Creating a Path Amidst Abundance and Confusion

By Paul Robbrecht
Cities, and in our case European cities, reveal a history all of their own. They are increasingly the sum of an immeasurable accumulation of all that went before them. You could call this the history of innumerable half-hearted decisions, the results of which are clearly visible in the material tissue of the cities. A history that represents considerable efforts in terms of matter and which creates a deafeningly loud image. 

The results of this visual history are twofold: on the one hand plans have materialised, become tangible matter, which makes the history of the city more accessible, measurable and to a certain degree more useful. But at the same time, due to the multitude of events and the increasing speed at which cities grow and mutate, all coherence has been lost.

For urbanites, it is no longer possible to keep up with what is happening in cities. They are now fragmented and each of these fragments has its own character, but coherence is absent. Town planning and urbanisation, although they are necessary in order to care for the environment, can do nothing to alter this. To a certain degree this absence of coherence is experienced as a kind of collage that gives us an impression of a sort of emotional freedom. A plunge into the library of the past, the present and the future. And all of this with a bewildering simultaneity. These juxtaposed images of the city suggest different choices. Freedom that is almost endless. City dwellers head off in whichever direction they want and gaze at whatever they want. But this freedom comes over as rather relative. The city as it now appears is a mere amusement park for consumers. And it is well known that consumers are prey to the kind of manipulation that discredits the meaning of the word freedom. But we are also beyond the stage of the consumer city because urbanite consumers are bored and now they need entertainment. On the one hand the city landscape is inundated with images and on the other hand the ever-growing building work to satisfy consumers has brought about a banalisation of the city. Even the historic cities of Europe cannot escape this rotten chaos. No more do we hear about a social-historic consensus. Ring the alarm bells! 

Modern architecture is wearing itself to the bone trying to attract as much attention as possible and working to create entertainment. This leads to the juxtaposition of aspects of enormous importance alongside architectural whims. 

And we must not forget restoration: the unchallenged act of repairing all that is old and original. Original buildings are restored in such a way that they look exactly like the original, because there is a lack of any substantiated contemporary arguments to the contrary. This canonisation of what is old as well as the demand for new ‘kicks’ form part of a power struggle that is both political and economic. 

What is now the role of architecture and art in the midst of all this? Apparently mutually contradictory, they are both nurtured by a lack of counterbalance in terms of content. We see examples of this in architecture and to an equal degree in art.

Both disciplines are confronted by gigantism in urban projects and in the media and both are faced with the choice of disappearing into this or of creating a precise and timely counterbalance to it. Loss can lead to innovation. Liberated from the need to create collaborative artworks, these disciplines discover that they can be natural allies. They can create a visible path through the clutter and confusion; constitute an unforgettable place. One of the missions of this partnership could be to create a public space where city dwellers are presented with a differentiation, with an awareness of time and space. Our firm has attempted this is some collaborative projects with artists, for example Rubensplein in Knokke (with artist Franz West), Leopold De Waelplaats in Antwerp (with artist Cristina Iglesias), and Barceloneta in Barcelona (with artist Juan Muñoz). If such a project succeeds, there will be a feeling of familiarity; people will be able to relate to it. It is not, in itself, dramatic if this happens sporadically. This is the very nature, in fact, of all that is exceptional.
Original Publication: Paul Robbrecht, “Creating a Path Amidst Abundance and Confusion”, in Cities, Architecture and Society (Milan, 2006), p. 80.