The new bru­tal­ism: Brus­sels

Wallpaper - - July - writer: Siska LYSSENS

Among a wave of savvy ren­o­va­tions, a 1970 con­crete clas­sic finds fresh vigour

Once the finely sculpted sym­bols of hope and the ar­chi­tec­tural avant-garde in a trou­bled post-war world, bru­tal­ist tow­ers have, over the years, gen­er­ated two dis­tinct camps: for some, they are beloved icons grac­ing the pages of ar­chi­tec­ture books the world over and, for oth­ers, justly ne­glected be­he­moths, the re­minders of shift­ing pub­lic tastes and mis­judged modernist ex­per­i­ments. Now some are be­ing re­booted and given new life. Re­newed in­ter­est in the struc­tures’ ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage, ro­bust con­struc­tion and strong vis­ual po­ten­tial have prompted a wave of savvy ren­o­va­tions from ea­gle-eyed de­vel­op­ers who wish to save – and cap­i­talise on – the tow­ers’ dra­matic shapes. From Brus­sels to Lon­don, we ex­plore what’s com­ing up in this new age of bru­tal­ism.

Con­stantin Brodzki is less than en­thu­si­as­tic, to say the least, when­ever he hears of one of his build­ings be­ing ren­o­vated. At 93 years old, the Bel­gian ar­chi­tect is still very much en­gaged with the ar­chi­tec­ture world, and he’s ea­ger to point out the ways in which he would like his modernist legacy to be pre­served. ‘I have ex­pe­ri­enced catas­tro­phes be­fore, so I’m sus­pi­cious,’ Brodzki ad­mits, tak­ing out plans and pho­tos to show how some firms have botched his former pro­jects.

One of his de­signs, the former HQ of the ce­ment com­pany CBR in Brus­sels, is cur­rently be­ing con­verted into a new out­post for Antwerp co-work­ing con­cept Fos­bury & Sons. Close to the So­nian For­est, it’s just ten min­utes from the high-end Av­enue Louise. For Fos­bury & Sons’ founders Stijn Geer­aets and Maarten Van Gool, the ini­tial im­pe­tus to take on the modernist of­fice build­ing, with its char­ac­ter­is­tic façade of curved con­crete mod­ules, was all about the im­me­di­ate vis­ual im­pact. But as they started to ex­plore the build­ing, the full pack­age cap­ti­vated them. ‘The char­ac­ter of the build­ing, its his­tory, its ex­cep­tional ar­chi­tec­ture, the spirit of the age in which it was built, it just fit­ted,’ says Geer­aets. It has an ex­tra­or­di­nary ar­chi­tec­ture that is also su­per func­tional. And ev­ery­where, there’s this James Bond-slash-mad Men vibe, which made us feel right at home.’ The start­ing point was the build­ing it­self, he ex­plains: ‘We didn’t want to change any­thing; we wanted to pre­serve it, and up­date the technical side, so that the spa­ces feel like new, in terms of elec­tric­ity, ven­ti­la­tion, all the com­forts of a con­tem­po­rary of­fice.’

Brodzki, born in Rome and raised in Italy and Fin­land by his Bel­gian mother and Pol­ish diplo­mat fa­ther, moved to Bel­gium be­fore the Se­cond World War. From age seven, he says, ‘I knew I wanted to be an ar­chi­tect. I was al­ways draw­ing.’ In Bel­gium, he stud­ied at La Cam­bre, where ‘we could see Henry van de Velde, a true ge­nius, in the hall­ways’. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he trav­elled to the United States, and found a place­ment work­ing on the United Na­tions HQ, for which the board of de­sign in­cluded Niemeyer and Le Cor­bus­ier.

‘I did that for six months,’ Brodzki rem­i­nisces. ‘Work­ing on what, at the time, was the most modern build­ing in the world. It was heaven.’ Upon his re­turn to Bel­gium, he felt hope­lessly out of place. ‘The tragedy was that when I came back, I was 15 years ahead of Bel­gium in terms of de­sign and method­ol­ogy,’ he says. ‘So for ten years, I had to bide my time.’

Brodzki still con­sid­ers the CBR build­ing to be ‘the most modern build­ing in Bel­gium’, and in­sists that ‘it doesn’t have to be ren­o­vated’. It’s true that the

‘It’s the most modern build­ing in Bel­gium. It doesn’t have to be ren­o­vated’

struc­ture’s re­mark­able façade, with its strong grid and mono­lithic feel, has aged beau­ti­fully. The sculp­tural forms, un­usual for of­fice build­ings at the time, gave rise to a new cur­rent in Bel­gian ar­chi­tec­ture, and the CBR build­ing’s char­ac­ter­is­tics were em­u­lated by dozens in Brus­sels dur­ing the fol­low­ing decades. It earned Brodzki an in­clu­sion in the 1979 MOMA ex­hi­bi­tion, ‘Trans­for­ma­tions in Modern Ar­chi­tec­ture’– he was the only Bel­gian ar­chi­tect to be ref­er­enced.

Brodzki’s main take­away from his time in New York was the prag­matic way of work­ing, de­vel­op­ing plan af­ter plan and fine-tun­ing the stages of build­ing in or­der to max­imise ef­fi­ciency – fig­ur­ing out the ex­act way to achieve curved shapes within that short win­dow of time when con­crete is still liq­uid, for in­stance. ‘The most im­por­tant thing I learned in the US is that when they start to work on some­thing, they be­gin with the idea that they don’t know ev­ery­thing, but want to find out,’ Brodzki smiles. ‘In Bel­gium, they start work as­sum­ing they know it all.’

The re­sult of his metic­u­lous plan­ning is a build­ing that still as­tounds in its func­tion­al­ity. ‘When we went to take a look at the build­ing’s struc­ture, it be­came clear im­me­di­ately that it was very clev­erly de­signed,’ says Geer­aets. ‘Brodzki ob­vi­ously thought it all through ex­ten­sively – he con­ducted mul­ti­ple stud­ies be­fore start­ing the con­struc­tion phase. When our in­te­rior ar­chi­tects Go­ing East looked at the plans and lay­out of each floor, they could only ob­serve that the build­ing is self-ex­plana­tory.’ Fos­bury & Sons will oc­cupy 7,000 sq m, spread over seven of the build­ing’s nine floors, with three ex­tra floors be­low ground for park­ing and stor­age.

Ev­ery ma­te­rial, de­tail and fin­ish was cho­sen by Brodzki, from the very start of con­struc­tion in 1967 un­til the year of com­ple­tion, 1970. For some of the fur­ni­ture in­side it, Brodzki col­lab­o­rated with his Brus­sels friend and neigh­bour Jules Wabbes. These pieces, along with other orig­i­nal fur­ni­ture, built-in units and au­then­tic de­tails like door han­dles, ra­di­a­tor caps and wooden cas­ings of win­dows, will be pre­served, con­firms Geer­aets. ‘We’re not de­mol­ish­ing any­thing; in­stead, we’re dis­man­tling parts of the in­te­rior, then re­in­stat­ing them while tak­ing into ac­count the orig­i­nal ma­te­ri­als used.’

Art from lo­cal Brus­sels gal­leries will dot the spa­ces, events and lec­tures will take place, and there’s a small au­di­to­rium where movies can be pro­jected, as well as a res­tau­rant, bar and a small club. The func­tion of Brodzki’s mas­ter­piece re­mains in­tact. ‘Brodzki was very for­ward-think­ing, and we still reap the benefits of that to­day,’ says Geer­aets. ‘If you look at what that man has achieved, I feel like he’s been left in the shad­ows for too long, quite un­de­servedly.’ fos­buryand­sons.com

Fos­bury & sons Founders stijn Geer­aets and Maarten Van Gool, the Cbr hq’s new ten­ants. they are trans­form­ing the listed build­ing into a 7,000 sq M Co-work­ing space, the Com­pany’s First in brus­sels

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