U bent hier
Some say architecture has lost a lot of its aura. That it has become less exciting than it once was. Because there seems to be less at stake: buildings no longer embody fundamental theoretical differences, no longer convey ideological messages. Today, anything goes: architecture no longer divides hearts and minds. The good, the bad, and the ugly all blend into one big postmodern permissiveness.
But in the 60s and 70s, the story goes, architecture still carried creeds. This evokes the strange sensation you get when you wander between buildings from this period and realise that progressive architecture used to be more futuristic than the really-existing future we actually came to realise. That the modern architecture of back then, was too modern for its own good — and eventually became overpowered by a present distinctly less modern. This is also the story of the of the architecture of VUB. It is recalled in a new, trilingual coffee table book.
Highlights of Building the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Campus Architecture since 1970 are the brutalist masterpieces/abominations (take your pick) that burnish campus Etterbeek (the on-campus student housing, buildings F and G, the restaurant’s seating pits, …). These were built shortly after VUB’s independence from ULB, in the early 70s. When functionalist utopianism was key and prefab, raw concrete (béton brut) was the material of choice. When practicality was aesthetics, and the flexible, durable, and cheap concrete incorporated the idea of progress. And why would anyone hide something so beautiful as progress? The future was there for all to see, in all its honesty.
Students first moved into the on-campus student homes in October 1973. Flexibility and modular structures characterised the progressive design. The units were purposely built as a labyrinth, in which students could move around more easily than the police. The tap on the sink served as a shower head — every time someone showered, the whole bathroom would be clean.
Enter a second phase of campus construction. As the mold started to invade the bathrooms of the on-campus student homes and the brutalist spirit, a series of new buildings (the student housing in the Schoofslaan, buildings D and E, …) was erected from 1990 to 2010. A third construction cycle was launched by current rector De Knop. In the meantime, a second, medical campus was built on the outskirts of Brussels, complete with an academic hospital.
How does the brutalism of the first construction phase mix with VUB’s other signifiers? How does the rectorate building M, the ship sailing the turbulent seas of the academia, relate to the steep cliffs of buildings F and G? How do less imposing buildings, like D and E, fare next to these monoliths? How will future buildings interact with these monuments to a different type of architectural imagination? Anti-revisionist, these as well, will “enter into dialogue with the existing brutalist façades, but at the same time offer a contemporary interpretation.”
One inclusive factor, which all VUB buildings will always share, is their humanism. The light and transparent materials of buildings D and E are the opposite of the concrete of buildings F and G, but serve the same idea: a transparent, sincere functionality. Another example: there are more studios in the student buildings on the medical campus, because it was assumed that, given the length of their studies, students in Jette would be more likely to couple up. Under De Knop, a new accent was added: buildings started facing outward, toward Brussels, to underscore the university’s open character.
Campus Architecture since 1970 also tells the tales of less known VUB properties (the crèche on the Generaal Jacqueslaan, the end-of-life care centre in Wemmel, the B-PHOT research lab in Gooik, an abandoned campus in Sint-Genesius-Rode). But at its core, it paints the picture of a ‘remembered future’: “the campus is the silent witness of an interesting past.” A witness which now has a fitting witness itself. Correctly so, Campus Architecture since 1970 considers itself “a calibration point, looking back at the past and with an eye on the future of our building heritage.”
Building the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Campus Architecture since 1970 is published by VUBPress. It is the first part of the ‘Building the Vrije Universiteit Brussel’ series, in which two more books will be published the following years.