Rebuilding the European Quarter Grand New Designs for Brussels

The European Union is planning a major makeover of its headquarters in Brussels. The ambitious design by French architect Christian de Portzamparc aims to transform the European Quarter from a concrete administrative ghetto into a glimmering "open city to the sky."

By in Brussels


The doors open and employees pour out of the massive, angular Justus Lipsius Building, where the Council of the European Union meets. All are dressed in suits, with the men wearing ties and camel hair coats while the women are in high heels -- it's the end of the working day in Brussels' European Quarter.

Across the street, the mammoth 13-story building that houses the EU Commission is also letting out for the day and people hurry to the bus stops or disappear into the metro station. The sidewalks are muddy thanks to the perpetual construction work. The Robert Schuman roundabout in front of the building is congested with traffic and exasperated drivers honk their horns. Mud and noise -- that's what defines the very heart of Europe these days.

The four-lane Rue de la Loi stretches out straight toward Brussels' downtown, the street bathed in red from the brake lights of the countless cars that are backed up between the gray office buildings that stretch as far as the eye can see. On both sides of the Rue de la Loi as well as in the adjacent streets, around 30,000 EU employees occupy almost two million square meters (22 million square feet) of office and conference space. Whatever is left over is used by diplomats, journalists and lobbyists from all over the world. The European Quarter is functional at best, but by no means beautiful.

And every year, the quarter is eating its way further into old Brussels. Street by street, pretty little residential houses are being torn down and replaced by massive blocks of concrete, steel and glass. Inside, more and more carpeted office spaces fill up with desks, computers and the corresponding international staff. The most common complaint Siim Kallas hears is that the EU center is a terrible administrative ghetto. But the Estonian politician, who is the EU Commission's vice president for administrative affairs and also oversees building projects, can now breathe a sigh of relief -- the entire quarter is slated for a makeover, and a massive one at that. Kallas' talk is of "big ambitions for Europe's capital."

World-famous French architect Christian de Portzamparc is the man in charge of turning these ambitions into reality. He designed the Cité de la Musique in Paris and luxury product conglomerate Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton's elegant, eccentric glass tower in New York. Now, having won the European Quarter's urban development competition, he wants to "open" the Rue de la Loi's "sad, long corridor."

Portzamparc is convinced that architecture can "change the world for the better" and he wants to help people feel more comfortable in their environment. Portzamparc was born in Casablanca, while his wife, who designs furniture, is originally from Brazil.

The architect, whose nonchalant and unguarded style makes him look considerably younger than his 64 years, doesn't just build buildings. He develops "concepts of space, form and the void in between" -- which can be seen in his plans for the European Quarter. He wants to make everything more beautiful, higher and lighter. There are plans for an "eco-district" with a "variety of residential buildings and cultural spaces, as well as leisure and recreation areas," gush the municipal, private and European developers who will take part in realizing the project.

EU Commission's Fairy Tale World

Portzamparc's future Rue de la Loi is a brave new world, with bicycles lanes and measures for reducing traffic. White trams glide along a strip of velvety green in the middle of the street. Small, attractive trees cast shadows across wide sidewalks with green plants and happily strolling people. The buildings are tall with attractive facades. They "open the city to the sky," Portzamparc says. And the immense new building he wants to place into this EU Commission fairy tale world will have such radiance that it will be able to "speak to Europe and to the world," the architect says.

What's mentioned less often is the fact that the project is also meant to create more storage space for the EU's bureaucracy. A bureaucracy that is daily carving out new tasks for itself and that of course needs more offices, conference halls, facilities, cafeterias and preschools to carry them out.

Portzamparc's revamping of the Rue de la Loi will create an additional 240,000 square meters (2,600,000 square feet) of space for Commission bureaucrats. That equals 10,000 offices, each just under five by five meters (16 by 16 feet). In addition, the plans call for 40,000 square meters of commercial space and 110,000 square meters of apartments. The idea is that EU administrators can stay in their idyll even after the workday ends. They can shop, go for a beer and even go home to bed all within the European Quarter.

In addition, the EU Commission has another large-scale construction project in its sights. This one is to be erected four kilometers away, behind the outline of the Atomium, Brussels' symbol from the 1958 World's Fair. There are plans to build a conference center here with capacity for 3,500 visitors, as well as a gigantic shopping mall and Belgium's largest parking lot. The new location would also place a further 300,000 square meters of office space -- an area the size of 40 soccer fields -- at the EU Commission's disposal.

All of this construction will cost hundreds of millions of euros, possibly even billions. There are no exact numbers for the project at this early planning stage, not even estimates. The necessary funds will be added into the budget later, little by little and in manageable amounts. By then, presumably, today's building dreams will long since be yesterday's decisions and by their own intrinsic momentum they will prevail against any critics and skeptics. So far, at any rate, only a few Members of the European Parliament have even raised an objection to the delusions of grandeur in Brussels.

That is hardly surprising. After all the planners and developers in the Commission, Council and Parliament like to abide by a tried and tested principle: More offices mean more EU.

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