Feb 9, 2015 by

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The grey, viagra sale corporate atmosphere of the EU quarter is almost a separate city within historic Brussels – a fact unlikely to change with a pair of flashy new buildings
Europa building
The Europa building of the EU Council under construction in Brussels. The district is something of a ‘city within a city’. Photograph: Alamy
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Laurent Vermeersch



Raise your hand if you can picture an EU building. If you’re like most people, cialis you might imagine some vague boxy shapes, buy made of glass, perhaps adorned with flags – certainly nothing as memorable as the White House or the Reichstag.

And you’d essentially be right. Most of the EU’s buildings look like they were designed as corporate headquarters for suburban office parks, rather than to represent a political project rooted in big ideals.

It’s not surprising. Brussels only became the de facto capital of the EU because many institutions ended up there after years of negotiating. The lack of a formal plan for the district has led to ad hoc private development – and left the EU quarter grey, unwelcoming and aesthetically cut off from the rest of the city.

The EU is aware that this nondescriptness just adds to its already problematic image, and is setting out to change things. Next year, two new buildings will open in Brussels, bold attempts (unlike most other EU buildings, they were commissioned through international architecture design competitions) to give the EU an image makeover, and perhaps integrate it better with the city of Brussels.

But can a new building change an organisation’s image? Or is this a rather desperate attempt to reinvent itself through urban design?

The Europa building will be the future office of the European Council president (currently Donald Tusk), and the place where member states will come to defend their interests before the Council. Those meetings will take place in a lantern-shaped structure, nicknamed “the Egg”, surrounded by a glass atrium. The exterior consists of recycled windows from all over Europe: each window will have a different shape, appearing united from afar but showing their diversity up close. “Just like Europe is united from afar, but very diverse from up close,” as architect Philippe Samyn likes to say. His idea was to create a “feminine” and “jazzy” building to contrast with the hard, more masculine architecture of most EU buildings.

Whether the new Council headquarters will even be a successful building, let alone an icon of design, is another matter entirely. Hopes were high at the time of the design competition, but the long construction time (the opening has been repeatedly postponed) and ballooning costs (now more than €300m, leaving David Cameron particularly unamused) have tempered the enthusiasm. Besides, residents of Brussels won’t get to see much more than an oddly shaped building.

“It is a strange paradox: the building is full of windows but not transparent at all,”, says Marco Schmitt, architect and activist in a neighbourhood committee. “The public won’t see anything of what goes on in there. Symbolic for the Council, which decides everything behind closed doors anyway.”

Other proposed designs that allowed more public access were scuttled because of concerns around security and terrorism, he says. “The concerns are of course perfectly understandable, but the withdrawal from the public gives a disastrous image of the EU.”
Propsals for a House of European History in Brussels. An architect’s drawing of the planned House of European History in Brussels. Photograph: JSWD Architekten

A more public-facing project is taking shape at the House of European History. This exhibition space aims to tell the story of European integration, and to display objects like the Nobel Peace Prize the EU was awarded in 2012. Funded by the European Parliament and located just behind it (in the Parc Leopold), the House is being designed by the French firm Chaix et Morel and is intended as a belated attempt to create a decent tourist destination in the EU quarter.

But even this building is not free of controversy. The new museum is being built inside and on top of an art deco building that used to house a dental clinic founded by George Eastman. The building is being stripped to the bone and will be extended by three floors. “A shameful case of façadism that no other institution, let alone private developer, could have pulled off,” says Schmitt.

To many, it is exceptions of exactly this kind that have made the EU quarter so different from the city that surrounds it – a city within a city.

“Developers can build how and as much as they want, national laws are changed to privatise public spaces and every exception granted is a precedent for new exceptions,” says Schmitt. “In big cities like Paris or London, this would have been impossible. The institutions would have had to adapt to the local reality.”

In terms of architecture, the EU (or the private developers building for it) can get away with almost anything in Brussels, because the EU is the cornerstone of an international aspiration. The Belgian elite has agreed to sacrifice part of the city to satisfy the institutions’ insatiable hunger for office space. In exchange, Brussels gets to be the “capital of Europe”.

The European Parliament building perfectly illustrates this ambition: it was built by banks, ostensibly as an international conference centre but in reality a political manoeuvre to “steal” the Parliament from Strasbourg. The result is a complex that barely interacts with its surroundings at all – every entrance feels like a back door. The same is true for many other institution buildings.
The EU Parliament complex seen from Leopold Park.
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The EU Parliament complex seen from Leopold Park. Photograph: Raimund Koch/Ocean/Corbis

Ever since the mid-19th century, the Quartier Leopold has been an enclave of privilege, cut off from the poorer parts of town. “The elite Quartier Leopold was surrounded by poor neighbourhoods where the rich recruited domestic workers, artists and so on,” says Benoit Moritz, an architect and urban planner who worked extensively on the EU quarter. “You can compare it with Indian cities today, where you see upscale developments next to slums.”

After the first world war the majestic townhouses of the Quartier Leopold gave way to apartment blocks, and later Belgian government offices, as high society moved out to the new suburbs. But the district remains separate. Even in today’s Brussels, it’s a mere 10-minute walk from the decision centre of the world’s largest economy to the neighbourhood of Saint-Josse, the poorest and most densely populated municipality in Belgium.

This social contrast is reinforced by the architectural disparity between two areas – century-old housing stock surrounding a EU district made up of glass boxes.

Changing the urban form of the EU quarter is complicated. But local authorities have tried to diversify the area, and also make it a destination for people who don’t work there.

“We’ve come a long way already,” says Moritz. “New housing, and the opening of shops, restaurants and all kinds of facilities – even within buildings that hold institution offices. This was unthinkable 10 years ago. The institutions understood that they have to interact with the city, if they want to be remembered for something else than bureaucracy.”

Even if the two new buildings are wildly successful, which is doubtful, the biggest obstacles to making the EU quarter more attractive is the lack of good public spaces. An ambitious scheme to pedestrianise the traffic-clogged Schuman roundabout could have made a difference. The public square could have hosted demonstrations and acted as a stage for TV reporter stand-ups, showing the Berlaymont (Commission headquarters) and Council buildings in the background.

It was recently cancelled, because of technical complications and disagreements between the authorities and the architect.

“It really was a strong project,” says Moritz. “A missed opportunity.”

The new Europa building would have been front and centre in the new development, and perhaps stood a higher chance of attaining icon status as a result. Instead, the urban atmosphere will remain one of high density and roaring traffic, and the EU district a city apart.


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