ten architecture firms are then selected, and after consulting with the client, five are invited to come up with a proposal for the project concerned. Successful young firms will be able to add a prestigious commission to their portfolios, which helps them get more work internationally. By the same token, the participation of esteemed international firms in the competition raises the bar for domestic firms. Additionally, clients are forced to be transparent about their ambitions and program for a project, and the process of contracting is de-politicized. In the end, the architectural quality of public projects benefits.
The results of 15 years of having a government architect have been widely praised. The archives of the government architect’s team spans over 550 RFPs, 250 of which actually have been built or are being built. Numerous public buildings attest to the leap in public architecture that occurred since 1999.
One project that marks the elevated standard attained under the open competitions that was held under the auspices of the Flemish Government Architect, is the renovation of De Grauwzusters. Originally a monastery, the complex today forms a part of the University of Antwerp’s urban campus. Out of the five firms invited to submit a proposal for its renovation, the Leuven-based architecture firm Van Broeck & Meeuwissen was granted the project. Its function as university offices reflects that universities as institutions are rooted in history, but in essence have their vision on the future. The renovated building, and its interior in particular, reflects this historical duality associated with universities.
Addressing a shortage in classrooms, the Flemish Government Architect’s Team has initiated a number of competitions for new educational facilities.
A new library and community center in the town of Dendermonde that was carried out under the government architect’s team, was nominated for a Belgium Building Award in 2011 in the category non-residential architecture. Designed by BOB361 Architecten, the complex houses a library, a restaurant, flexible spaces, and a rooftop parking garage, which frees up space for greenery on the ground-level . Using a system of natural ventilation in the nighttime, making the interior a comfortable space even in the summer. Capitalizing on its central location, the creation of a new path adjacent to the building has also boosted access to a riverside recreational zone and the city center. Though the project didn’t get the award in the end, it remains symbolic of how projects realized under the open competitions of the government architect are pushing the envelope in public architecture in Flandres.
Perhaps the flagship project of the government architect’s open competitions, is a new library along the Waalse Krook in Ghent. It’s currently being realized, and is supposed to put Ghent back on the map of contemporary architecture. The result of an open competition held in 2009, won the Belgian-Spanish team of Coussée & Goris Architecten and RCR Arquitectes.
Returning to the City Theatre in Antwerp, an infamous icon of public architecture in a bygone age, the government architect’s team found that Theatre Square was in a very poor condition, had few remaining qualities, was too vast and lacked clearly defined edges. It was also underutilized, with its only use being weekend markets. Yet, its location in the city center of Antwerp, in close proximity to tourist attractions, gave the square its strategic position. There was an opportunity to realize an urban square that could be activated at different hours, on different days.
The move to abolish the office of the government architect seems to be spearheaded by the N-VA, or New Flemish Alliance, a member of Flandres’ new governing coalition and a big winner in the Flemish elections earlier this year. Preferring short lines between politics and the private sector, it seems likely that the N-VA doesn’t want any independent institutions, such as the government architect, to interfere. It’s also worth noting that the government architects, publicly voicing their visions and opinions, have gone sometimes rubbed politicians in Brussels the wrong way. To critical observers, this fact alone provides enough justification for an independent government architect.
Ghent-based architecture and urbanism blog GentCement writes that the government architect and his team will be replaced by a council of five experts, to be accommodated within the Department of Spatial Planning once the term of the current government architect expires. Like the government architect, their task is to advise and support the federal and local governments in their building projects. This threatens to take public architecture a step back in time, to an era when large governmental commissions were handed out without any type of architectural quality control.
Now, in theory, transferring the advising and supporting office of experts from an independent office to the Department of Spatial Planning does not have to be a step back. As long as special care is taken to ensure projects are commissioned in a transparent way, and provided that the experts are truly independent in their judgment, instead of falling into politically-inspired favoritism. Unfortunately, Flandres doesn’t have a very good track record on that, which is the reason why this decision is firing back at the newly formed Flemish government. With details surrounding the new configuration still being very vague, it’s not far-fetched to think that each of the five experts will represent a political party, yielding one socialist expert, one Christian-democrat expert, one liberal expert and so on.
Since 1991, Flandres has had three government architects; two were trained as architects and one as an urbanist. Since then, the open call procedure has rapidly proven its value. Flandres has been praised internationally since the establishment of the government architect, as architecture and urbanism have gained a central position in governmental policy. With these recent developments, Leuven University architecture professor Marc Dubois fears that regulations become the driving force behind public architecture, and not the ability to imagine creative solutions. Whilst it remains to be seen whether the time of politically-inspired, ill-conceived architecture will return, the transparency of the open call procedure will probably be lost. This sudden abandonment of what is widely considered good architectural policy, has sparked an outcry in Flandres and beyond. Thousands of architects, urbanists, city planners, landscape architects, urban designers, project developers, politicians, and many others have already signed a petition to undo the recent changes to the office of the government architect. Their signatures come from people who care about public architecture from all over the world. As the debate continues in Flandres, perhaps not all is lost just yet.