Identity and Displacement: The Concert Hall in Bruges

By Ákos Moravánkszy
How can we speak about the identity of an object, as if it were something that we could identify? By identity in the stricter sense, we mean that two (or more) things are indiscernible. But which properties should we compare to determine their identi­ty? What if some of the most essential properties are hidden from our perception? 

Despite such fundamental questions, identity plays the role of a joker card in discussions on topics such as globalisation or tourism. Ethnic minorities, geographical regions, religious groups and cities are working on the construction and adequate presentation of their real or perceived identities. Philosophers from Descartes to Husserl conceived identity as something essential and fixed, and tied the authenticity of life to the recog­nition of identity. The uncertainty regarding the 'true' identity is therefore the source of modern anxieties. Postmodern theorists, on the other hand, claim that identity is a myth, an illusion, and individuals can freely select or construct identities that are image-like and unstable.
In the case of a city, the construction of identity is not done by a single individual. Imagined identities are projected by local inhabitants and their organisations, politicians, tourism experts, preservationists and developers. More often than not, there are considerable discrepancies between these differing images. In the age of mass tourism, however, the difference between 'real' and 'invented' history fades away, and in some advertising campaigns, medieval European towns present a Dis­neyfied image of themselves. When Bruges became the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2002 and an international competition for a new Concert Hall was announced, the entries interpreted the issue of identity differently. The identity of Bruges as reflected in the proposals cannot be separated from the even broader issue of Flemish identity, a "thorny question" according to recent publication.1 But the very title of that publication: Home­ward : Contemporary Architecture in Flanders suggests that a ques­tion which is "deliberately not touched upon", focuses the eye on this very topic.
The history of Bruges shows that it is impossible to subscribe to an essentialist notion of identity. The extraordinary ebb and flow between opulence and poverty in the city is usually explained by natural events, such as the silting of the Zwin, the channel that connected the city to the sea. But even this very fact, which Belgian children learn in school, is called into question by recent research, which finds the reason for decline in political and economic circumstances.2

Like all cities, Bruges is a fabric of myths taken as reality, of a legendary Middle Ages in part invented in the 19th century. To stage history in form of tableaux vivants, however, was part of the picturesque self-understanding (or rather self-mytho­logising) of Bruges as early as in 1515, when a pageant for Prince Charles's Triumphal Entry was organised. Still, even back then, the tableaux the city council was responsible for told a different story than those entrusted to the Franc of Bruges and the foreign merchant communities.3 The uncertainty in Bruges regarding its relationship with Spanish Catholic rule resulted, with the help of troops from Ghent, in the installa­tion of a Calvinist Republic in 1578, until Alexander Farnese forced the city to again embrace Spanish rule in 1584. The split from the Netherlands led to the decline of the city and although Bruges merchants still traded with England, the Spanish empire and the Indies, it slowly sank into poverty. In the mid-19th century Bruges was the poorest city in the coun­try. French became the official language for public life in 1885, although many inhabitants only spoke their local dialect. It was at this time that Georges Rodenbach made the city famous in literature with his symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892). In this story, the city is the setting of an ill-fated love affair between the widower Hugues Viane and a young actress, and Rodenbach's evocation of the quiet streets and the dark, mir­roring waters of the channels makes Bruges an allegory of past memories, but also of abandonment and amnesia. 
Rodenbach here already raised the issue of the preservation of the medieval atmosphere of Bruges versus the practical benefits of an economical upswing. In Bruges, the Gothic Revival, which was seen as the only style adequate to the Catholic identity of the city, contributed to the present late-medieval image, which is a mixture of the 'real' Middle Ages and a revived (or rather restaged) Medievalism created in the 19th and 20th centuries. This image is success­fully marketed by the city — millions of tourists come every year. When Bruges became cultural capital of Europe in 2002, a comprehensive new preservation programme was started which included the restoration of the Church of Our Lady, St John's Hospital, the Chapel of the Holy Blood and many other monuments. Nevertheless, the city council and the Bruges 2002 organisation were keen to stress that new architecture must be part of the picture. Most of the new projects, like the pedestrian bridge by the Swiss engineer Jurg Conzett and the pavilion by Toyo Ito are on a smaller scale. The only large structure and the most important piece of contemporary architecture — as well as the largest investment — was the Con­cert Hall.
The competition called for a building for all kinds of musi­cal performances: philharmonic concerts, opera performances and chamber music recitals — not an easy task, since they all require different acoustic conditions. The international com­petition was won by Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem over par­ticipants such as Neutelings Riedijk Architects, Stéphane Beel Architects, Kisho Kurokawa, Van Gerkan, Marg & Partner, Jo Coenen, Michael Hopkins and Peter Eisenman. 

The most interesting proposals were submitted by Neutel­ings Riedijk Architects, Stéphane Beel Architects and Peter Eisenman. The proposal by Neutelings Riedijk was a 'decorated duck' - a 'cartoon character' who had just arrived from the country, proudly wearing a lacy coat, sticking her neck out with some suspicion toward the city. A total solu­tion indeed: the small footprint pulls the hustle and bustle of the square under the heavy body, which contains the auditorium and chamber music room as vital organs connected to a vertical core. The lacework pattern takes care of the identity issue as a veneer, which can easily be decoded by tourists who find the clichés reconfirmed, while ensuring that the architectural connoisseur does not miss the irony of the solution.
Stéphane Beel's solution (with Lieven Achtergael) is elegant in an absolutely non-quacky way. His project shows his usual restraint: an elongated slab composed of sections of varying height. The travertine antiquo cladding heightens the effect of an urban wall. The range of well-calculated perforations and enclosed surfaces provides a common scale to negotiate between the small scale of the houses and the massive volume of the theatre block. In his review Geert Bekaert contrasted this project with the "two extremes" of Robbrecht & Daem and Neutelings Riedijk, emphasising Beels resistance to "any temptation towards architectural coquetry or brilliance".4 Beel shows the greatest reserve against any display of a Bruges iconography, operating entirely on the level of precisely calibrated geometries.
Peter Eisenman's waves, undulating all the way from Santiago de Compostela and Manhattan (cities for which comparable buildings were designed by Eisenman), remind us of the fact that the Golden Age of Bruges under the reign of the Dukes Philip the Good and Charles the Bold was inseparable from the waterway linking the city to the sea, until captains of Spanish ships had enough of running aground and decided to dock in Arnemuiden. It was not the Spanishness of the origin of Eisenman's waves that might have caused some irritation in Bruges, but rather the functional problems caused by putting the spaces underground — and the costs involved.

Obviously, the issue of how the new building should fit into the branding strategies of Bruges was a major issue. Instead of an iconic 'Bilbao effect', capable of attracting international perception and redefining the identity of the city (in which case, Neutelings' proposal would probably have stood out), the mayor spoke about a 'creative ode to Bruges and the dreams of this city'.5

Describing their project, Robbrecht and Daem anticipat­ed this lyricism by conjuring up a bucolic vision: "...the building will be of the earth but will seem to float lightly above it: a pastoral building, carried into town on a tide of grass and leaves."6 This is a world first described in Virgil's Eclogues, a middle land between the great city of Rome and the wild marshland, a promise of rural harmony amidst the Americanised Arcadia of Belgian countryside sliced up by efficient motorways.
The new Concert Hall, opened on 20th February 2002, stands quite firmly on the south side of the ’t Zand, a large open square that functions as a boundary, a vestibule of the city. It was once the site of a railroad station that penetrated deep into the maze of medieval Bruges and left a void after its relocation. Motor traffic now flows along its Western edge and cars coming from the north enter an underpass near the ‘lantern tower’ of the new building. The long west façade with its heavy volumetrics serves as an announcement of arrival. On this side, the roof of a bus station and lines of trees underline the flow of traffic.

Flows determine the site: the linear movement along its west side and the organisation of the medieval town, encircled by water channels. The motorway has a tangential relationship to the old town; a roundabout directs the flow of car traffic close to the concert hall. This turbulence of encircling and intersecting movements is echoed in the internal topography of the building. The very first sketches by Robbrecht en Daem already show this idea of organisation, with the bottle-shaped large hall and the quadratic chamber music hall as an outpost, as one claw of a lobster. The unusual shape reveals that it is the result of understanding the urban form of Bruges as a ‘shape of time’, rather than an ensemble of individually crafted artefacts. Rodenbach already understood the loops of water encircling Bruges in this sense, as trajectories of events. The 'prom­enade architecturale' is not a linear progress of time, but a circuitous journey with unexpected reappearances.

Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte was originally published with a careful selection of photographs relating to the text. A picture which resonates with the much-published view of the Concert Hall shows a large saddle-roofed house with the three towers in the background. It is associated with the following comment: ‘Ah ! ces cloches de Bruges ininterrompues, ce grand office des morts sans répit psalmodié dans l’air !7 The quoted comment of the architects on the bucolic atmosphere of the Concert Hall shows asimilar perception. The ringing of bells, floating gently yet mournfully over the fields, is evoked by the familiar image of the campanile, the start of a largo, a sweeping movement toward the fly tower of the large auditorium. This movement is augmented by the minor theme in the foreground: an embracing countermovement concluding the flat-topped tower in the west.

The interplay between ‘foreground’ and ‘background’ must be seen in a larger context. Seen from a distance, the volume looms large over the small medieval town of Bruges – a view presented in watercolour for the competition. The three slender towers of the Church of Our Lady, St Salvador and the Belfry, with their finely structured and nervous stone and brick architecture, are still the dominant verticals in the view, while the flat roofs of the concert hall towers underline the horizon and create a stage for the three actors with clear physiognomies. The architects connected this image with the tradition of Bruges painting: ‘Coming into Bruges by car or train, one sees a scene like a medieval painting: a compact city encircling the three distinctive towers of the Church of Our Lady, St Salvador and the Belfry. The new concert hall will have a significant presence at the edge of the city, and for this reason we have formed its elements into a composition with an urban stature, which addresses and shapes the immediate vicinity, and joins in the dialogue between the major public buildings’.

The reference to medieval painting is not coincidental. The ‘ideal’ lies in the background: the purple-coloured mountains with noble palaces and fragile church towers. Whatever takes place in the foreground is closer to us in space and time, although what is distant might be of great relevance. The juncture between foreground and background must be connected in our minds, since it is the atmospheric setting of the pastoral. At first glance, the concert hall emerges as an enclosed totality. The parts are all wrapped in terra-cotta so that the impression of a whole cannot be undermined by the fragmented character of the composition. Composition works with parts that are subordinated to a whole, and it is indeed easy to define the main components of the ground plan.

The reference to Bruges is not cartoonlike as in Neutelings’ decorated duck; the observer perceives the ceramic substance of Bruges, but the terra-cotta is not really brick masonry, it does not support. We see no mortar joints, masonry is replaced by a smooth skin of ceramics that opens at places like a veil: pieces of terra-cotta are held in place by metal rods.

This solution is familiar and disturbing at the same time. The homogeneity of the volume goes against the analytical thinking that the German architect and theorist Gottfried Semper used to identify the ontological and phenomenological status of the elements of the architectural artefact. He distinguished between earthwork (terrace), wall, roof and the hearth (fireplace). Each of these elements corresponds with an archi-technology and a material. For instance, earthwork is a work of stereotomy, the layering of stones; the wall is woven and therefore its surface is ‘textured’ accordingly; and the roof is a work of tectonics, a wooden frame. The Semperian analysis requires a clear distinction between the building parts, paying particular attention to the juncture (or joint) between them, and a detailing that takes the origin of the element into consideration. But the Concert Hall goes against Semper’s basic principles: there is no visible difference between roof and wall and even the rain gutter is well hidden.

Instead of providing a robust basis for the wall, the building rests on colours. Levitation, the miraculous appearance of a building floating gently above the spread of autumn leaves, is what the architects tried to conjure up. The inversion of heaviness into weightlessness brings the hollow bodies of musical instruments into mind, which for the sake of maximum resonance only touch the ground in the lightest of ways. The large cavities are tied together by wrapping a connecting layer around them, which makes the geometry ambivalent. The analogy between the layering of the building and the layering of the historical substance of Bruges is significant. The result is a specific object, whose identity – even its primary geometrical identity – cannot be easily determined by the observer. Walking around the building, a previous impression needs to be replaced by a new one: finally, the visitor tries to fit all of these impressions into one ‘master view’, reconstructing the ‘true’ volumetrics.

Our doubts regarding the dominance of the eye in the process of understanding (adequate in the case of a concert hall) reappear when we look at the large funnel-shaped window on the north façade. Large ‘picture windows’ were important in modern architecture, as they allowed the inhabitant of a space inside the building to take visual control over the outside as well. Here the window is not simply a glazed opening in the façade but a window-object. In 1990, Robbrecht and Daem had previously used a large reflecting window-mirror on the facade of their BACOB bank building in Kortrijk. In Bruges, the protruding funnel-shape of the window, which corresponds with the geometry of the concert hall, reminds one of Russian revolutionary posters stressing the importance of broadcasting to the masses. The window indeed functions as a projection screen displaying the performance inside during concerts. At other times, one can look through and observe the movements and shadows of people strolling in the lobby. The framed picture was described by the inventors of perspective as an open window in a wall, dissolving differences between constructed perspective and real space, and inviting the observer to move into the depth. The strategically placed mirror in Jan van Eyck’s portrait of the Arnolfini couple creates a telescopic extension of space like an endless tube, a tunnel that also reflects the ‘outside’ world in front of the picture, including the painter himself. The large window-screen in Bruges is an even more mysterious object than a mirror in a painting. As the perspective can no longer claim the status of the only ‘true image’ of reality, superimposed projections adequately express our understanding of the world, blurring the boundaries of commercial advertising and high culture.

Similarly, the movement inside the building is accompanied by a sequence of pictures: views of the surroundings, such as the tower of the Church of Our Lady, are treated as large illuminated transparencies of tourist sites. The picture frame is a device for estrangement, a strategy proposed by Russian formalists: living in a world full of images, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between truth and representation. The rhetoric of the image that Dutch painters developed meant looking at the image as such, as representation executed with precision and virtuosity. Frames in a building designed for performance similarly make the claim that the observer must engage works of architecture, music and theatre on their own terms as autonomous forms of expression, rather than just ‘looking through’ them like panes of glass, searching for a hidden meaning.

The promenade architecturale inside the Concert Hall invites and rewards the visitor with views which are also directed at the raw concrete crevices, ramps and stairs of the interior. The dominant axiality of the structural walls emerges from the plan like a cross-hair: one axis is connected to the eastern wall of the chamber music room and with the western wall of the large auditorium and stage. The other axis is defined by the interior wall of the foyer. The origin of the cross-hair is a spatial pivot, accentuated by a concrete ‘carpentry’ that recalls monumental medieval tectonics as well as early experiments with concrete ‘tracery’ – to find the identity of the new material. The philharmonic auditorium and the chamber music room are two different ways of listening to music and two different concepts of the interior-exterior relationship. The chamber music room in the lantern tower, to seat 350, is inspired by models of the courtyard performance spaces in Italian palaces and Shakespeare’s theater. The audience is seated on balconies along a spiralling ramp – a solution which lacks the intimacy of a cortile. It is probably the result of the same process of dislocating Mediterranean images that Italian painters referred to as alla ponentina, to underline their strange Gothic appearance and lack of tactility.

The solution for the large concert hall shows Robbrecht en Daem’s interest in Baroque lighting effects. The clerestories of this hall, which seats 1,300, allow light to penetrate into the interior, not only to make it usable as a convention hall, but also (thanks to the mixture of artificial and natural light) to create special atmospheres. The general mood of this hall is festive and sober, kept in tones of white, grey and black. To provide optimal acoustics, Robbrecht en Daem designed, in cooperation with the engineers, a cladding of ridged wood and plaster punctuated with colour accents. We associate the use of pat­terns and colour systems with theories of harmony. The colour scheme in the Concert Hall is based on Le Corbusier's claviers de couleurs. The dominant tone, the terra-cotta of the outside cladding, is complemented by the grey of the concrete interiors. Between the two poles, the whole spectrum of colours is used on banisters, panelling and doors. This is the same scheme that — like the interior lining of a jacket — unexpectedly appears as a strip disconnecting the terra-cotta envelope from the ground.

The stripes on the furniture (the benches are available now as the Ligeti bench) connect the colour scheme with Le Corbusier's claviers de couleurs: a keyboard of scales, rhythms and chords. Le Corbusier invented these colour key­boards for his clients. He writes: "All of us, according to our taste and reactions, favour one or more dominating schemes of colour. Each individual is drawn towards some particular harmony, which seems to accord with his inner feelings. The particular difficulty is to show colours in such a way that the individual can detect his own 'affinity'."8 Rather than prescribing the colours, the client can use them with the guidance of the keyboard, to express 'his joy in life.'

Schelling called architecture "frozen music", and Goethe, referring to Schelling's remark, spoke of architecture as "spa­tialised music" (Musik im Raume).9 It is easy to find musical references in the Concert Hall. Edgar Varèse's Poème electron­ique, composed for Le Corbusier's Philips Pavilion in Brus­sels, is one of the sound installations in the lobby and the architecture magnifies the expressive dimension of music. The building resonates not only with sound, but with memo­ries of landscapes, towns, buildings and paintings. The archi­tects use the term 'displacement' when they talk about the his­toric and contextual references that the building makes to Bruges, and to architectural history in general. In their description of the competition entry they explain: "Just as the Town Hall and Belfry recall with uncanny precision the Palaz­zo Pubblico in Siena, our concert hall can be seen as a further act of displacement, taking some of the formal and informal aspects from the city's centre, and forming a strong presence on 't Zand (...)" 10
The lantern tower is related to the flat-topped church towers of the Bruges sea coast, which were used as beacons for ships; now it serves as a beacon for motorists. The complex concrete beam structure finds its predecessors in the masterful carpentry of huge medieval barn roofs. Baroque precedents, Palladian memories, Semper and Garnier - the genealogy suggested by the architects in their statements reconfirms a reflective understanding of architecture, according to which "our time is the entire historical time known to us".11 A very obvious reference to the building tradition of Bruges is the use of terra-cotta; a brick building would have been a too straight­forward contextualism, resulting in a heavy masonry structure. Terra-cotta is able to maintain a clear connection, but in a much more indirect and subtle way.

Displacement as an interpretational model provided by Robbrecht and Daem raises interesting questions. Displace­ment confirms and denies the place at the same time. The idea that we are not in our `real' place is as old as human history. The references to the 'real' place are plenty — just as in the paintings already described: the Arcadian landscapes, the paradise — the first and perfect space that is still undivided —exist as fragments that can be reinstalled in the framework of an artefact. In this sense, architecture is always dislocation. One can see the whole history of architecture as a chain of displacements, as references in architectural history are generally indirect; the individual talent of the architect can be seen in the originality of the interpretation of precedents: the antique orders displace the wooden posts of Adam's house in paradise or Solomon's temple. The architecture rationelle of the late Seventies reflected the nostalgia for re-location. But Robbrecht and Daem did not conjure up the image of an Italian town in Bruges; the multiplicity of their references gives the place an instability and multi-temporality. The image they present is blurred and diffuse, detached from any concrete place. They precisely locate the volume on 't Zand —and at the same time they succeed in `escaping' from Bruges, in order to inhabit an ideal, floating, musical space.
This space is, of course, not permeated by the melancholy of Bruges-la-Morte, as today such a display of heroic identity (in a Don Quixote sense) becomes increasingly outdated, and even ridiculous. The irony in the image of Neutelings' decorated duck is a very clear display of the new pleasures of self-decon­struction. However, the `pastoralism' of Robbrecht and Daem shows that there are other options that reflect our recent understanding of identity, without choosing irony as the main mode of rhetoric. A display of hybridity and fragmentation takes the place of earlier visions of integrity. It is probably less the strategy of displacement of historical precedents than the challenge to established models of perception that makes this building important. Transparency is challenged by the reestablishment of light as lux in its various appearances, isotropic space by the diversity of intersecting itineraries, block-like identity by a repertoire of possibilities. This does not mean that the idea of identity has been abandoned altogether, on the contrary: the identity of the object is the result of a non-monolithic, more complex understanding of the historic con­struction of Flemish identity.
1 Steven Jacobs, 'Introduction', in Kristiaan Borret et al, Homeward: Contemporary Architecture in Flanders, Antwerp, deSingel International Arts Center, 1998, pp. 14-15.
2 Roel Jacobs, Brugge, een stad in de geschiedenis, Brugge, Van de Wiele, 1997.
3 Wim Blockmans, 'Fondans en melencolie de povreté, in Maximiliaan P. J. Martens (ed.), Bruges and the Renaissance, Ghent, Ludion, 1998, pp. 26-32.
4 Geert Bekaert, 'Operating Instructions for Architecture: A Century of Architecture in Belgium', in Mil De Kooning (ed.), Horta and After, 2nd ed., Ghent, Department of Architecture and Urbanism, Ghent University, 2001, p. 45.
5 Patrick Moenaert, 'Voorwoord', in Tentoonstelling Concertgebouw Stad Brugge, p. 3.
6 Paul Robbrecht, Hilde Daem, Bruges Concertgebouw, text on the competition entry
7 “Uninterruptedly, the bells of Bruges fulfilled their function of mourners, pouring without respite psalmody into the air.” Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte (1892) (Paris, 1998), pp. 198–9.
8 Le Corbusier, 'Colour keyboards', in Arthur Rijegg (ed.), Polychromie architecturale: Le Corbusier's Color Keyboards from 1931 and 1959, Basel/ Boston/Berlin, Birkhauser, 1997, p. 15o.
9 Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, 'Philosophic der Kunst' (1802-1803), in Schelling, Ausgewahlte Schriften, Band 2, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1985, p. 404.
10 Bruges Concertgebouw (see note 6).
11 Josef Frank, Architektur als Symbol: Elensente deutschen neuen Bauens, 1931, reprint Vienna, Locker, 1981, p.166.
Original Publication: Ákos Moravánkszy, “Identity and Displacement: The Concert Hall in Bruges. Robbrecht and Daem Architects, 2002”, in Flanders Architectural Yearbook 02/03 (Antwerp, 2004), pp. 63–9; Other Literature: Ákos Moravánkszy, “The Identity of an Imaginary Region”, in Ákos Moravánkszy, Competing Visions: Aesthetic Invention and Social Imagination in Central European Archi- tecture, 1867–1918 (Cambridge, MA, 1998).