words Kieran Long
In this theoretical project for the EU, the surfaces of Brussels’ bureaucratic quarter are transformed into political billboards.
OMA’s landscaping proposal for the European Union treats the surfaces of the city as political billboards, to try to reconstruct the neglected public spaces of Brussels as the centre for public interaction with an institution with an image problem.
In September 2001, OMA’s Rem Koolhaas was invited as one of a group of mandarins, which included author and semiotician Umberto Eco, to think about how to construct Brussels as a stronger centre for the union after the Treaty of Nice, which heralded the expansion of the European Union to the east. The group reasoned that once the union had expanded, there would be a need for a much stronger centre in Brussels – a capital of Europe.
Koolhaas immediately posited the idea that the symbolic role of architecture and urban design in Brussels had been severely neglected, creating what OMA partner Renier de Graaf describes as an image problem: “The EU had been inept in articulating its relevance.” Developer-led areas of offices were neither symbolic of the institutions they housed, nor did they pay any attention to the spaces around the buildings. Thus the city’s European district was anonymous to most of Europe, and a blot on the landscape to Brussels residents.
A myriad of propositional and experimental images were released, the most high-profile of which were ideas for a new graphic identity for the EU. Other images produced were the exuberant photo-montages of the EU stars on their blue background covering huge areas of public space around the European Union buildings. This project posits the urban surface as a public interface – something that invites the public inhabitation of institutional spaces in the city.
De Graaf says: “Remember, this was on September 19, 2001 – eight days after the symbolic value of buildings had suddenly become a problem. The analysis revealed that Europe was suffering from a lack of a public interface – because most of the buildings are developer built. So the images were produced to think about the public space as a communicative domain.”
This was never a real project, and it exists as images rather than as drawn details. It was part of a wider effort to represent the urban infrastructure of Brussels as a symbol to the rest of Europe of a strong and branded centre, and allow the public of Brussels to read the presence of European institutions in the city. Although the work was never meant as a literal representation of what is to be built on the site, De Graaf says that the public involvement in the project was too slight for the work ever to be taken to heart by the city of Brussels. “It was met with great suspicion, because the locals felt excluded. To a lot of them the outcome was suspect.”
OMA asserts that the treatment of the urban surface can claim public space as political space. In fact, the analysis caused a storm of publicity that reveals that public space is emphatically a matter of public debate, even before it is built.