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Martine Pollier
Zandstraat 324, 8200 Brugge
T +32 50 322 420


Building in Bruges - The ultimate hallucination

With Wim Kennes, Sieg Vlaeminck, Piet Swimberghe, Bob Van Haeverbeke, Charles Vermeersch, Denis Van Impe & Dirk De Meyer
02.02 1990

In Bruges many years there is debate about building in the historic center. Almost every inhabitant feels involved in what is happening to his city. This may be beautiful, but it sometimes is too emotional, too simplistic and too subjective.

History in the making

Recent planning policy en Bruges has been not only to design new buildings within the city’s brick and gable tradition, but also to remove the Classical and stucco nineteenth century past.
Gavin Stamp examines the consequences.

‘Every Gothic architect, even a Gothic architect manqué, wants to see Bruges…’ recorded Oswald Fish in his diary for 10 September 1896; Every day I have taken my sketch-book out and, with eye and brush and pencil, feasted on every arch and spandrel, every monument and image, every reliquary, every embossed column, every screen of wood or stone, every soaring tower and ingenious arch in this most captivating town…’ That Bruges was the obligatory haunt of every English architect and ‘traveler’ is confirmed by any old guidebook: ‘The Liverpool of the Middle Ages…’ recorded Murrays Handbook for 1976, ‘wears an air of desolation… Its appearance is the more mournful from its great extent, and the size and unaltered splendor of many of the public buildings and private houses-vestiges of its former wealth and prosperity’; while for Ward Lock’s Handbook to Belgium of just before the First World War, Bruges was ‘the Venice of the North’, which, ‘has preserved in a most remarkable degree the impress of the Middle Ages in its monuments, its scenery, and even in its cobble-stones’.

The standard tourist view of Bruges is scarcely any different today.‘Bruges is a medieval city perfectly preserved, a giant, sprawling, ancient metropolis once of world significance, and yet today almost unaltered in its former splendor, its awesome beauty and size … a city arrested in time, ‘gushes Arthur Frommer-the American writer of the thrifty classic Europe on $5 Archipel Day-in A Masterpiece Called Belgium (1984). Such is the myth of Bruges as the great medieval trading-post of northern Europe frozen by economic decline and stagnation for the tourists of the world to enjoy. And this really is Archipel myth, for while the splendor and charm of the city are indisputable, its present reality is Archipel product of much imagination and invention, as even Archipel cursory study of old photographs soon reveals. For, apart from the great monuments (and even they have undergone frequent restorations), the streets of the city which its Flemish inhabitants call Brugge looked very different in, say 1889 and even in 1949. where there were once stuccoed, Classical facades, now there are historic gabled brick facades. In fact, the ancient Bruges that visitors have for long admired is often as fictional as my initial diary quotation form A.N.Wilson’s novel Who Was Oswald Fish?

Bruges has been rebuilt in its own image, which presents peculiar problems to those responsible for the care of its old buildings and the sympathetic design of new ones in an intensely self-conscious and conservative urban environment. Not that inventing a picturesque built history is unique to Bruges, for those English tourist meccas, Stratford-upon-Avon and Chester, for instance, are similarly bogus. Stratford began to recreate Elizabethan timbered houses as a suitable background to the commercial exploitation of Shakespeare at about the time Bruges was seeking to revive an authentic ancient Flemish style, while, in the late nineteenth century, Chester was transformed from a Georgian city into a black-and-white half-timbered one.
The aim was almost identical: to go back beyond eighteenth or early nineteenth century replacements or fashionable refrontings of old houses and recreate an idealized past, which might be a restoration of what remained under the brick or stucco or, more likely, a product of artistic and historical imagination.

Such is Revivalism, which can be a creative force. It can also be stultifying, by imposing a rigid, false image and by making history stop at a particular point so that an ancient city no longer appears as the consequence of centuries of continual growth an change. And that is certainly the problem of Bruges, whose history is much more complex than the myth suggests, for it continued to prosper in spite of the changed economic circumstances of the fifteenth century and the silting-up of the Zwin – the vital connection with the sea. In the eighteenth century under Austrian rule, and even in the early nineteenth century, Bruges was not as poverty-stricken as the myth insists. But myths are always more powerful than truth, despite the fact that only about half of the ‘old’ town dates from the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and that only two authentic timber houses from the middle Ages still survive. On the other hand, Bruges can be intelligently self-conscious about its own identity. Unlike Stratford, whose commercialized mendacity is really a scandal, those in charge of conservation policy in Bruges are prepared to own up to the dubious recent past. This is shown by two fascinating and beautifully produced books recently published in Bruges which are of a quality and historical sophistication that no English historic town, least of all Chester, has generated.
One, entitled Une Ville Fait Peau Neuve (a town given a new skin), is a survey, principally by members of the Department of Historical Monuments, of 111 years of ‘artistic restorations’ since the first official grants for restoring historic houses were made in 1877. This book accompanied a magnificent exhibition of drawings and photographs mounted last year in the medieval St John’s Hospital, 6 (where the famous works of Memling are on display). The second book, Bruges Revisited, by Herman Stynen and others (published in English as well as Flemish and French), is even more interesting, as it examines how politics and culture helped create and build on the myth of old Bruges. The book is also critical about the way this myth continues to encourage a cosmetic approach to the past and excludes buildings of unfashionable date or style from popular acceptability.

English connection
All this makes the present state of Bruges worthy of study, especially in comparison to our own Chester. But what makes the town particularly interesting to English visitors is the extent to which English, or British, residents were instrumental in reinventing ‘the Liverpool of the Middle Ages’, for the revival of a style Brugeois was intimately connected with the international Gothic Revival. This connection was made long before the likes of Ernest George started sketching crow-stepped gables in Bruges for transplantation to Harrington Gardens, for after the tower of St Salvador’s Cathedral was burned in 1839 (on a day when A.W.N.Pugin, a frequent visitor was staying in the town), the upper part was rebuilt to a design by Robert Dennis Chantrell, the architect of Leeds Parish Church. British architect liked Bruges and often stayed there for long periods. Such men were active and influential, owing to the compelling sophistication of the pioneering Gothic Revival in England. There was the antiquary James Weale and the architect W.C.Brangwyn, the assistant of G.E.Street who worked on the restoration of the Basilica of the Holy Blood. His more famous son, Frank, was born in Bruges in 1867, which explains why the town now boasts a Brangwyn Museum.
The most important member of the English colony was Thomas Harper King, a Catholic convert and a disciple of A.W.N.Pugin, who in 1850 published in Bruges a collection of Purgin’s writings translated into French as Les Vrais Principes de L’Architecture Ogivale, a book that also contained King’s own opinions on modern art and historical restoration in the town. Pugin’s gospel fell on fertile ground in Bruges because of the potent mixture of Flemish nationalism and a Catholic revival. Just as Classicism seemed ‘pagan’ to Pugin, so stuccoed Classical facades were associated with Austrian or Dutch rule or, worse, with the devastating impact of the French Revolutionary armies.
Even after Belgian independence in 1830, such buildings were promoted by the liberal, French-speaking Government in Brussels. Bruges, by contrast, developed as a conservative, Catholic and Flemish center (and a most important source of furnishings and vestments for Roman and Anglo-Catholic churches in Britain).
Naturally, the town wanted an architecture to match, so the authentic and often dilapidated medieval buildings were restored and new Gothic buildings erected. This movement was encouraged by the presence in Bruges of the Baron de Béthune, a devout Catholic and enthusiast for Gothic who built at Loppem, just outside the town, a spiky and richly decorated new Gothic château designed by Pugin’s son, Edward Welby.

At first, however, as long as J.B.Rudd remained town architect, official architecture remained in the Classical tradition. When the west side of the Vlamingstraat north of the Market-Place was re planned as a slum clearance exercise in 1867-69, the resulting new theater and the flanking blocks were designed in a neo-Renaissance manner. But everything changed when Louis Delacenserie, a follower of Viollet-le-Duc, replaced Rudd in 1870 and the triumph of neo-Gothic was assured when, after local elections in 1875, a Catholic administration replaced the liberals. Two years later the first subsidy was made to restore the facade of a private house. In the same year, 1877, the tourist industry was inaugurated by King Leopold II when he stated:“Je voudrais voir restaurer ses anciens et beaux monuments, afin que Bruges devienne une autre Nuremberg. Que la ville toute entière ne soit qu’n vaste et splendide musée et pas un étranger ne visitera la Belgique sans aller le voir’. The King, who was anxious to plan Brussels on the grandest Beaux Arts lines, clearly felt that Bruges, in contrast, ought to be Gothic. A year later an opportunity for pursuing this policy occurred when the neo-Classical Provincial Court on the east side of the market-place was damaged by fire. Owing to public opinion, this side of Bruges’ principal public space was entirely rebuilt in the Gothic style over the next four decades. And so the process of reinventing the medieval past went on.

A taste for tradition
What, from an English perspective, is extraordinary about Bruges is how much of the vieux-neuf architecture is a creation of the twentieth century owing tot the continuing popularity of the Brugeois style. This intense traditionalism in Belgian architecture was, of course, encouraged by the appealing destruction in Flanders caused by the First World War. The Belgians have been remarkably skillful in convincingly recreating destroyed medieval- and early Renaissance-style buildings, and many visitors to picturesque old Flanders towns like Ypres, Diksmuide and Nieuwpoort do not realize that they are actually looking at entirely new brick town centers of the 1920s. Few, however, fully appreciate that Bruges has also undergone a similar process, for both Ypres and Bruges have been rebuilt according to a historic ideal that had no place for liberal stuccoed Classical facades. Although buildings like the Cloth Hall have been faithfully recreated, modern Ypres is not an archaeological reconstruction of the town smashed to pieces by four years of shelling; it is, rather, a realization from a tabula rasa of the Romantic traditionalist ideals of Flemish nationalism, which similarly recast the image of Bruges. And yet Bruges was scarcely damaged in either world war.
The very center of historic, tourist Bruges manifests this tendency. In 1911 the town organized a competition for changing the facades in the Market-Place; this was eventually realized in 1933-34, when most of the plastered Classical range on the north-west side of the square was transformed into gabled brick facades. Bruges has tittle of the fin de siècle Modernisme or Art Nouveau typical of other Belgian cities, and modern architecture, whether of the Modern Movement or of the more traditional variety typical of northern Europe in the 1920s, had hardly any impact. There are really only the Groeningenmuseum – discreetly tucked away near the Church of our lady, and designed in a polite Modern manner in brick by Joseph Vierin (an architect best known as an able traditionalist) – and the new railway station, recited outside the old town walls, and, mercifully, stripped Classical rather than Brugeois in style.
In 1937, when the latter was under construction, a competition was held for redeveloping the land occupied by the old station and its associated lines of tracks within the walls. Typically, the scheme proposed by that notable Bruges-born Modernist, Huib Hoste, in partnership with P.-A. Michel, did not win and, in the event, most of the railway land became a park. (The site of the old station is now a large square, ‘tZand, which, despite recent landscaping by the resourceful local practice group Planning, has failed to compete with the older public spaces and to become really integrated into the life of Bruges.)

The illusion of history
Because of its unappreciated rarity, a modern building – the vaguely Art Deco entrance hall of De Meester’s ‘Gistfabriek’ offices of 1926, – was deliberately chosen as the frontispiece of Une Ville Fait Peau Neuve as a gesture against the dominance of red brick and stepped gables. For nothing has really changed, even today. This can be seen in the town’s second old public space, the Burg, where the fourteenth century town hall stands. Th burg seems authentically historic, with a rich mixture of old buildings in different style,s Gothic and Classical. The reality is somewhat different – and very instructive about how the heart of the ancient town is regarded. Turn-of-the-century photographs show that the west side of this space, between the Basilica and the early Renaissance Provost’s House, was occupied by an elegant neo-Classical stuccoed range. Most of this was replaced by a neo-Gothic facade in red brick following a competition held in 1928.
In 1955 the surviving end of the range (the left end) was given a new facade in a stripped modern-Classical style. This remained unpopular; in 1977 it was demolished after the department store inside closed. The replacement – designed by Luc Vermeersch and completed in 1981 – is, however, no pastiche. It is an essay in Post-Modern vernacular, a gabled building made of second-hand bricks that suggest the traditional Bruges style in a modern idiom with a considerable degree of success. An archaeological restoration of what was originally on the site would have been impossible, as a prison once stood there. Nor, since the establishment of the Department of Historical monuments and Urban Renewal in 1971, is a hypothetical essay in the Bruges style any longer tolerated. A restoration must be pa proper restoration and not a ‘lie’.
This department is instrumental in town planning and is responsible for advising on historical buildings and restorations and maintaining a comprehensive archive on the town’s architectural history. It was set op after a period when the historic architecture of Bruges seemed more under threat than ever before. Town planning control over facades in Bruges can actually be traced back to the thirteenth century, and the listing of Bruges’ monuments by central Government was inaugurated in 1933 following the Act of 1931 on the Protection of Monuments (Bruges, curiously, has comparatively few listed historic buildings – only about a hundred houses in addition to civic and ecclesiastical monuments – and the current recommendation to add another 72 houses to the total is unlikely to be welcomed by central Governments, as listing includes automatic eligibility of grand aid.
However, after the Second World War, the tendencies that led to inner-city decline elsewhere had their effect in Bruges. The suburbs began to prosper at the expense of the old town; many historic buildings began to be neglected and a shocking amount of unnecessary destruction took place. Also, incredibly, a fourteenth century chapel, eighteenth century harbor buildings and many private houses disappeared – a state subsidy for demolition of dilapidated buildings, regardless of their historic interest, encouraged this destruction. To resist this attrition, the Marcus Gerards Foundation was established in 1965, named after the artist who drew the tantalizingly detailed and accurate map of the town in 1562. a change of heart by the municipal authorities was confirmed by the creation of the Stedelijke Dienst voor Monumentenzorg en Stadsvernieuwing in 1971 and the inauguration the following year of a master-plan for the future of Bruges, which was inspired by that prepared for York.

Hotel disaster
However, despite all its good work and impressive expertise, the department has not been able to avert the disaster om the north side of the Burg. Here once stood St Donation’s Cathedral, destroyed in 1799-1802 in the iconoclastic fury that followed the invasion of the French Revolutionaries in 1792. Eventually a new wide avenue, the Burgstraat, was laid out on the site and on its east side stood, until 1987; a group of charming stuccoed facades that curved elegantly round into the Hoogstraat. Once the Hotel St Georges, these buildings were owned by the Ministry of Justice as the eighteenth century Palais de Justice, on the east side of the Burg, stands adjacent.
When a site was found for a new Gerechtsgebouw, the site was sold to a developer for a new hotel. In 1981 the department was asked to survey the buildings and assess their potential. Unfortunately, the department’s advice was not taken and the dilapidated condition of the buildings was used as an excuse to demolish them. Typically, two sixteenth century houses at the back of the site have been retained, but the stuccoed facades, which gave a historically varied and interesting character to the Burg; are to be replaces by the new Burghotel, a feeble essay in modern vernacular by A. Degeyter worthy of, say, a conservation area in Chichester. The only consolation is that the discovery of the foundations of the Roman choir under the houses has now limited the size of the underground car park: one thing Bruges does not need is more cars in tis city center.
If the low esteem in which liberal architecture is still held in Bruges is sad, what is shocking to anyone brought up on the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings is the extent to which archaeological restoration of the sort execrated by William Morris is still practiced. Owners of Empire-style houses fondly believe that underneath the stucco is a brick Gothic facade that the hand of Classical taste covered up in the early nineteenth century. Often this is in fact the case and then, alas, the owner is always anxious to restore the hidden past. An example of this is 13 Wollestraat, opposite the great Gothic market hall. At present, holes have been picked in its handsome Classical facade to expose ancient brickwork. The Commission of Urban Beauty, an important body created in 1904, has given permission for the rest of come off. So highly regarded is this particular building that the town’s grant has exceeded the usual limit of BF 500 000 (about £ 8 000) or a 50 per cent repair grant for unlisted houses (with help from central Government and the province of West Flanders listed buildings, it might be eligible for up to 90 per cent repair grants). Yet this means a handsome and authentic facade will be destroyed, the real cumulative history of Bruges will be falsified and the monotony of the streets of the town,when brick is unrelieved by occasional outbursts of white plaster, increased. Fortunately, this stripping is not always permitted. In the case of 13 Kuipersstraat, the exposed seventeenth century gabled brick facade looks so ragged and messy that the Commission of Urban beauty has recommended replastering.
The town of Bruges itself has been responsible for this kind of restoration, as can be seen in the Hoogstraat. Until 1975, Nos 34-36 were a pair of plain stucco-fronted houses. Today, the right-hand one has been brought back to an eighteenth century design based on old prints, while the left-hand one now has a brick gabled facade. The quality of the restoration and the use of materials are careful and scholarly. No doubt there was evidence for every detail, but there is something lifeless about the result. Brigitte Beernaert of the Department of Historical Monuments and Urban Renewal says that she would not recommend the same course of action today, especially as the latest research suggests that in medieval Bruges, brick and timber houses were brightly painted and not uniform in colour. That the department is now worried about the morality of this sort of restoration is shown by its recent treatment of 2-4 Grauwwerkersstraat. Here, as usual, the unfashionable stucco was stripped off and the new ground floor of blue stone is a recreation of the original Gothic design based on evidence and surviving fragments, but the upper part of the facade does not attempt a conjectural restoration at all.
It is, rather, a simplified gabled design of unrelieved yellow brick with windows made of new materials. The whole facade, indeed, reads as an intelligently sympathetic piece of new architecture in an old street rater tan an exercise in restoration.
As in any historic city with a distinct character, the design of sympathetic and appropriate new buildings presents considerable problems in which the Department of Historical monuments and Urban Renewal is much involved. There are so many conflicting interests in this area that compromising design for a sensitive site is almost inevitable; not only are there the department and the Commission for Urban Beauty advising the Bourgmestre and aldermen, but there are also the relevant departments in provincial and central governments, which can also intervene. And then there is public opinion. Bruges is intensely conservative and parochial, Not only are foreign architect unable to work in Belgium, but also it is felt that only Bruges architects understand Bruges. Nor is Modern architecture popular,as has been made clear by the controversy and protest over two recent houses on the Spiegelrei, designed in an intelligent Post-Modern style by Eugeen Vanassche. Even so, although tasteful, tactful, semi-modern and semi-traditional new building in harmonious materials may be found all over the town, Bruges is not (yet?) disfigured by the mansarded or gabled ‘conservation area style that is wrapped around office blocks, shopping centers and multi-story car parks in places such as York or Chichester.
The first conspicuous and self-consciously Modern building in Bruges was the Young Library in the Spanjaardstraat designed in 1972 by Luc Dugardyn. With its Brutalist arcading, reminiscent of late Le Corbusier (or perhaps Spence), this building made a change from the stripped and characterless gabled facades of thin grey brick that plugged urban gaps in the 1960s. The same architect has recently designed the new City Library which has been squized between Sint-Jakobsstraat and Kuipersstraat. Here Dugardyn, in collaboration with L. Vermeersch, has again been uncompromisingly Modern in style but has created satisfactory street facades by giving his brickwork a strong vertical emphasis with a vaguely castle-like-air. The use of suitable materials has, naturally, been the obvious answer to the problem of infilling, and on the fringes of the medieval city there are several intimate housing developments characterized by pinky-red bricks walls, occasional projecting bays and traditional pantiled roofs.
More interesting are the more urban solution,s such as the controversial houses at 8-10 Spiegelrei. Originally Vanassche prepared one unified design for the site but the Committee of Urban Beauty insisted that the original domestic scale should be preserved so that the left-hand house is now faced in white plaster, while the wider house on the right is of brick. This, with its square windows, and projecting central glass bay rising to a token gable, might be described as being in the International Post-Modern style, But this is a style that, with its whimsical references to tradition and its delight in using different materials and colors, actually suits Bruges very well, as what really matters is the facade. Provided building lines are followed and the scale is right. Post-Modernism fits well into streets that are already made interesting by the mixture of white Classical facades with red brick gabled ones. Sint Annarei, another example of office given interest by overlapping planes of simple arcaded brick. A similar solution, which relies on the