We paid a visit to the most controversial project of Belgium’s leading post-war architect.
It’s hard to find a city in Flanders, where architect Renaat Braem (Antwerp, 1910-2001) didn’t leave his mark. He was one of Belgium's most prominent architects in the early 1950s and designed or co-designed more than 50 houses and buildings. He was the only Belgian ever to work as an assistant to the great Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who had a big influence on his work. Braems first architectural realizations were rooted firmly in the new ‘modern’ style.
We went to the South of Antwerp to visit his most controversial building, a gigantic social housing project in the Kiel district. The project (1950-1957) became a landmark in the history of social housing in Belgium and one of the most important architectural realizations of the 1950s.
After the Second World War there was a housing shortage in the city centre, so the city department started looking for for solutions in the suburbs. In 1949 Braem received the assignment to build a neighborhood unit together with Viktor Maeremans and Hendrik Maes. Braem took this opportunity to realise his ideas about a collective living as a total architecture. Braem experimented with the implant of the buildings, with a maximum of sunlight, space, air and communal outdoor area in mind. These elements also had an important social meaning to him: the communal ground symbolizes the collective dimension of a liberated way of living and just like Le Corbusier he chose to build on ‘pilotis’ to create more freedom to move around and to create a nice view on nature.
The social housing project in the Kiel district houses 800 families, it contains 3 high-rise blocks holding 12 floors, 6 lower blocks holding 8 floors and some low-rise buildings in the centre. Braems social way of living was stimulated by the presence of an old people’s home, shops and green zones. To bring this idea to life, he chose an expressive style.
We love the dynamic color compositions and open galleries as a meeting space. But most striking is his eye to detail. The doorbells, intercoms and letterboxes are executed in solid teak wood and the staircases contain double stairs for easy circulation (something he had seen at Le Corbusier). Quite inventive are the utilities which he left visible in glass tubes running all over the ground floor. It was an ode to the modern techniques of the fifties.
Another novelty in that time was the use of duplexes; this way people had the impression to live in a house. Some prefer to call it lofts. During our visits we came across a friendly man walking out his dog. “I’ve been living here for 5 years. I love my loft. Let me take you to the 6th floor for a wonderful panoramic view.” Stunning view indeed. After 5 minutes another older man joins us. “I’ve been living here since ’53. Back in the days it looked so pretty, but it has lost a lot of its glory. Walk with me and have a look at the colorful ceiling in the hallway.” True beauty it is.
The housing project in the Kiel district is a monument and it’s definitely worth a visit. When people come up to you for a chat, make sure to listen. Some people have been living there for decades and their stories surely add an extra layer to your architectural experience.
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