A picture of a horribly renovated house in Brussels recently went viral on social media. Nothing spectacular, one might think.
Each day numerous pictures go viral, but the next day they are forgotten. This one however, continued to linger in my mind, as it tells the story of more than just one house. It is emblematic of the ‘Brussels’ blight’, the chronic disease from which our wonderful capital can’t seem to heal: the self-inflicted destruction of its architectural heritage.
Philosophy of neglect
The destruction of beautiful buildings in Brussels has been so endemic, that it has even given rise to a neologism: verbrusseling/bruxellisation. Brusselization. The term is used, pejoratively, to refer to the uncontrolled development of the city in the post-war period: the demolishing of historic buildings and the construction of generic, characterless modern ones. In particular, art nouveau-buildings suffered greatly from the destructive desire of post-war architects, who had absorbed the doctrine that ‘ornament is crime’.
That somebody should come up with the idea of tearing down Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple and replacing it by the Tour Sablon is simply mind-blowing. The laissez-faire attitude of the municipalities is nothing short of heart-breaking. The philosophy of neglect and lack of respect for our architectural heritage has scarred the face of our capital forever.
Neglect of philosophy
Architecture is such an important part of our lives, that no laissez-faire attitude is ever justified. The way we build, is the way we live, is the way we think, is the way we are. If you build horribly depressing tower flats, it’s no wonder people who have to live there get depressed.
Buildings dramatically affect our emotions and thoughts, yet only a few philosophers have discussed the matter. Plato mentions it, and Hegel dwells upon it, just as he dwells on everything. Wittgenstein, who was an amateur architect, had interesting things to say, as had Heidegger, who told us that building and dwelling are ultimately the same idea. But today the philosophy of architecture is not taught either in schools of philosophy or in schools of architecture, and the one philosopher who has devoted his full energies to the topic – the British philosopher Roger Scruton – is regularly vilified in the architectural press.
Form and function
Form follows function, so wrote the American architect, Louis Sullivan. It is one of the key principles of modernist architecture, and the zealous application of this principle has led to the abandonment of aesthetic criteria, in the belief that beauty is not a goal but a by-product.
If you think about function and neglect form, however, you end up with deformed buildings that soon lose their function, since nobody would want to live or work in them. Indeed it is not form that follows function but the other way round. For the true function of architecture – all architecture and not just architecture built for a specific purpose – is to create a place for human life. Good buildings unite people, around the place where they are. They inspire a love for one’s surroundings, and such a love is needed, as it is what motivates people to care for the world they live in. How can you expect people to care for their environment, if it consists of an endless row of faceless glass screens?
Charm and imperfection
In spite of all the mistakes that have been made, Brussels continues to be, to me, one of the most charming cities of Europe. Perhaps precisely because of all its imperfections. For, as the French moral and music philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch claimed, there is no charm in perfection. Perfection often involves a beauté paresseuse, a boring kind of beauty that fuels indifference rather than inspiration.
So in spite of all the ugliness, it is still Bruxelles ma belle. But there is a limit to the imperfections a city can tolerate. Surely, it is time for our municipal governments to insist on buildings that reflect the society that we want. The British government has recently established a commission to examine how to restore beauty to the built environment. And they have appointed philosopher of architecture, Roger Scruton, as its chair. The initiative surely has to be applauded. The past two years sometimes seem to have been a British crash course on how not to govern, and what politics should not be about. But when it comes to a commission on architecture, beauty and urban planning, the British example deserves following.