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Discovering contemporary architecture on the move along the Canal

Gigogne - 31 homes fort artists - Rue du Cheval Noir 17 - ©ADT-ATO/Julien Timmermans

Archi Audio offers an audio tour on foot on either side of the Canal, taking in some twenty examples of contemporary architecture.

2013-10-15 – Brussels is a truly multi-faceted city, and has plenty of cultural walks to prove it. Beer or chocolate, Art Nouveau or post-industrial, art in the metro or comic strips: tourists and visitors eager to learn can find something to suit their taste. Straddling the Canal in the Commune of Molenbeek and the City of Brussels, Archi Audio offers an audio ‘Contemporary architecture tour’ taking in some twenty examples of contemporary architecture.

The formula is an original one: an MP3 app that you download onto your smartphone or tablet, and then play as you spend a couple of hours exploring little streets and squares on either side of the Porte de Flandre and the Porte de Ninove. On the way, with stopping points at a series of buildings, you can listen to the comments of the architects responsible for the buildings, of urban planners, of experts on the city, and of members of local organisations. There are also the ordinary people of Brussels– neighbours or passers-by – who, like you, reflect on these buildings and get involved.

A mosaic of testimonials

The tour is a fascinating opportunity to open your eyes to what community actually means: how is it created, how is measured, and how are the contemporary needs of the city’s inhabitants defined? The irrepressible humour of some old inhabitants of Molenbeek makes their testimonials a vivid account of the changes that these districts have undergone. The result is both funny and touching, as voices from southerly countries, a Flemish voice, and voices of experts mingle and sometimes get tangled up together in an original audio montage which has a touch of rap, a touch of rock and a touch of old-fashioned razzamatazz about it. It is a surprising but never tiresome way of organising the information that flows constantly into your ear, with pauses and the sounds of footsteps.

You get a sense of the Zeitgeist, but also of the good old days, when Brussels’ districts were villages and co-existing side by side was simply something you had to get on with. You also learn about the days when urban development was a free-for-all – but the tone adopted is not one of condemnation, but rather of understanding of how the city’s needs evolve. Above all, placed side by side with one another, these contributions from the architects give us an idea of the implications of construction projects, the intricate factors that have to be weighed up. Housing or offices, schools or artists’ studios, crèches, gardens or bus shelters. Demolition and newbuild, preservation of the façades (a Brusselsspeciality), or preservation of the basic structure only. Keeping the floor plan or redesigning. Low-cost construction or passive building (more expensive but worthwhile because of the energy savings generated). Extracting as much light as possible, even if the street is a narrow one and there are many storeys. Building in a way that participates in the life of the city and ‘interacts’ with the surroundings. Encouraging community life or protecting privacy. Building with timber, bricks, steel and glass or materials whose names are not yet known but which are ideally suited to modern safety and insulation needs and aesthetic tastes.

Intensive reflections

How do you build something beautiful? What do we mean by beauty? We hear the voices of passers-by – some of them enthusiastic, others less so. We hear the architects talking about the resistance they have sometimes encountered, and how they have managed to win people over. We hear birdsong, because this is an age of tree-planting, when concrete has to make room for nature, even in the city – in fact, especially in the city.

We learn that a new building is not just the product of lengthy construction work, designs and calculations, but the outcome of a process of reflection with extensive inputs in which the authorities and urban planners identify goals, analyse, compare values, define philosophies, and modify plans until forms and colours are just right. We begin to understand that those who are talking as we walk around this route are enthusiasts who are proud of their work.

The language of enthusiasts

Simultaneously historians and geographers, they employ a bold vocabulary, talking at length of integration, meaning, needs, modernity, social functions, economic imperatives, anticipation and respect. And as you listen to them without seeing them, you increasingly perceive these project designers as tremendouslycreative figures, far removed from the ‘schieven architek’ or ‘skewed architect’ of Brusselsfolklore!

Do give it a try, either on your own or as a family, at any time of year. You will not be disappointed by this ‘Tour of contemporary architecture’, which is definitely worth the effort. But pick a bright day, as there will be plenty of photo opportunities. You will return with your curiosity whetted and your outlook enriched: not just by the architecture and the city, but also and above all by a new way of looking at things.

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Text: Véronique KIRSZBAUM

Pictures: Julien TIMMERMANS