The sub-urban heritage of mass housing in Belgium


– Michiel Dehaene & Tom Broes –

In the Belgian context, the production of public mass housing remained limited in scope. Apart from a few well published examples Cité Moderne (Braem), Kiel (Braem), Luchtbal (Van Kuyck), Cité de Droixhe (Groupe EGAU), Belgian housing policies focused on the promotion and construction of private homeownership. Mass housing in Belgium took the form of the massive production of private houses, constituting a sprawled urban landscape that has been described as the ‘banlieue radieuse’. Less studied is the short lived but quantitatively significant private production of large scale high-rise apartments and estates for a rising middle class.

Our research studies the close relationship between the production of these very different forms of ‘mass housing’: low- and high-rise, inner-city and sub-urban. While the public policy context is rather well known, the private developers that co-produced the Belgian urban landscape have hardly been studied. Our research focusses on major players such as Amelinckx n.v., Etrimo n.v. and the architectural and development models through which they managed to create and capture a vast market of commodified housing. While their activities are mostly remembered for the trauma of their bankruptcy affecting many small contractors and private investors, we aim to highlight the collective failure to embed these large scale endeavors within enduring and intelligent (public) urban development strategies.

Today, the legacy of this collective failure is becoming ever more clear. The thin and instantaneous optimism with which different forms of mass housing were developed in Belgium, has produced parasitic sub-urban landscapes that encounter major difficulties to mature and become self-reliant. As the imaginaries of these sub-urban housing ideals (together with the historical expression thereof) are quickly aging, our research equally focusses on a growing series of retrofitting efforts that are trying to equip well-located fractions of suburbia for a more sustainable post-suburban future. This interest is present in our contribution to the “Housing Pilot Projects” and “Labo XX” initiatives that were launched respectively by the Flemish Government Architect and the Antwerp City Architect. Looking for new urban relations: retrofitting the Amelinckx-slabs within a post-sub-urban fabric.