Bert de Muynck

Ground Euro

The European Union is hot! Without any doubt.


ground euro -

The European Union is a hot potato which is thrown, aided by a democratic swing of several national referenda, from one country to the next. After the French voted Non and the Dutch voted Neen, it seems that Europe is ready for some contemplation and redefinition of itself. Some contemplation on what Brussels can do for you.

Within the story of building an European Union, our leaders try to convince us that Europe is more than a vehicle for pushing economy and labour forward (there is also a social agenda involved), but it might be said, that message is neither thrustworthy nor eloquent if we take a look at the recent history of the debate around the European Capital. This small article explores a quick scan on the attempt of the European Union to debate on the European Capital (its representation, organisation, form and esthetics) by taking the discussion that enfolded itself the last three years around the role of Brussels as an European Capital.

Brussels, Capital of Europe

It wasn’t until the spring of 2001 that the European Commission, the EU’s executive committee, began to address its capital’s lack of communicative character. As part of the 2000 Treaty of Nice, the European Council, the organ responsible for decision-making, formalized Brussels' de facto role as capital of Europe. Until then, Brussels was considered a European capital by default; after Nice, it was the capital by decision. This agreement was part of the preparations made in advance of the expansion of the EU that took effect on May 1, 2004, with the entry of 10 new member states. Brussels was to be the definitive seat of all European Council meetings, a decision that didn’t just end the nomadic decision-making circus of each meeting in a different European capital; it also turned an international spotlight on the European Quarter that would become the EU’s signboard.

Now, a treaty does not make a capital city. Over the 40 years it took the EU to choose a definite place for its headquarters, internal European quarrels on the location of its capital brought forth proposals to locate all institutions in Paris, Brussels, The Hague, Milan, Saarbrücken, Strasbourg, and even Luxembourg. Between 1958 and 2000 no agreement on this capital point was reached.

This indecision led to provisional housing of the institutions in shabby, privately developed, bureaucratic–picturesque blocks and slabs stacked around Brussels, Luxembourg, and Strasbourg. The situation was particularly acute in Brussels. What the Mall in Washington D.C. is to the US, the European Quarter in Brussels is to the EU, yet in the spring of 2001 the European institutions were (and are still) housed in an ever-growing stock of real estate built by Brussels developers and designed with little more than square meters in mind and ineloquent postmodern aesthetics in hand. In the race to become the European capital, Brussels satisfied pragmatically every one of Europe’s programmatic demands without concerning itself with the quality, image, or identity of what was being built, thereby producing buildings that could at best be described as generic. The Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt put it well when he explained that The Belgian people do not have a strong sense of national identity . . . Federal states very often do not have strong capitals. For these reasons, Brussels is an open space that can be developed into a modern European capital without creating tensions with the role of Brussels as a national capital.

The Erasmus Group

It was Europe on the verge of expansion that brought together (with the help of the Belgian Government) an intellectual think tank known as the Erasmus Group to help solve the capital dilemma. Koolhaas was among those invited by EC President Prodi and Prime Minister Verhofstadt to participate. The meetings, in May and September of 2001, were held in order to discuss what the needs and functions of a European capital were and how Brussels could best fulfill or implement them. At the first meeting of the group in May, Umberto Eco discussed “the ‘soft’ capital,??? predicting that the idea of a single European culture should be replaced by the one of a network in which the capital city is like a server distributing Europe’s cultural “software.??? At the September meeting, in contrast, Koolhaas explained his vision of “the ‘hard’ capital.??? He saw the capital mandate as twofold: to establish the image of the Union first through communication, and then through the rearrangement of the built institutions.

A Changing Mandate

In that presentation to the Erasmus group, Koolhaas acknowledged the difficulty inherent in superimposing a capital image on an existing city. The problem was not purely formal, aesthetic, or even organizational: before any architecture could express the image of Europe, before discussions could begin on how to integrate (or not integrate) that new architecture with the city, there had to be some agreement on what that image was to be. As Koolhaas would later say, One of the difficulties that Europe currently has is that it is in a perpetual process of redefining itself. Somehow it seems an unstable identity and it is notoriously difficult to capture unstable identities in physical form. That is why it is really critical to first help to try to represent the whole idea of Europe, not perhaps in architecture, but more in terms of a narrative to its own population and maybe at that point you can begin to define both how certain institutions should function and also how it should look.

Koolhaas's project didn’t search for a European counteridentity that could be as mythical as the American one: instead, it recommended construct* an iconography that shows Europe as an opportunity for citizens and countries . . . rather than as a threat. In his hard-capital workshop for the Erasmus Group, Koolhaas illustrated Europe’s possible combination of unity and diversity in a new EU symbol, a bar-code flag composed of all the national flags that would replace the present blue flag with its ring of yellow stars. When the barcode banner was first made public in the report Brussels, Capital of Europe, published by the European Commission in 2001, it prompted a tabloid ruckus with The Sun leading a chorus of Euroskeptic opprobrium.

During and after the Erasmus Group’s sessions, Romano Prodi met behind the scenes with Koolhaas and AMO to follow up and retroactively implement the Erasmus Group’s ideas. That only became possible in the last half of 2004, when the European Commission and the Dutch Presidency of the European Council jointly sponsored the Image of Europe exhibition and parallel symposium. The exhibition was sold as a communication strategy for the European Union, not an urbanistic impetus for the Institutions of the Union in Brussels. Koolhaas’s revenge (or alternatively, his failure) is that the form and content of the European capital were scrapped, although paradoxically, the show, which will travel through Europe, first opened in the least eloquent place possible, Europe’s capital.

A European Content?

Not everyone was comfortable with this image of Europe. Petteri Tuohinen, a Finnish reviewer writing in Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s leading national paper, took issue with the review of special characteristics of each member state, particularly the representation of Finland. Koolhaas provoked a similar reaction from a contributor to an English-language web magazine covering Hungarian and international news, In an article mercilessly titled Dutch Jackass Art Clown Leads Three-Ring Political Circus. The political talk during the opening of the exhibition gave further insight into the motives for the exhibition, that speech can be found here. Koolhaas and AMO may have broadened the image and perception of the European Union, but the question remains if in the slipstream of The Image of Europe they also created an opportunity to combat Brussels’ and Europe’s architectural apathy.

The image of realpolitik

In The Image of Europe exhibition, Koolhaas/AMO constructed an epic history of Europe and the EU with multiple ambitions: to provoke a new iconography, to devise a communication strategy, and to construct a narrative for a continent that certainly has been and still seems to be splintered by political quarrels between nations. If The Image of Europe was sold initially as propaganda to effect change in a complex situation, it should also be considered the hard outcome of the Erasmus Group’s soft discussion on Europe three years ago, the present result of which is without a doubt a construct of realpolitik. Even though we live in an age of the image, right now, nobody seems to be interested in the image and perception of the European Quarter. It has become Ground Euro, a black hole. Only when Europeans begin to understand the image of Europe, will they be ready and able to construct Europe’s image.

Bert de Muynck is an independent architect, writer and researcher. He works and lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. This text is a reworked synopsis of Scanning Ground Euro, published in LOG4 (