1. Built environment
April 8, 2015updated 19 Jul 2021 11:29am

How Brussels became a byword for haphazard urban planning

By Frances Robinson

Only a few cities worldwide can claim an eponymous entry in the urban planning lexicon. Everyone knows what a New-York style grid system is, and that Haussmannisation is named after the man who designed modern Paris.

Belgium’s capital, however, gave us “Brusselisation”: a byword for a careless approach to urban planning, or, to use a technical term, making everything look like a right old mess. In the post-war era, the various Brussels authorities embarked on an ambitious program of demolishing pretty old buildings, putting up uglier new ones, and sticking roads everywhere to make it easy to commute in from the suburbs.

Beautiful boulevard lined with art nouveau architecture and leafy trees? Turn it into a dual carriageway. Impressive 19th-century neighbourhood full of pretty villas? Why not flatten it and put in some glass-and-steel monoliths to house the EU. Victor Horta’s masterpiece, the Maison du Peuple? Demolished in what the University of Kent’s Pier-Luigi del Renzio called “an act of barabarism in the squalid interests of speculative development“.

Let’s get the disclaimer in first: the worst excesses of Brusselisation took place in the 1960s and 70s, with a special push for the 1958 World Fair. If you want an Ealing Comedy-esque explanation of the genesis of the Atomium and park at Heysel (and a plot twist involving a building) then read the novel Expo ’58 by Jonathan Coe.  (He got a Flemish government grant to help with it. Literature is no exception to Belgium’s competitive regionalisation.)

New developments are much more sympathetic. With fancy scaffolding to hold up exteriors while building shiny modern structures inside, new shopping centres, offices and hotels are popping up behind the grand facades built a century ago. Meanwhile, a scheme to help fund the restoration of art nouveau sgraffiti and other decorations on homes has helped the areas which are already nice to walk round and enjoy the city’s hidden gems.

But the people of Brussels live in the city as it is now. And that includes really quite a lot of concrete, orange signage and roadworks. A sort of micro-Brusselisation, if you will.

The chaotic nature of the city creates strong reactions. Especially with such a cosmopolitan population, there’s no shortage of places with which the immigrants/expats can compare it. And when people feel moved to write about their experience of living here, there’s two options: laugh or cry.

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Some typical Brussels metro signs. Images: @davidcrunelle (L), @asaintdenis (R) via Twitter. 

Crying’s been done: Liberation‘s Jean Quatremer kicked off a storm of outrage two years ago with a cathartic download of everything that’s wrong with Brussels. Having lived there for decades to cover the EU’s corridors of power, he’d seen enough piles of rubbish, collapsed roads and eternal roadworks to let it all out. (You can read his critique of the city in full, and en Francais, here.) 

Quatremer talks the reader through the ridiculously complicated governance system: Brussel-capital is one of Belgium’s three federal regions, Brussels-city is (most of) the city, and the 19 communes (effectively, boroughs) which comprise the region all have various types of power, too. He also has a pop at the swathes of motorway which carved through everything; the tunnels which combine both fume-filled traffic queues and fast-moving merging lanes which cause crashes daily; and the baroque Belgian taxation system which means that those who commute in for work pay their taxes to Flanders or Wallonia, not Brussels itself.

There are those, however, who look on the quirky chaos of Brussels and embrace it like Jacques Brel. There’s plenty of blogs, Facebook pages, and witty Twitter types who realise that going to the town hall is an exercise in absurdist theatre – and it’s better to just embrace that. Brusselisation also gave us a cool elevator in the middle of town.

Take Belgian Solutions. Now a book as well, this is the place to go for staircases to nowhere, trees placed under leaking airport roofs (it’s a carbon sink in a bucket; genius) and Heath Robinson-style drainpipe arrangements. “The whole city is kind of taped together,” David Helbich, the man behind the project, told Public Radio International. “I think Brussels has like, these layers. On the ground, it’s like a puzzle. On the human level, it’s taped together. And then from the sky, there are hanging cables.” 

Then there’s “Things People in Brussels don’t say” which is a more expat-centric slant on the little things which make you go “why?” here, including the never-ending reconstruction of Schuman and Arts-Loi/Kunst-Wet metro station. STIB/MIVB, the Brussels public transport system, has generously got all the Eurocrats ready for ski season with an intensive thigh workout up and down all those concrete stairs every day.

Finally, without wishing to go all Jean-Jacques Beineix about it, there’s also a certain beauty in Brusselisation. One expert narrator of it is the film critic Anne Billson. Her photos of decaying buildings reflected in glass and neon – often with an artfully-posed Belgian beer – are well worth a look.

Likewise, her guide to the city is full of useful tips, from the badly-maintained pavements (surprise! many cobbles flip up and splash one with rainwater and pigeon wee) to the Place du Sablon, which sums up Brusselisation perfectly: “This would be a very pretty square if it wasn’t used as a carpark, so it’s best visited on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when there’s an antiques market instead of parked cars.”

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