Een duet van verwrongen herinneringen. Monumenten voor een gestorven koning / A duet of distorted memories. Monuments to a departed king

Walter Vandenbroeck wrote to him personally,1) and later – perhaps because the reply persistently failed to turn up – organized Het Beleg van Laken (The Siege of Laeken).2) Koen Peeters conversed constantly with K.,3) and for the average Belgian too his expression of compassion and frail benevolence tend to fascinate – this was King Baudouin. Even the country’s most notorious republicans – Johan Anthierens and company – for all their belly-aching in the end produced nothing less than some very fine literary moments, like the Brief aan een postzegel (Letter to a postage stamp).4) King Baudouin was the embodiment of every conceivable form of amiable integrity. He was empathy incarnate, the final refuge and indomitable hope. The sounding board of an imagined royal involvement has been muted in a cloak of charity.

Obviously this respectful veneration gets abused and exploited. It was hoped that the horrors of the Heizel tragedy could be wiped out by renaming the stadium King Baudouin stadium, as if a mere name-change could trigger off catharsis. And now, almost four years after the king’s death, a monument will probably be built in Antwerp to keep alive the somewhat cloying memory of the departed monarch. In Brussels work is already underway on the Royal Route, an urban face-lift initiated by the King Baudouin Foundation. Both projects raise the question of the role assigned to Baudouin’s legacy, as well as that of the significance of the urban context – with its social and spatial resonances – the significance of the monumental as structuring element and vice versa.
The first venture was launched by the community of Antwerp, so called (in reality the governor of the province, the burgomaster and a few prominent citizens). Its first step was to hold a limited competition among Antwerp’s most illustrious architects. That an iconoclastic architect/artist of international renown like Luc Deleu was not included in the Antwerp muster is not surprising but possibly significant. The anachronism of a monument in today’s city – and then one for a personage like Baudouin who appeals to universal values – hardly constitutes a backcloth for critical questions.
It is perhaps futile, but one may still wonder whether Baudouin would have appreciated this forthcoming Antwerp monument.5) The hypothetical answer might be along anecdotal lines: when the nation presented Baudouin with a gift for his silver jubilee, he decided himself to pass over a monument for a foundation: the King Baudouin Foundation. It was to be a socially authoritative think-tank, as well as a prestigious platform. In that respect it draws on the monarchy’s inherent moral authority to get all manner of royal concerns that couldn’t matter less to right-minded Belgians, onto the agenda: the third and fourth world, housing problems, white slavery and prostitution, integration of immigrants, combating of racism, the position of trade unions in a rapidly changing economic system, neglect of the cultural historical patrimony, and so on. The aim of the King Baudouin Foundation is to act as the nation’s conscience, wielding to that end a delicately – politely, if you prefer – packaged rationality. Pilot projects, with scientific underpinning and support, have proved an effective expedient.
Obviously the Foundation is the ultimate monument of and to King Baudouin. Not merely a memorial to look at as one passes by, but an instrument too. The Foundation is constantly spewing forth enterprises, publications, events, glossy newsletters, research, workshops, television reports. It is forever on the move, effortlessly it seems – amazing what a crown can do for you! – in the present-day, media-dominated circles of policy and social change. It is at the centre of contemporary space.

Memories of a biscuit tin

The initiators of a non-profit association (‘vzw Monument Koning Boudewijn’) have entered into competition, whether willingly or otherwise, with the King Baudouin Foundation. They believe the new monument will logically have an educational function. So it will need to convey the concerns, and more especially the values championed by the King, in a way that can be ‘understood’. Not in deeds, not in actions with the ever-present risks they entail, but with an image, a representation. The initiators intend to realize this impossible task by calling on architecture to provide an image. Not the usual kind of architecture commission, then – build a house, define a space – but pure representation. A monument.
The King Baudouin Monument will be erected on Antwerp’s Left Bank, immediately opposite the cathedral. The spot affords a breathtaking view of the city, especially at night when the cars throw lines of light across Antwerp’s sleeping docks. The picture in daylight is as dull as ditch-water. ‘This must be Belgium.’ A prosaic plot of soggy clay, with the huts of the urban parks department on the left. The monument is planned for this rather odd spot, a residue between the Left Bank’s dormitories and the Scheldt river, which means outside the urban space proper. A monument in the middle of the Arcadian no-man’s-land of the riverbank. Without shelter, without culture – in other words, without the city. What is the point of a monument in the outskirts, where the equilibrium is shaky as it is?
The competition entries all try in their own way to find an answer to the nature of the place and, as can be expected of architects, they tend to overstep the limits of the site assigned them. It is an easy way to come to grips with a location: to structure the loose context and define the space within it. Entries vary from a large park, such as the one designed by Georges Baines, a canopy over a hundred metres long, and a slope leading to a landing stage for boats, as in the selected project by architect Jo Crépain, to architectural elements exuberantly overrunning the bank, as in Driessen-Meersam-Thomaes’ proposal. Bob Van Reeth did manage to keep within the limits, opting to make the monument autonomous. It isn’t actually anywhere, certainly not on the left bank. An uncluttered outdoor room, an ascetic stillness.
Poponcini and Lootens likewise adhered to the task, but went on to define larger surroundings. Their voluminous illuminated box floats some way above the bank. Antwerp is alerted to the Left Bank’s presence by a lit beacon; a strong clear point of reference in the nocturnal, light-studded firmament of the Left Bank. So it performs a truly archetypal architectural function: using a sign to create order in space, to organize space. And it is an attractive, pristine, autonomous, well-proportioned object. It would have made a perfect tomb. No wonder Poponcini and Lootens refer to Adolf Loos, who stated that Denkmal (monument) and Grabmal (tomb) were the only tasks that enabled an architect to make architecture.

Forgetting Baudouin

Even though some entries took no notice of the site limits, amazingly enough they all respected the intrinsic contours of the brief. So no antics, no pedantic overstepping of the limits, no jokes. None use linguistic manoeuvrability to blow up contradictions into life-size paradoxes, or to release tension in a literary catharsis. No purification. Quite the reverse, in fact. These architectural designs look more like cloying icons.
Clearly the King could not be portrayed as someone who unashamedly collected the Union Minière’s dividends or, in his highly personalized brand of humanism, referred to human relations between black and white. Dominer pour servir (dominate in order to serve). Neither discord nor dissent, let alone an allusion to double standards. But language, yes. Indeed, sandblasted quotes from official speeches and documents were proposed in various projects. To be selected together with the Court – inevitably – and so there won’t be the tart orders issued by the young king to a colonial governor in a turbulent Belgian Congo at the end of the 1950s: ‘Just get things sorted out! I’ll cover you!’ No way. Caustic jokes, cynicism and jovial humour were out. In other words, nothing sublimating, nothing human, nothing that put the memory of the King of flesh and blood, the prime example of ‘Belgitude’, into a human perspective. And that is exactly what the best Flemish literature was sporadically capable of. It played a game of adoration, fulmination, deflation and, at the same time, unabashed affection, which was its way of dismissing Baudouin. Suffocating with affection in order to discover yourself, your own identity. And in fact that literature grasps the essence of the monarch’s function: to represent the nation symbolically, to offer it a nicely decorated but no less truthful mirror. This full-blooded purification that Flemish literature succeeded in developing during its sometimes lofty involvement with the personage of Baudouin – serene disenchantment packaged in an almost obsessive adoration of the fatherland’s father figure – created room for questions as to identity, significance and sense. And that critical content is just what the present architecture projects lack.
It just isn’t relevant. Architecture asks for nothing in this instance. It is more a matter of appealing to primary emotions. Is it art? Obviously we are not dealing literally with kitsch, the analogy with grandma’s biscuit tin – complete with royal portrait – is not entirely appropriate. But what does Jo Crépain’s chosen design involve? A hundred trees for King Baudouin (99 Japanese cherries and 1 weeping willow) in an ever-blooming field of white and blue flowers. A 43-metre wall (4 metres in height), with a 21-metre groove in which 42 panels, 50 by 50 centimetres in size, have been inserted. Each panel carries photos and texts from a reign of 42 years. The wall defines a paved square. The design is in actual fact trying to combine the impossible. The photos and other sentimental rhetoric (the King inclining, attentive, listening) are meant to produce a pleasant atmosphere and encourage involvement. A sitting room in which to linger with one’s sad thoughts of Baudouin – that seems to be the leitmotif. A place for a royal pilgrimage, no candles but perhaps a touch of lachrymosity. An exploitation, in shirt, of the qualities attributed to the king.
Then again, the design provides a formal space. Ceremony defines the size of the parade ground. Flagpoles, stately dimensions, taut demarcations. Heroic pathos. Antwerp’s stifled patriotic emotions and pent-up tears – Fatherland, dynasty – are restored at this spot. Tattered grandeur blown up into monumentality.
All in all, a pretty bizarre cocktail of cheap pathos.

Ceremonial space

The King Baudouin Foundation is geared to action and results. Its wide range of programmes and activities occasioned some time ago a very special project of urban revamping in Brussels – Belgium’s institutional, political and above all urban jungle.
The Royal Route, as the project has been appropriately dubbed, in fact connects the palace in Brussels with the royal residence in Laeken. The trajectory came about falteringly in the nineteenth century. The present urban face-lift is a free interpretation of history and stitches the Place du Roi and Rue de la Régence, up to the Law Courts, to the Royal Route.
Most of the route slices diagonally through the densely built-up, speculative nineteenth century urban expansion. The diagonal is not only an unnatural element in the largely orthogonal grid of the nineteenth century suburb, it regularly cuts across the radial arterial roads. The upshot of all that crisscrossing is obviously a reduction in speed and thus in fundamental effectiveness. The route, comprising as it does a chain of fragments, has in fact never had any unity, though it did serve a purpose as cerremonial space on specific national occasions: the exit route for the royal funeral procession, the happy entrance for the accession. Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi. Tears are brushed away, spirits are revived. The ceremonial function gave the route a certain grandeur, whilst providing a representative civic backcloth. This is where Belgium lived: look, your Majesty, I live here, I, your worthy compatriot. The route became a screen, a Potemkin street: your Majesty, this is your capital (and not that squalid suburb round the corner, a reality cancelled by negation). Later came the somewhat pathetic understatements: in its heyday Belgian socialism ensured that the ‘Monument to Labour’ (by Constantin Meunier) was located on the route, integrated in the moments of national significance. The true value of the Royal Route lies in its constant interruptions. The explicit duality and densification, the confrontation of differences shape the essence of its urban character. The city as a haven of difference, of continuously changing realities.
Meanwhile there are dirty patches in the peeling backcloth of the route, which also exhibits cracks and splits in many places, affording now and then a hallucinatory view of the real city. The north-south railway line has been thrown across it like a vast dam, the western industrial rail loop intersects the route just before the Royal Church of Laeken, and the sea canal with its wide expanse of water, wharfs and industrial border causes the route to slip apart into fragments.
The backcloth itself has also been tarnished and stained by the exodus of the last remnants of bourgeois Belgium: rows of bricked-up windows, flaking paint, demolished sites to left and right. Urban infection has penetrated its smoothest skin. Here and there a few shoots of fresh green emerge from the guttering, adding colour to the grey patina of faded glory. Your Majesty, good citizenship is dead! Our worthy compatriots are speculating your avenue to death!
Rue des Palais, that tiny patch of 19th century regal grandiloquence in the capital, has long been devoured by the metropolis. Through all the cracks and crumbling joints, and for everyone who has eyes and emotions, this is where quite a pile of King Baudouin’s concerns loom into view. There are bunches of them for the grabbing in this ‘jungle’, to use Louis Paul Boon’s term. Is it possible that this troubling daily encounter with this part of town was a recurrent torment for the sensitive monarch? The pathetically dolled up Nigerian teenage prostitutes in Rue d’Aerschot, the permanently damaged creatures of ‘Onderweg’ (an anonymous grey office combating deprivation, rescuing the city’s unfortunates and placing them in foster homes), swathes of demolition, aggressive graffiti, the unmanageable secondary schools of Laeken where cameras and security staff dominate the educational climate, tasteless hoardings, the disconsolate looks of refugees, aggression in the eyes of third-generation immigrants, predestined by tradition to a vocational training totally lacking in quality and perspectives. Be it as it may, the Royal Route is a kaleidoscopic showcase of all the concerns which ruffled the gentle character of the beloved monarch.

Delicate restoration

The King Baudouin Foundation aims to make the city more attractive with the Royal Route, no more and no less. Proposals have been drafted for its redesign. The fragments are to be metamorphosed into a whole. These proposals were on display in 1995 and in 1996 bulldozers were already breaking up Avenue de la Reine in Laeken, a species of dynamism exceptional in a Brussels plagued by administrative compartmentalization and other problems. That the King Baudouin Foundation was the one to take the initiative is not that strange really. It united all those involved from the administrative jungle of Brussels, ultimately producing a Charter, endorsed by all parties, for the layout of this part of town. The Charter is a new and creditable planning tool.6)
The intention to generate general urban renewal by taking in hand the public space is significant and laudable. The team of architects and urbanists assembled by the Foundation sees public space as the constituent and therefore the determinant of urban culture. And indeed, at a time when social disintegration in the city is on the rise, intervention in public space is essential. The question remains as to how it should be achieved, and in that respect this project sees the Foundation venturing onto thin ice.
The first question that needs to be asked is whether an intervention restricted to the public space is inspired by conviction or by a kind of defeatist opportunism. The two well-groomed booklets the Foundation has published on the project refer to the existing straightforward decision and implementation procedures pertaining to the public domain. Does that mean that the more complex decision-making regarding private areas and limited financial clout absolve the authorities and the professional community from intervention in the built environment? Or, put another way, is restriction to the public domain an alibi for not burning their fingers on some other hot item? For this restriction to the public domain should be taken very literally. It relates, so to speak, to paving and no more than that. As if a new carpet ever made a fundamental difference.
And that is one hell of a misconception. For public space cannot be separated from its surroundings. If the fringe development and everything concealed behind it cannot be dealt with – through private ownership, weighty procedures, the authorities’ financial impotence, you name it – is it there any point in intervening in the public space?
In actual fact, the implicit contention here is that public space is the only remaining straw to clutch at, the only thing left that can bring coherence. However, public space is at root the place of exchange – but only, logically enough, if there is something to be exchanged, if substance lurks behind the screen, the backcloth. So is it fair to appeal, as is implicitly the case here, to an apocalyptic doom-scenario? Is public space really the only thing left? Might a whole dynamic world not be fomenting behind the rents and between the fault lines in the Royal Route? Isn’t the public domain only a place of exchange thanks to everything that converges there? And therefore isn’t it by definition pointless to separate the place of exchange from its sources of nourishment? Is the proposed concept of unity of street layout – in effect a virtual restoration – the most suitable for the type of exchange that takes place in this urban space?
Urbanism ceases to be relevant when it seeks to conceal unpleasant symptoms. It would seem of the essence to confront historical-morphological restoration (the ideological foundations of the project) with a socio-cultural interpretation of current space use. However, such confrontation is avoided through the agency of such cunning additions as Norman Foster’s tram shelters in the square (Liedtsplein) to be remodelled. It’s just a pity for the highly successful chips kiosk, which, together with the taxi rank and the bus stop, makes for a confused but functioning urban synergy in the middle of the traffic island that Liedtsplein has become. And so the chips kiosk, the trusty stepping stone amidst the roaring traffic and an anchorage of activity in the public domain, is to be cleared away. Coherence, urban culture, who’s to say?
The stubborn attitude of intervening only in the public domain does not prevent the initiators from building significant contradictions into their subtle argument. For instance, a project by the architect L. Schuiten suggests converting facades that are too dilapidated into vertical gardens. All of a sudden, it proves necessary to tackle peripheral development. Potemkin is paying another visit. Your Majesty, your capital has acquired another park! So does the project mask a hidden agenda after all? And, finally, would this agenda coincide with that of King Baudouin?
This delicate restoration of the Royal Route perhaps represents less of a collision with the incompetence of present-day planning than with the limits of right-mindedness.

5. An Antwerp non-profit association, Antwerp funds, an Antwerp architect, Antwerp artists too and, sure enough, Antwerp building contractors.

Brief uit Berlijn / Letter from Berlin