Saturday, April 21, 2012

Leuven and Brussels

Leuven Library
City Centre
Oudt MarktLouven Day 1 April 2012
Here to give a lecture in the ancient University of Leuven, on the future of the ‘University’. The lecturer before me gave a rousing, one-sided history of the University but as usual missed out the religious restrictions and the fact that Leuven didn’t admit women until 1920. Universities have their upside but the hagiography can be annoying.
Leuven is not so much a town with a University, as a University with a town. It is rammed with students, most of them on bicycles. With a population of 90,000. 50,000 are temporary students. My host told me that it’s an absolute ghost town in the Summer. Is this a healthy mix, where a University keeps students in a sort of geographic bubble, where the whole town is the campus? It also boasts, according to my Hotel receptionist, the ‘Biggest bar in the world’. Actually it’s a huge square with bars, the Ood Markt, but let’s not quibble. What struck me was how conservatively dressed they all were, not that dress alone is a sign of conformity but you’d expect at least the arts students to bring a little colour and experimentation. Is University becoming a rather boring rite of passage, as Illich claimed is University just a new religion where the preachers have been replaced by lecturers? Rather oddly, it has deliberately created a town that looks like a 15th century University but as the town was razed by the Germans, not once but twice, in 1914 and 1940, it’s almost all been rebuilt in Medieval style. The library looks like a Medieval building but it was built this century.
Brussels Day 2
Magritte Museum
TinTin’s too twee for my taste, so we opted for the Magritte Museum. It was odd to see these often humourous paintings and photographs treated with such seriousness. Groups of bored teenagers were being turned off art forever, by earnest interpreters, anatomically dissecting what are in the end pretty second arte paintings. There was none of the radical excitement that the movement wanted to provoke. I was told off for touching a wall! Then again many of the photographs are just him, his wife and his mates larking about.
Too much of Magritte is simple juxtaposition but what’s in a juxtaposition? 2+ 2=5? In most cases no, as the mind just stops with the judder of the comparison. 2+ 2=4? At best we have the shock of the juxtaposition but the meanings are often trite, like his ear with a bell or ‘this is not a pipe’ (if it’s not a pipe what is it?). 2+ 2=0? In most cases yes,  as they mostly leave the spectator  just empty.
Belgium is a small country that is in itself a juxtaposition between Dutch speaking Flanders (the Flemish) and French speaking Wallonia (the Walloons). It is a split, bilingual state that’s struggled to synthesise these polarities. Maybe Magritte is not a surrealist at all but stuck in his cultural stock.
European Parliament
Belgium is like Europe in miniature, a hot northern Flemish economy and a cold, stagnant Wallonian economy. You know you’re getting near the European Parliament when you see a lot of dully dressed people rushing around with briefcases and cases on wheels. There were lots of administrative types out for a quick lunch. Remember; this is a place where there definitely is such a thing as a free lunch. We had an induction through the ‘Parliamentarium’. The seven syllable word says it all, a bit too big, artificial and clumsy. The story’s told in chronological order, with the Brits often putting up stiff resistance. But here we are, in 2012, with 27 states, 500 million people and a spending spree that’s led to virtual bankruptcy. The idea was sound, a large free market and cultural exchange, but it’s turned into a monster pumping out legislation, and fuzzy goals like European citizenship, without really attending to the problems of the age. The topic of the debate this week in the Parliament? The problem of youth unemployment. But there is no easy solution. The money’s all gone.
I have gone from a keen European supporter to a sceptic. Institutions have a habit of turning away from real goals towards serving themselves and I’ve personally witnessed the disastrous effect of centralised control and wasteful spending in infrastructure in Andalucía (where I went on an EU observer mission) to the endless waste in European research in education. I know of an educational project in Greece, where the grant went towards the academic’s boat! I also know of deals being discussed in lap-dancing clubs (really). I’m also not so sure that shunting the parliament from one place to another is sensible, given that each shift costs an astonishing 15 million euros. No mention of the backlog of 150,000 cases in the European Courts caused by too much legislation. It’s all got a little bit topsy, a bit out of control. Yet no matter how many of its citizens say NO, the institution says YES.
Art Nouveau 1 and film set
Way out from the ugly buildings of the EU is Brussels south-west, Art Nouveau district, where we visited the Horta House then went on a long walk Art Nouveau house spotting. These (last) turn of the century houses are mostly tall, narrow rectangles set with fantastically curved designs that whip across space, in metal wood, concrete and stone. What you see is straight from the pen, not the drawing board and it’s not just decorative, it’s an entire aesthetic. These people were not just painters but artists who wanted to infuse everything with beauty. Art was to be lived and lived in. The3 scope of the movement is astounding in typography, posters, graphic art, Paris metro signs, furniture, painting, sculpture, ceramics, jewellery, clothes, architecture, even fixture and fittings. The Horta House is therefore the perfect showcase, an orginal Art Nouveau house designed and lived in by perhaps the premier Art Nouveau architect. This is a far cry from the Glasgow Mackintosh style, as there’s less symmetry and no rectangles and squares. It’s full of light and the steel structure gave him a chance to be more open plan. The Hotel Tassel, often seen as the first truly Art Nouveau building is just round the corner and is as shocking now as it was then. It’s all Bruxelles Art Nouveau, free-flowing organic forms. It takes a couple of hours to cover the whole set of houses in this area but they are an absolute joy. In among the often dreary Brussels buildings, a façade just jumps out. All the rules are broken; of symmetry, size and standards. In many ways I’ve enjoyed this more than the Secessionist Art Noveau architecture in Vienna. However, I’ve been told that the finest Art Nouveau buildings in Europe are in Riga of all places, so that’s next.
The we stumbled upon a film set in the Brasserie Versuchen, with 50s costumes,  a smoke filled bar and some old with two back-ends and no boots. The police had real trouble keeping the indignant locals from walking across the set, among the more belligerent, some local but curious drunks.
Louven Day 3
We walked to the old convent in the suburbs which was eerily quiet, probably because it’s empty and deserted. This is what you find in towns where huge amounts of property are owned by the University – lots of empty and underused buildings. They were, nevertheless, charming.
The Town Hall was an astonishing building encrusted with as many statues as they could possible fit on all four sides. It was, apparently, spared by the Germans, who used it as their headquarters. The huge, St Peters church bang in the centre of town is impressive in terms of size but has the ugliest pulpit in Christendom. It’s a mountain of wood with a horse and two figures at the front, the pulpit on top, even a wooden cave in the side, backed by two huge palm trees, coconuts included.
Beer
As we’re in Belgium, it was time try a few beers. I’ve sampled a few in the past in the Troon bar in Brussels where they’re served old-style in tubes with bulbs in the bottom and wooden holders, like some weird alchemist brew. Here they favour the generous, breast shaped bowl. Trappist beers like Westmalle,Ciney, Brugge, Bellevue,  Leffe, Duvel, cherry, raspberry – there’s 350 different beers in this small country - it’s all good. This is the first time I’ve ever been told by a waiter to be careful, as ‘this one can get you very drunk’. And if you don’t like what the beer does to your liver, there’s always the chocolate, waffles and cream.
Brussels Day 4
Art Nouveau 2
After the success of our first Art Nouveau walk, we ventured north to another district, packed with these amazing houses. What makes the walk so fascinating is ‘surprise’, as every single one was a unique creation. This is also true of the detail, the letterboxes, door handles, coat hooks, windows, doors, candleholders, even keyholes. Every functional object was an opportunity for curved embellishment. This is the antithesis of English architecture, where replication and repetition is the norm; Georgian facades, Victorian brick terraces, council housing, high rise flats. The English love conformity and eschew show.
Museum
How come so few have heard of this Museum? Some of its collections are better than the British Museum and it’s almost completely empty. We started with the Islamic collection which was outstanding. But that was nothing compared to the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian rooms. The Rome section had an outstanding colonnade, mosaics and sculpture from Apamea, a place we had visited in Syria last year. As for the Egyptian rooms, they were even better, with some significant Armarian pieces and a great section on materials and construction.
Praise be to Eurostar
What a pleasure to travel by train to Europe but what a pain to encounter the mess in Brussels when you come back. Two passport controls, with the Brit clearly on some sort of glacial, work-to-rule kick, plus security. Made the train with two minutes to spare, many didn’t.