From riots to regeneration: Operational Aesthetics opens today at CIVA in Brussels

On the eve of their 25th anniversary, Brussels’ architecture foundation CIVA dedicates its latest exhibition Operational Aesthetics to Neighbourhood Contracts, more commonly known as Contracts de Quartier. We put a few questions to CIVA’s Director for Contemporary Architecture Cédric Libert and co-curating sociologist Mathieu Berger and consider the transformative effect these Contracts have had on some of the capital city’s most difficult areas’ architectural landscape, local economies and social cohesion.

Your new exhibition Operational Aesthetics, which opens today, considers the role of Brussels’ unique Neighbourhood Contracts on the eve of their 25th anniversary. Where do you begin with such an exhibition? Can you take me through both the planning, research and scenography phase?

Cédric Libert: Neighbourhood Contracts were indeed both the starting point and main objective of the research. Nevertheless, beyond what they really are (operational tools) and produce (housing and collective infrastructure throughout Brussels) lays the fundamental question concerning the “administrative rules” which shape the city. The research started from these two sides simultaneously: architectural projects as the visible part of the iceberg, and the unknown apparatus hidden deep down in the strata’s of public policies.

Mathieu Berger: The narrative begins with the creation of the Brussels Region in 1989 and the episodes of urban violence that municipalities like Forest / Vorst and Saint-Gilles / Sint-Gillis suffered from in 1991, which eventually lead to the establishment of Neighbourhood Contracts. We assume that the public are better informed on Brussels’ post-war urban politics – think Expo 1958, Bruxellisation, urban struggles of the 1960s-1970s – than they do about the period starting in 1989. We want to specifically focus on this era, as it’s still vivid today!

The exhibition also deals with the architectural projects that emanated from these Neighbourhood Contracts. From your perspective, what was the Neighbourhood Contracts’ overall impact on Brussels’ architectural landscape today?

Cédric: 25 years of work, 140 offices, 80 Neighbourhood Contracts, and 550 construction projects oddly produced a critical, yet almost invisible mass. And beyond these projects, it created an attitude of “make do” with the city, recognising what’s already there and adding value to it. This is crucial!

The exhibition is organised in three distinct sections. Can you talk to us about them and how you see them making the subject easier to get into?

Cédric: It’s a story of icebergs and clouds. The iceberg is what’s drafted from above, while the clouds relate to what surrounds us today.

The first part presents the architectural projects in a theatre-like display of models. Following on, the second part draws on the hidden reality of Neighbourhood Contracts through a situational narrative of over a dozen scenes written by Mathieu; somehow evoking or describing the historical aspects, details, anecdotes and even rumours involved in public policies over a quarter of a century. Finally, the third part acts as a counterweight, casting a different perspective on issues dealing with the very existence of the city itself – almost as an “abstract entity or poetical metaphor” narrated under the lights of long-time historical and geographical fresco. Think Stonehenge, Firenze, Brasilia – and of course, our very own Brussels.

The operationality and the longevity of Neighbourhood Contracts discouraged the Region to implement other alternatives that would have been more efficient.

The fundamental role of these Neighbourhood Contracts was to revitalise entire neighbourhoods in terms of architecture, but also social and economic cohesion. Given the distance now afforded by 25 years since their inception, would you say the initial aim was achieved?

Mathieu: That’s right, the Region aimed at a global transformation of its blighted neighbourhoods with this transversal policy: housing, public spaces, social facilities, community development action. On the one hand, we might say that this Neighbourhood Contract policy really saved the day, by reconstituting the minimal infrastructural conditions that these neighbourhood lacked in the early 1990s. It’s thanks to the tireless, 25-year long effort to renovate these areas that Brussels is as we know it today. But on the other hand, this policy was over-confident in their goals for global transformation, for revitalisation.

The ambitious discourse of revitalisation had – and continues to have – a symbolic function, but is still unapt in characterising Neighbourhood Contracts’ style of action. It’s modest, cautious, micro-scale, and contextualised. One chapter of the exhibition deals with this “hesitation” inherent in Neighbourhood Contract policy, between modesty and heroism. Also, because this policy has been considered to be relatively successful, it maintained itself as the only real operational mean in developing the city. The operationality and the longevity of the Neighbourhood Contracts discouraged the Region to implement other alternatives that would have been more efficient regarding the establishment of social housing, or its socio-economic development.

Such a theme as Neighbourhood Contracts, which are architectural as they are administrative, political and legal, is not an easy one for audiences to get their heads around. How do you hope the exhibition will further the general public’s understanding of them and, at its core, what would describe the overriding objective of the exhibition to be?

Mathieu: Sure, it’s not an easy topic. And most of the people involved in this policy merely know it through a specific angle: as an architect, a government officer or municipality agent, an inhabitant. In fact, complexity is precisely an important element of what we want to show in this exhibition! A public policy like the Neighbourhood Contract – that (re)builds our daily environment – is a complex occurrence. It’s made of a large and intricate network of operators, working through a constant flow of technical, administrative and political operations. With the title Operational Aesthetics, we’re suggesting that these invisible processes which remain unknown to most people are an essential dimension of what we see standing today. In order to appreciate the true value of the material, architectural achievements of the Neighbourhood Contract, it’s equally relevant to know more about the underlying system of operations. The exhibition proposes a full immersion into this strange world.

Operational Aesthetics is on display from the 2nd of February until the 15th of April.