A new European narrative: Traumnovelle, the Brussels-based architectural collective drawing on fiction to kick Europe into action

Worrying whispers coming through Brexit’s grapevines, ambiguous declarations of Greece’s financial – even humanitarian – crisis finally being over, an impending Italo-Hungarian anti-migration front. One would not be amiss to wonder if Europe is indeed going to the dogs, while deep in the heart of Brussels lies the European Union and institutions, ever-present to its citizens yet seemingly always just out of reach. The young and ambitious Brussels-based architect firm Traumnovelle – consisting of Léone Drapeaud (1987), Johnny Leya (1990) and Manuel León Fanjul (1990) – teamed up with fellow architect and art historian Roxane Le Grelle to initiate Eurotopie, an all-encompassing and interdisciplinary investigation into the “true” nature of the EU, its physical manifestation in Brussels’ European Quarter, and its tenuous relationship with the capital city’s inhabitants. As Traumnovelle’s first financed and selected project for the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture’s Belgian Pavilion, Eurotopie not only seeks to inspire other architects and space-makers to consider what it actually means to build democracy – both literally and figuratively – but also serves as a call to arms, arousing the sleepy citizens of Europe into a politically committed and engaged population. We met the Traumnovelle trio and the project’s artistic director Sébastien Lacomblez (1983) on an overcast day at Charleroi’s Quai 10 to discuss how to create a project for a new Europe, and actually get everyone around the table.

Visuals Philippe Braquenier (c)
Read our interview with Braquenier here.

Eurotopie is an ambitiously multidisciplinary project, bringing together not only architects and critical theorists but also graphic designers, photographers, illustrators and novelists. How did this project come to be?

Léone: We were keen on taking part in the Venice Biennale of Architecture, because we knew that the Wallonia-Brussels Federation – the selecting body for 2018, as part of their alternating agreement with Flanders – doesn’t shy away from supporting projects initiated by young and inexperienced thinkers. We felt that we stood a chance, and luckily our bet paid off. When sending off our application, we decided to team up with Roxane Le Grelle since she already had experience in curating. Us four make up the curatorial team, while Sébastien is artistic director, Philippe Braquenier handled the photography, Claire Trotignon made illustrative collages, Jurgen Maelfeyt did our graphic design, Bruce Bégout wrote a fictive piece, and researcher Dennis Pohl and political advisor Lucile Rossat saw us through our critical thinking. Everyone obviously operated within their own respective fields of expertise, but we also tried to work as horizontally as possible.

Sébastien: It was all about finding the links between the different mediums and concepts.

Johnny: Exactly, Eurotopie’s goal was to have this total project using different mediums. The concepts are outlined in the Eurotopie publication’s introductory text that we worked on with the architect and philosopher Dennis Pohl as well as some La Cambre students. Entitled Eurocode 7, we used the introduction to put forward seven points of investigation and interrogation. We presented these points to the project members, they interpreted them through their own mediums, and after assembling all the materials together we explored the links between them.

Right, and by mediums you’re referring specifically to…?

Léone: Photography, collages, fictional texts, graphic design, music and, last but not least, architecture. It was interesting because at some point we told ourselves that we had to play the same game we were asking of our artists and interpret this “Eurotopia” into architecture too, which is the basis of the exhibition in the Biennale’s Belgian Pavilion itself. The interpretation of the Eurocode 7 through architecture, as well as assembling the different elements of the mediums.

A transnational Eurotopia between all these national pavilions. A new meta-nation, or translation.

Can you briefly describe your intervention in the Belgian Pavilion? Would it be accurate to call it an agora?

Léone: Absolutely, that’s the word we use. The core idea was to offer a space for debate, both spatially and politically – something which we observed was somehow lacking from the European Quarter. The agora is fitted inside the Pavilion, which in a way represents the capital city with all of its complexities, hierarchies, symmetries and beautiful high ceilings. The blue agora is reminiscent of the way the European Quarter was “slipped” into Brussels, growing quietly inside it. The neighbourhood is often criticised for being too big and tall, or not densely populated enough. As a response, the Pavilion’s intention is to show what happens when a system is inserted into another system: there are conflicts, contrasts and spaces of the unexpected. The conflict with the Pavilion’s door; the lowness of the agora and having to bend over; quiet and warm corners; different lights, sounds, and points of view – all of this attests to the fact that symbolic depth can be found even in the unlikeliest corners. This applies to Philippe’s photographs of the European Quarter too.

Johnny: We built a “pavilion of Eurotopie” for the Biennale, which in itself is a framework made up of old stories of nations, each with their own pavilion. A transnational Eurotopia between all these national pavilions. A new meta-nation, or translation.

Does that mean you tried to create a sort of microcosm of Europe and the world within the Biennale?

Johnny: Not really… It’s still just a pavilion, nothing else.

Léone: But not in the sense of one you find in a park, but rather its 19th century definition: a piece of architecture which condenses and represents a place, a culture, an idea.

Johnny: The aesthetic experience needs to be mentioned too. That was arguably what we wanted to feature the most, so all of our research contents were assembled inside a “travel diary” in order to prioritise the Pavilion’s embodied experience.

Sébastien: The aesthetic experience must be inspiring enough to drive towards politics.

Johnny: Absolutely. Space is all about feeling and how one reacts to it. So we used space, colours and all the rest to inspire something in our visitors.

Léone: Epicness was also a guiding point. We wanted to create something which was powerful, could express a lot and would create emotions. A sound system underneath the agora plays an “optimised” version of Europe’s anthem Ode to Joy, courtesy of Sébastien. The sound is very powerful, so the music rises from below, through the wood painted in a very warm blue. You can feel the vibrations of the chorus through the wood, which flows and ebbs as you move around the space – it’s physical. It all comes back down to encouraging the public to choose their own paths towards a Eurotopia.

You refer to your project as a case study, whereas I would take it a step further and argue that this is in fact ethnography. Not only do you study the real, historical and infrastructural contexts of the EU and its architecture – its macrostructures –, you also consider the everyday implications of its microstructures, namely the lived, embodied and emotional experience of Europe’s people.

Léone: What you’re saying really fits with our travel diary idea; how we openly, innocently and inquisitively set out for this place that we know exists, and studied in order to “bring it back” and make it legible. Just like the old-fashioned colonial explorers coming back to the motherland and convincing everyone that this place really does exist and is worth going to.

Sébastien: Basically, propaganda.

Eurotopie is also currently displayed in BOZAR. How did you translate the project for this space?

Johnny: We always try to keep in mind how to optimise certain exhibition settings. Time is of the essence in the Biennale, so creating this aesthetic experience was key. If visitors want to learn more, they can pick up a copy of the Eurotopie publication. The BOZAR exhibition on the other hand allows for more time and is located in their new and cosy Salon Europa.

Considering BOZAR’s longstanding curatorial commitment to the theme of Europe, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Eurotopie is hosted there.

Johnny: BOZAR is really important when talking about Europe, because for the last decade or so they’ve been trying to build this idea that culture is a weapon, and we Europeans need to engage with the cultural world in order to build a new society.

Léone: And that’s a belief we have in common with them. We apply it to the mediums of architecture and fiction, but they of course have a much larger infrastructure than us.

This year’s theme for the Venice Biennale of Architecture is freespace. Which came first, the idea for Eurotopie or an interpretation of the theme?

Léone: The competition process was actually done last summer, and we were selected in August 2017. The theme was only first announced around November, and our project was already pretty much completed by that time. We were very happy to find out the theme though, as we felt that Eurotopie fit perfectly well with it. Traumnovelle’s ethos as a practice is based on ensuring that architecture is recognised as a political tool, so the theme provided the perfect opportunity to make this point.

Johnny: There’s a tendency to think of Europe as the “last utopia” – so let’s try to build it. Our first project as Traumnovelle, Ode to Joy was a project criticising and questioning the European perspective on ecology. It was a rather dystopian project, and so in turn Eurotopie is somewhat more positive.

Léone: As a practice, we always work with fiction which we then accompany by equally explicit architecture, because we think that they’re both tools that can be used to reveal, put forward, explore and experiment. It’s easily read and understood, and it conveys ideas without requiring deep analysis. Fiction not so much in the sense of a figment of one’s imagination as they are stories that we want to base architecture around, and which it in turn communicates. Fiction in the sense of a project, of the narration that goes around a construction, whether it be architectural or social. There’s always fiction behind every idea.

Culture is a weapon, and we Europeans need to engage with the cultural world in order to build a new society.

Eurotopie is supported and funded by Wallonie Bruxelles International and Wallonia-Brussels Federation. Was the EU not involved in the project at all?

Johnny: We did seek EU funding at first but soon discovered that our project wasn’t viable purely due to legal, technical reasons. They were extremely helpful though and offered what they could, like granting access to all their buildings in the European Quarter. It was interesting to discover that if anything, they’re actually in dire need of such projects.

At one point you were all residing in Brussels. Did Eurotopie come from a personal desire to study the ubiquitous European Quarter as former inhabitants?

Léone: Having studied architecture all together at La Cambre, we always felt the urgent need for architecture to consist of content as well as be employed as a tool. The last three years of La Cambre’s great architectural programme are carried out in completely mixed and “vertical” studios shared by all the students. It was a truly invaluable learning experience, and we felt the need to save this free-thinking, investigative space that we enjoyed at school and would be confronted with very quickly once we stepped into the real world. That’s when we founded Traumnovelle – we wanted to start building something that would keep us thinking, questioning and reading.

Johnny: After graduating three years ago, we travelled to Beijing to encounter something new and outside our comfort zone. We felt that we’d become too complacent here in Europe and Brussels. We’d visited China before as tourists and saw that having a state was still viable in today’s age – a powerful government that takes decisions while still trying to represent its citizens.

So Eurotopie actually came from encountering a new and foreign context, as opposed to being a symptom of having resided in the proximity of the European Quarter?

Johnny: Yeah, it was literally quite the opposite. We never really set foot in this neighbourhood while living in Brussels. Out of all European citizens, we in Brussels are closest to the EU – we’re in a prime setting to understand it and yet we don’t. It’s just a blackhole for most of the city’s residents.

The EU arguably has a very tenuous relationship with not only Brussels’ inhabitants, but its overall citizenry. With concerns surrounding populism, nationalism, economic prosperity and social fragmentation, it’s obvious that there’s public dissatisfaction and political disengagement with the European project, even if it’s not always easy to put them into coherent words. Did Eurotopie come from a need to critique and improve the EU as a whole?

Johnny: I guess it came from a place of concern, in that Europe’s citizens – myself included – need to realise that Europe is in need of dire help. In a way, the EU and its institutions are used as a backdrop for its member states – whenever there’s a problem, it’s the EU’s fault. It’s too easy to point the finger and criticise though, or mindlessly enjoy the fruits of the EU’s labour, like the free circulation of goods and people. There’s not a single decision they can take without the approval of all its nations and leaders. Furthermore, the EU is in a way the best form of governance on a transnational level. I don’t think a national politician has the same tools that an EU official would have to face off a large transnational company like Monsanto.

Léone: Europe as an ideological construct isn’t that old, but it’s not exactly new either – as a post-World War II phenomenon, we’re technically approaching its centenary anniversary. Despite its flaws and shortcomings, the European Coal and Steel Community – the EU’s predecessor – was based on an ideal of unity; a strategy of uniting six Western European economies. Say what you will, but it was a radical project for its time. So when we talk about a “New Europe”, we’re not proposing to scrap everything and create something from scratch: we have a strong basis already, and we can build upon that.

Johnny: This is when we decided to use the idea of l’optimisation du réel, or the “optimisation of the real”, which Sébastien came up with during our discussions: to take the system as it is, and to try to transform or improve it from the inside using the same, existing tools.

Léone: This was a very strong guiding point because it constantly reminded us that our aim wasn’t to change everything, but rather to take things as they were and twist them slightly to make them better.

Johnny: For example, Jurgen’s amazing graphic design involved optimising the EU’s official fonts, logo and paper formats; inclining it ever so slightly. It’s still familiar, but there’s an improvement, a subtle yet necessary change.

I get what you mean. That’s precisely one of the things that I felt was so strong about the fictive piece in your publication, Journey to Eurotopie, which was co-written with Bruce Bégout. It maps out a post-dystopian Europe where the EU has been replaced by a “New Europe”, a heavily revised and democratised institution resulting from a bloody civil war between nationalist rebels and the EU’s military force. And yet, as it describes imagined life on the brink of a utopic Europe in a future European Quarter, the scenario still reads familiar and true enough that in the end, it doesn’t feel that absurd. To go a step further, do you believe that such change can only occur in the aftermath of a crisis?

Léone: This is a tool that we use a lot in our projects: we present the worst-case scenario in the hopes that this will spark resistance to said scenario. We show how dark it can be and provide the tools to push it in another direction. An important point to make is that our project addresses the people of Europe rather than the EU. We’re trying to show what Europe could potentially become if and only if we work on it together. It won’t happen if we don’t demand it.

Johnny: We’re not claiming that we need to fight in order to save something, but rather to build something.

Eurocode 7 maps out how Brussels’ Leopold Quarter was infamously transformed from a residential area into a corporate zone in 1962 for the impeding EU headquarters. More shocking however is how this spatial protocol was based on pure speculation: as the six founding member states were alerted to the EU’s search for a home base, private developers in Brussels and state officials gambled that they would be favoured if they presented the EU with a ready-made corporate zone. This explains the lack of vision in the Quarter’s present architectural design. Haphazard and non-functional buildings expanding infinitely. Reading this, I wondered if you were critiquing modernist architecture.

Johnny: Absolutely. The Leopold Quarter was transformed into a non-functional space – a space for space’s sake. It was a critique of functionality being used as the function itself.

Léone: For instance, one of the things we observed in the European Quarter was how all space has to be accounted for, and offices exactly the same size. It’s kind of crazy. Buildings and offices are manipulated to fit EU regulations at the expense of the façade. It’s rather backwards and strange, but also very interesting; there’s richness to be found in these complexities. There’s so much renovation going on in that neighbourhood, so we’re basically calling for architects and urban programmers to hold back on regulations when it comes to designing space.

And to perhaps start thinking in a different framework?

Johnny: Exactly, to start thinking about network cities or xeno-architecture, because the most intriguing point about the European Quarter is that most of its buildings are just empty shelves with different things inside. The neighbourhood doesn’t have architectural symbols for, say, law, because the building used to be a bank and, in the future, will become something else. All the better, because Rome is dead: we don’t need buildings to represent peace. We need to first establish peace before we can begin to even think about representing it through architecture.

Léone: Perhaps we need to explain what we mean by “Rome”?

Johnny: I mean a big centre with institutional buildings for peace, law and justice. The EU would like to see Brussels become a Rome, but due to the course of events they were essentially only temporary tenants. Having said that, their relationship with the neighbourhood is changing as they are increasingly becoming owners and landlords. If we’re not careful and don’t get involved in the urban project that is the European Quarter, we run the risk of allowing a huge crystal fortress to form. That’s currently the path we’re heading down. Yet if architects and city planners saw the merit in creating a network of urban capillaries instead of a fixed centre, then maybe we can head into another direction. In fact, we’re not looking to build another Rome, but rather something else which is just as powerful – minus the cruelty and centralised power, that is. A post-Rome.

You describe Brussels as an “accidental beauty”, which I feel most of the city’s residents would agree with. Its overlapping and contradictory layers of history somehow relay an incoherent yet agreeable story.

Johnny: Through Dennis Pohl, we adopted the Armenian philosopher Armen Avanessian’s concept of xeno-architecture to argue, in a nutshell, that the European Quarter’s function- and visionless state could actually be perceived as its strength.

Léone: Eurocode 7 is precisely an investigation of the particularities of this Quarter’s unique typology as a supranational neighbourhood inside a city. There are no other examples of this type in the world. Sure, there are supranational neighbourhoods outside of cities and economic neighbourhoods inside cities, but never the two. Brussels’ European Quarter is unique in that sense, so we tried to see what we could learn from it and how it could become its own tool.

It’s mentioned at one point that Eurotopie is not only for Brussels and Europe, but also the world. What do you mean by that?

Johnny: That Eurotopie is not a closed off project. Europe’s borders are constantly being redefined. It’s always referred to as a “continent” when in fact it’s just a Eurasian peninsula. How is this still possible?

Léone: Eurotopie’s message is that not only is Europe not defined by its boundaries, it’s also not defined by its culture. There is no European culture, we’re not looking for a common European identity. We’re looking for a common project, and people who adhere to this common goal. Furthermore, “Europeanness” is not that of multiple identities – that’s not sufficient as an identity. Oftentimes, when trying to communicate what it means to be European, the EU will present images of people of all ilk from all around the continent, eating different foods and speaking different languages. However, their overriding message is, “We’re still all the same because we’re all European,” or “My identity as a European is that I am one of diverse people.” That’s just not good enough.

What do you hope to see come out of Eurotopie? Changes being made to the European Quarter perhaps, or rather to people’s mind frames?

Léone: Architects and investors have a pretty challenging relationship when it comes to collaborating. There’s still a big gap in how the two work: for one, there’s a popular investor strategy of offering architects transitional projects for temporary occupation, in order to increase their worth. It increases a neighbourhood’s desirability thanks to a cultural scene emerging, but is then taken over by said property developers. Secondly, nice, expensive cultural infrastructures are reserved for architects while developers do the “big work”. But we want to be involved in that as well! Building museums is nice, but it’s not ambitious enough, that’s not what we want to do. We want to really have a say in how the world is being shaped. We really do believe that architecture is the framework in which the world is developed, and influences the way we think, act and construct our society. So we’re trying to give architects the tools to change the world through what we do.

Johnny: We’re also aware that we’re architects addressing the cultural world. Our first step was to provide the ideas, hopes and tools to initiate something within the cultural scene; maybe our next step should be to take Eurotopie to the streets. End of the day, Traumnovelle’s main tool is fiction – everything is fiction for us, meaning that everything is a construction. We have one common world, with many different societies, or fictions, which we build. Or rather, others are building these fictions for us, when in reality we should be the ones dreaming about the story in which we want to live in. Being an architect is about building society through values and representations, as well as about helping create fiction.

Léone: One of our newest fields of investigation is ecology, because we’re dissatisfied in the way that architecture and ecology create a sort of strange, very Western-centric and capitalist interpretation of how to save the world. We think it’s going in the wrong direction. We’re all told that the world will worsen considerably if we don’t recycle our bottles and invest in solar panels. This is a lie. Environmental degradation mainly takes place on political levels way above the average citizen. So together with Sébastien, we’ll be looking for social and shared narratives for a newfound ecology.

The Venice Biennale of Architecture’s Belgian Pavilion is open until 25th November, as is the Eurotopie exhibition at BOZAR.