Office and Culture
The “Quartier Nord” has been, for nearly a century now, an urban island. It was first isolated from Brussels’s city center by infrastructure—the Bruxelles-Charleroi Canal, the North-Midi train junction and Boulevard Leopold. Simultaneously, a “politique du pourrissement” was applied with the specific aim of destroying the neighborhoods, households and livelihoods in order to free the terrain for a massive investment and speculation. “Quartier Manhattan”, as it was named, was to become a new urban, economic, financial and political hub, with 54 state-of-the art skyscrapers and a new urban planning policy true to modernist ideals. However, due to the oil crisis, many investors backed out. The State had to kick in and thus became the owner of vast office spaces. 50 years later, Quartier Nord is mostly underpopulated, underused and notoriously boring, cold and dangerous. The State has allocated many of its offices to public institutions, including the Foreigner’s Office, which is the sole occupant of the tower originally named World Trade Center I. The neighborhood is therefore occupied by white-collar workers, on their way to-and from work and Gare du Nord, as well as migrants who are striving to regularize their situation and have only this institution to turn to. This piece of work addresses several major issues relative to the Quartier Nord, but which are also transversal to many European cities and neighborhoods. Namely, how can a derelict neighborhood be revitalized thanks to public and cultural institutions? How can abandoned office buildings, one of Brussels’ most recurring typologies, be meaningfully reallocated? Can these spaces be re-affected to handle the migrant crisis, how? Should public spaces alone absorb the need, or can private spaces be requisitioned? How should we welcome these newly arrived potential future European citizens? How do the spaces dedicated to welcoming migrants reflect harsh, exclusive and often inhumane policies? Moreover, this piece of work also aims at questioning whether modernist and functionalist architecture can be considered as part of the European cultural and architectural heritage, and if so, how it can be reallocated, handled, renovated, and valued
“Sometimes he found it difficult not to believe they were living in a
future that had already taken place.”
J.G. Ballard, High Rise, 1975
He shuffled along a few steps, then put down his heavy canvas bag. Eager yet anxious, he observed his surroundings. Double high-rise towers on each corner of the intersection, and more towers as far as the eye could see down the busy boulevard. Mostly glass and shiny metal claddings, but also the occasional concrete apartment building with tired orange sunshades. Commuters hurrying, buses coming and going. The massive concrete and glass train station which he had exited, over a year ago, as anxious and eager as today. He had been living in this neighborhood ever since, but today, things were changing. As the queue moved ever so slightly, he shuffled forward a few steps more.
Looking up, the low, grey sky. The two golden facades of WTC I and II towering above his head. WTC I he had called home until the construction works had begun. He had then had to return to camping in the nearby park, just like the first few months. It had been late spring when he had arrived, but when the winter began, most of the camp had relocated into unoccupied WTC I. It had been a time of energy and hope; the community had organised itself over several floors. There had been places for sleeping out of the wind, places to eat out of the rain, goods were safely stored. Some families had even walled homes on the empty slabs, and some had found work on the black markets. Menial jobs, of course, hard and badly paid, but they were a first step.
The queue turned the corner of the tower, onto the boulevard. He became exposed to the icy winds, propelled from the tops of the towers, confused and angered by their smooth surfaces, harsh angles and narrow interstices. The construction works were finished now and the museum had opened the previous month. Not much seemed to have changed from the outside except the entrance hall. Dusty and walled-up when he lived there, it was now clean, well-lit and magnificent. Construction works on WTC II had begun at the same time, yet they were not quite over. WTC II was where the camp was being relocated to. Before winter began, they had promised. There would be real beds, in private rooms. Private showers and facilities. The Foreigner’s Office would be a few floors below, there would be people to help—with paperwork, medical assistance, learning the language, perhaps sending the children to school. In time, maybe, finding a place to live of his own, a secure job and being rejoined with his family. And today was the day! As soon as they had heard, they had come to the door of the Foreigner’s Office, on the lower floors of WTC II. They had formed a queue. Families with children had grudgingly been granted priority, then the others by order of arrival. There had been anger, dismay, but all had agreed. And now they waited.
He had noticed a certain change of atmosphere in the neighborhood recently. It was still not a fancy neighborhood, and he felt there as comfortable as could be given his current situation. It was mostly empty outside of rush hour, white-collar workers hidden away behind the layers of glass and steel. This emptiness was reassuring to him, when he walked the desolate streets, he felt like a shadow in the darkness, enveloped in it, hidden, secure. However, recently, there had been more passers-by during the day, more colorfully dressed. Groups of laughing youth, mothers with children, strolling couples, tourists even. A few new venues had opened and the seats of the old ones were occupied by a new clientele. Although the weather was getting dreary, the neighborhood seemed somehow more alive. And he, somehow, would have felt conspicuous and ill-at-ease if it hadn’t been for the prospect that he would soon be a fully-recognised, legal, political refugee.
The cold wind was taking its toll on his energy, yet he held on tightly to his belongings, and stood straight. He picked up a magazine which was flapping in the wind and flipped through it. He could decipher a few words of the foreign alphabet, and could make a little sense of them, but he preferred to plunge into the awe-inspiring images. He could not tell whether they were real photographs or computer-rendered images, but he was enthralled by the vast, clean interiors with sleek furniture, the luxurious amenities, shiny kitchens and plunging canal views which he knew
to belong to the top-most floors of the tallest towers. Although they were not to his taste, he identified them as desirable to his new life, his future lifestyle.
At last—at last! He passed the threshold, watched closely by the vigils at the door. He was scanned and searched for weapons or drugs and was then ushered to a waiting area and given a ticket with a number. He was able to sit while he waited, but he felt restless. His number was called, his identification was scrutinized, photocopied and archived. The clerk indicated where to queue and he was photographed. His belongings were stored and he was given a ticket to retrieve them later. He found his way to another waiting area, further inside the building, where a sign in his language pointed him to three ticket-machines. Multicolored LED digits and letters scrolled endlessly across an enormous black wall-panel. Every now and again, the numbers changed and an unintelligible voice in a microphone seemed to indicate directions. A woman he remembered from the beginning of the queue told him—the blue ticket will be called up first. You can shower and they give you a towel and soap and some clean clothing if needed. The yellow ticket is for a full medical check-up. He would have to undress, be examined, give blood and urine samples. The blue ticket is for an interview with an office clerk. They will ask where you are from, when you arrived, whether you have family, what you have done in the meantime, what are your skills, whether you have a criminal record. “Don’t lie, she advised, they already know.”
At first, he sat and watched the procession of weary migrants such as he. For long intervals, nothing moved, but every eye was riveted to the unmoving figures on the wall-panel. Only the children’s quiet games and occasional tears enlivened the joyless waiting room, with its new metal seats, fluorescent lamps and cold white walls. Sporadically, a loud shrill tone called forth a number and one flustered individual would scurry to the escalator, which then boreits lone passenger to the facilities above. After a while though, he could take no more of nerve-racking wait and set off in search of restrooms to pass the time. As he wandered, always with an eye on the bright numerals on the wall, he was drawn to a floor-to-ceiling window which provided the only natural light. The window overlooked a small unalluring garden of recently planted shrubs. Beyond the garden was another such window, at the foot of WTC I.
He could see all the way into the museum. He could see elegantly dressed people, sipping from tall glasses. They clustered and talked animatedly, laughed or listened meditatively. They seemed so insouciant, yet so serious, he thought. Soon, he too would be freed from his oppressive position and he would laugh and speak just like these people, with these people! At times, some of them broke from the groups and strolled from one image to the next. He turned his attention to the framed images and felt his body turn
cold. Striking photographs of ruins, of debris, wreckage and destruction; ashen-faced children, tears and blood, looks of terror, shock and pain. Places, and people he thought he recognised from a time and place he longed to remember and to forget. He could hear the sounds of the violence, smell the fear and death among the dust of blasted concrete. Shaken, he turned from the flawless crowd to the comfort of his own, in whose eyes he needn’t even look to know he’d find his own suffering, his own longing and hope.
WTC CULTURE PALACE