UK practices could lose out as federal government seeks to ditch state architect, writes Ellis Woodman
Since winning federal autonomy from Belgium in the early 1990s, Flanders has developed one of the most progressive architectural cultures operating anywhere in the world today. The competition system by which the designs of most Flemish public buildings are secured is known as the Open Call and is managed by the state architect, the ‘Vlaams Bouwmeester’. The Open Call has delivered more than 200 projects of a remarkable standard.
And it is not just local practices that have benefited: Maccreanor Lavington, Sergison Bates, Tony Fretton, Stephen Taylor, Ian Simpson, Witherford Watson Mann and DRDH have all secured substantial commissions through a procurement system that is notably less risk-averse than our own.
‘We get the chance to compete for work whose scale is well within our capability, but in sectors we haven’t got much track record in,’ says Witherford Watson Mann’s William Mann. ‘We won an urban housing project through the Bouwmeester back in 2003. It’s taken 12 years to deliver, but we’re grateful for the opportunity, and they’ve got good work out of us.’
The Bouwmeester is a position awarded on a five-year basis and currently held by Peter Swinnen, founder of the celebrated Brussels-based practice 51n4e. However, to widespread outrage from architects, politicians and local authorities, Flanders’ newly elected coalition government recently announced its intention to terminate the Bouwmeester’s post while stripping his office of its current political autonomy.
The coalition is dominated by the New Flemish Alliance, a party committed to the cause of full Flemish independence and the reduction of state infrastructure. Its current proposal is that the Bouwmeester’s department will be subsumed within the Ministry of Spatial Planning while the functions of the post itself will be divided between a committee of five part-time appointments. The government has yet to make a statement outlining its reasons for the change, and declined to comment for the purposes of this article.
However, it has claimed that the new committee - which will be assembled from representatives of a range of industry bodies - will continue to fulfil the Bouwmeester’s brief.
The Flemish architecture community has a very different view, seeing the move as a retrograde step motivated by a desire to reduce expenditure and relieve local authorities of centralised interference - a scenario echoing the downgrading of CABE’s powers in the UK. The proposal has been the subject of almost daily coverage in national newspapers over the past month and has given rise to a petition of protest, which has drawn more than 5,000 signatures.
It is true that Peter Swinnen’s tenure has not passed without controversy. A number of Belgium’s more commercially-oriented practices have accused him of favouritism towards smaller local and foreign firms - an argument that would doubtless find a sympathetic audience from the free-market New Flemish Alliance. Yet public institutions are not required to employ the services of the Bouwmeester’s department and he has no power to impose his choice of architect on them. At the very least, the system is more transparent than the procurement culture that held sway prior to the establishment of the Bouwmeester’s role - when local politicians simply doled out work to whichever local firm they happened to know.
Accusations that the system represents an unwarranted layer of bureaucracy are also hard to make stick. One reason why it has proved attractive to British architects is that it demands considerably less time and money than competitive procedures in the UK. Every six months, the Bouwmeester issues notice of forthcoming competitions and invites architects to identify those for which they would like to be considered. However many competitions they choose to apply for, they are only required to submit one portfolio. The Bouwmeester and the client then typically agree a shortlist of five firms - often two local practices with experience of the relevant sector, two younger local firms and a foreign one.
‘Once you’re shortlisted you get a sensible time and a respectable fee to do your proposal,’ explains William Mann. ‘It’s respectful of the architects’ time - and from what I’ve seen that also serves the client very well.’
The procurement culture that the Bouwmeester has overseen over the past 15 years has seen Flanders gain a worldwide reputation for the quality of its architecture, and has also played a vital role in enabling the development of a generation of British architects. All of this now seems to be at stake because of the latest government proposals.
The petition arguing for the protection of the Vlaams Bouwmeester’s position can be signed here.
Stephen Bates, senior partner, Sergison Bates
‘The Bouwmeester has been so important in raising the quality of architecture in Belgium and given opportunities for young architects to build public work. Many of the architects from Belgium [which have made the UK press] have all earned their reputation on these projects. It is an exemplar for procuring architecture and exposing public clients to the great benefits of commissioning good architects.
We’ve been very lucky in winning significant commissions [in Flanders] and currently have three live projects running - all of which were won through the Open Call. The Blankenberge City Library and the old people’s home in Huise were won and realised through the process during the period of [previous Bouwmeester] Bob Van Reeth.’
Daniel Rosbottom, co-director, DRDH Architects
‘The power of the Open Call process is that it invites aspiration and qualitative judgements when applying for projects. It is weighted to produce shortlists that include both young and international architects as well as collaborations, alongside more established Belgian practices.
‘The office of the Bouwmeester establishes quality thresholds not only in the design of buildings but also their procurement process, fostering the relationship between architect and client.
‘The result is a system that has significantly contributed to what is arguably the most interesting building culture in Europe.
‘The system has allowed us to work at scales and on social and civic programmes that would have been inaccessible to us in the UK.’
Tony Fretton of Tony Fretton Architects
‘The Flemish Open Call was a model of how to build a relationship between Clients and Architects, how to plan development lucidly and how to make good architecture the norm. Its reduction is a very retrograde step.
‘Governments need to learn that consistent long term, rule based planning produces better results than unguided market forces.’
Ian Simpson of Ian Simpson Architects
‘The Open Call process has been a very successful way of seeking architects and their design teams to produce high quality design solutions for publicly funded projects. From an architectural perspective, it’s more successful than the traditional PQQ process which involves a lot of box ticking.
We had no experience of designing a large concert hall
‘We were able to win the competition against a very strong list of architects, who were all selected on the basis of their design concepts and strength of team. This then went through to a second stage; a design competition, for which all six parties were paid to compete. We were able to win this despite having had virtually no experience of designing a large-scale concert hall. We worked closely with the Antwerp City Architect – Kristiaan Borret who, following the change in political governance in Antwerp, was removed from his post and is yet to be replaced.
‘Strong architectural leadership at a political level has been fundamental to Antwerp becoming a centre for good quality design and engaging the input of leading international architects. This has offered us a new benchmark in how we should procure publicly funded buildings.’