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Archis 2001 #4

The teaching of architecture in Flanders

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By the mid-18th century medieval guilds like St Luke’s guild for architects had lost their power. The vacuum left behind was filled up in 1751 with the establishment of the first ‘academy of architecture’ in the Austrian Netherlands, in Ghent. Like all the academies in Belgium, it was to become a protagonist of classicism. At the end of the nineteenth century the classicizing academies became involved in a fierce duel with the new St Luke’s Schools, named after the old St Luke’s guild. These schools, a by-product of the Catholic moral revival and of the Arts and Crafts movement, were the crusaders of Neo-Gothicism. This was also the moment when the engineers demanded recognition and produced their ‘free thinking in iron’.1

Last year the Ghent academy celebrated its 250th anniversary. It was a curious event, because the architectural department no longer exists; only the art department of this academy is still going. The oldest school of architecture in Belgium was closed down in 1986 under the pretext of cost-cutting. In retrospect it transpired that this academy, or ‘polytechnic’, as the academies have come to be called, had been closed to make way for the establishment of a university course in architecture. It was not that Ghent University did not train architects. After all, there was already a department for ‘engineer architects’ within the department of applied sciences, where civil engineers received their training. But inspired by examples from other parts of Europe, the university had developed a new, five-year course, the degree in architecture, which would immediately give access to postgraduate and PhD studies. The number of doctoral students at Ghent University today, around a decade later, shows that it works convincingly.

As a student representative of the Municipal Institute of Architecture of Ghent in those days, I followed the fruitless discussions in the General Council and saw how easily a centuries-old – admittedly small – institute, could be dispatched to the Elysian Fields. One aspect in particular was shocking. In the discussions with the government and the teaching staff about the possibility of saving this architecture institute, the question of the need for reorientation and deepening of the content of the architectural course was constantly avoided. From the undertaker’s point of view it made no sense to develop a vision of the teaching of architecture, especially since a new educational model was emerging in the comfortable lap of the university in which fundamental and interdisciplinary research would form the basis of architectural education.

Is the university course at Ghent University growing like a rose on the corpse of the polytechnic? Yes and no. It flourishes because it can draw on the rich intellectual and academic field that a university offers. It flourishes at a reflective level, as can be seen from the many postgraduates and the setting up of new research groups like the GUST (Ghent Urban Studies Team), in which interdisciplinary research is carried out by members of the departments of Humanities and Architecture and Spatial Planning. Another sign is the recently formed ASK (the Flemish acronym for Architecture, City, Art), which launched a project with a number of teaching modules within the department of Architecture and Urban Planning that offers a platform for graduates from art academies, polytechnics and universities to renew and broaden the content and method of art education. The success of the architectural course at Ghent University is also evident by now in the generation of young architects who have graduated from it and can effortlessly anchor the design in a discourse on art, history and building technique.

Without counting numbers of graduate architects, the architectural courses at the universities of Ghent and Louvain seem to be well matched. Louvain adheres to the specific course for civil engineers and architects but, as in Ghent, the interdisciplinarity that is characteristic of an architectural course is structurally backed up by research groups, postgraduate courses, and so on. Louvain also has architectural science within the framework of the GAS (Diploma in Supplementary Studies), and masters courses in Human Settlements, Conservation of Historic Towns and Buildings, and Urban Development and Spatial Planning, as well as the OSA group which conducts research on the city and architecture. There are also forms of cooperation being launched by academic staff from the universities in Louvain and Ghent like the Network for Theory and History of Contemporary Architecture and Open City Studio – two initiatives aimed at creating a contact platform between students and researchers from the various Belgian – that is both Flemish and French-speaking – schools of architecture.

Should this be taken as a eulogy for the university model? Yes and no. Yes, because the integration of research and training is the only basis for a fundamental, analytical insight into architecture and thus for the development and progress of the discipline. No, because the complex character of architecture also admits of the artistic synthesization of impulses and information to create an authentic building.

Another reason for not trusting blindly in the university model is the fact that the universities of Louvain and Ghent, and to a lesser extent the Free University Brussels, have moved the emphasis in their current architecture courses from engineering to architecture and in doing so, unlike for example the Swiss courses for engineers and architects, they have neglected the engineering side of architecture. Architects who have graduated from university fail to make their mark with an architecture that is found wanting in terms of construction, economics or ecology.

Revamp

The interdisciplinary immersion that the universities offer their students today may be fantastically underpinned with knowledge from various faculties and departments, but essentially their programme is a revamp of what the original polytechnics had to offer.

The Achilles’ heel of the architectural polytechnics is that in the course of time they became detached from their original roots. While they used to be embedded in broad arts courses, nowadays they are on their own. The recent reforms and mergers have not done much to change that. The mergers may have led to an administrative increase of profitability (though this is a debatable point), but there has been no innovation in the content of the teaching that they offer. Nevertheless, there is promise of improvement in Antwerp. Under the aegis of the Antwerp Polytechnic, a Department of Design Sciences has been set up based on the architecture course at the Henry van de Velde Institute and the course in Product Development. If the interaction between the design method of an architect and that of a product developer is led through the right channels, this could lead to surprising results. Incidentally, Antwerp did not wait for the European decision on the reform of architectural education to be taken in Bologna,2 but started to cooperate with Delft Technical University at an early stage.

The path chosen by Antwerp Polytechnic, and in particular the Department of Design Sciences, indicates that the protagonists of architectural teaching in Flanders view one another with a measure of suspicion. The polytechnics prefer to look for support abroad rather than uniting to tackle the position, role and future of the teaching of architecture in Flanders together. This is true of Antwerp, but it is just as true of the Department of Architecture of the Provincial Limburg Polytechnic in Diepenbeek, which forms a part of the Dutch–Belgian University of Limburg. Within the framework of the EU region that extends into the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, it has for years maintained contact with polytechnics and universities in Liège, Aachen and Maastricht without distinction. And via the Erasmus projects the St Luke’s Schools, which fall under the Department of Architecture of the Polytechnic for Science and Art, maintain contacts with various educational institutions in Europe.

This international networking could be viewed in a dim light as a modern strategy to deploy foreign mercenary armies to get the better of domestic rivals. The fact is that this centrifugal tendency opens up a series of potential European networks within which students can trace their own personal curricula – which corresponds exactly to the fulfilment of the Bologna agreements. And fortunately this outward movement is not an obstacle to cooperation and exchange at home. The course in urban development comprising the GAS (Diploma in Supplementary Studies) and the GGS (Diploma in Specialised Studies) is given jointly by the universities of Ghent and Louvain. Another remarkable initiative is the Maerlant Centre, that was set up by the Department of Architecture of the St Luke’s Polytechnic for Science and Art and the Catholic University Louvain. The Maerlant Centre targets information technology and history in education and society, and develops new techniques of knowledge acquisition to that end. Specifically this means creating electronic products that sharpen perceptive skills and historico-critical awareness. The interesting feature of this centre is the fact that architects develop the multimedia translation (read, the digital spatial models of historic buildings like the Cathedral of St. Bavon in Ghent) of academic, historical knowledge (read, building history).

In spite of all the good intentions, architectural education in Flanders is still the victim of an outdated, ideological clash between schools. While the Bologna agreements and the mergers of polytechnics have created an unprecedented dynamism, the fundamental debate about the teaching of architecture in Flanders within the future of a united Europe has failed to materialize. Polytechnics with an architectural course may soon become universities, but the question is whether there is a guarantee that the content of the curriculum will be embedded in structural research. Too much energy is still lost in consolidating power within the inflexible contours of the existing courses. The fundamental renewal of the teaching of architecture, as a reflection of growing social complexity, is taking root here and there, but there is no plan or vision of the way forward. For the time being there is a wealth of options, but upon closer inspection the various courses turn out to be interchangeable and the best designers have to go abroad to complete their studies at the AA or the Berlage Institute.

1. Johan Baele, René De Herdt, Vrij gedacht in Ijzer, een essay over de arhitectuur in het industriële tijdperk 1779-1913, Stad Gent, Dienst Culturele Zaken, 1983.

2. On 19 June, 29 European ministers signed the Bologna Declaration, a package of reforms designed to harmonize higher education within Europe and make it more competitive. A few of the basic principles of the accord are: the introduction of a two-part system based on undergraduate and postgraduate courses, a uniform quality control system and the introduction of a Europe-wide credit system aimed at encouraging student mobility.