Xaveer de Geyter: A Rational Approach to the Public Realm

Place Schuman / XDGA

The University of Virginia (UVA) School of Architecture kicked off its third annual all-school design workshop with a lecture by visiting critic Xaveer de Geyter, founding principal of Brussels-based practice XDGA urban design and landscape architecture. De Geyter acted as a critic for 300 undergraduate and graduate students throughout the week of “The Vortex” competition, titled “Route 29: After the Sprawl.” His presentation revealed a methodological approach to design in the public realm. “We make no difference between architecture and urbanism,” the architect explained. “For us, they are not two different disciplines. Both are about dealing with different scales at the same time.”

Speaking to an audience about to embark on a week-long charrette, de Geyter brought with him an expertise in competitions. His office submits entries for about ten a year. “When we are lucky, we win two of them,” he said. In Europe, the best way to access large-scale urban projects is through competitions, a system imposed by the European Union and used by public officials when they are seeking answers to problems in the urban realm. De Geyter estimated that most of these projects take ten years from competition to completion. “So competitions do not solve everything,” he joked.

De Geyter worked with Rem Koolhaus at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) for ten years in the 1980s and 1990s. He began his own firm in 1988, and in 2002, published the book After Sprawl: Research on the Contemporary City, an atlas of six European urban networks.

He began his lecture with the topic of “underground.”

He said some people view his firm’s interest in the subterranean as a “fetish.” “For us it is really a contemporary aspect of the city,” he explained. Many of XDGA’s projects fill in the missing link “between traditional urban space and a complex underground network.

The relationship between below and above ground was highlighted through a spectrum of projects. One such design, won through competition and currently in construction, with landscape design by Michel Desvigne Paysagiste, is the Place Rogier on the Boulevard Botanique in Brussels.

Place Rogier / XDGA

XDGA envisioned the square as more than a “knot of transport” where metro and bus lines came together. By proposing vertical movement where there was horizontal movement, the firm created, in essence, “an underground building.” XDGA gave the street a new identity by crowning this new structure with a massive canopy patterned with perforated triangles.

Place Rogier / XDGA

Place Rogier is an example of the opportunities for design in Brussels, which de Geyter refers to as “a fantastic landscape to work in” compared to “perfect cities like Paris, where everything was defined a few centuries ago.” He characterized Brussels as “half destroyed” in the early 1960s, when modernistic interventions and infrastructure interrupted the coherence of the pre-existing urban fabric. Now, a tension exists where the conglomerate of urban parts meet, bringing what he finds to be “a very interesting energy to the city.”

De Geyter discussed a 2003 competition entry for Les Halles, a transit station on the Parisian periphery, in collaboration with OMA, One Architects, and landscape architecture firm Agence Ter. Paris, he said, is only able to exist through it periphery, where 80 percent of its people live. This ring around the city also allows inner Paris to maintain its glamor. Les Halles used to be the belly of the city, the place of slaughterhouses, until their removal in the 1960s. As it exists today, the web of infrastructure is disjointed from the “boring green space” on its surface.

The design team proposed a new city gate and modern form for the area, where one million people pass through daily. The project restructured the underground as well as the new landscape and proposed replacing the underutilized park with circles of programmed spaces that vary in climates and atmospheres.

Les Halles / OMA, XDGA, One

New buildings were interspersed among these public spaces.

Les Halles / OMA, XDGA

Lastly, XDGA won first prize in 2011 for their entry in a competition for Place Schuman in Brussels, proposing an iconic public square that de Geyter compared to the National Mall in Washington D.C. Currently a roundabout that welcomes daily car traffic from the eastern part of Belgium, Schuman is on the Rue de la Loi, an axis installed by Belgian King Leopold II (a “very good urbanist,” noted de Geyter), along which institutions of Belgian and European political power have settled.

Place Schuman / XDGA

The competition called for new entrances to a proposed train station. An earlier concept envisioned the entrance to be a large glass box standing in the axis of the street. In contrast, XDGA proposed a strong symbolic representation of a European civic democracy — a “real public space.” It’s an open shell, an amphitheater whose lifted edges allow for people to flow into the transportation network below. The underside also gives room for small shops and a bicycle station.

Place Schuman / XDGA

The design respects the integrity of the axis, framing the arch at the entrance to the Park Jubilee, a few blocks away. Desvigne served as the project’s landscape architect. They helped create a place for all scales of public events, meeting, debate and demonstration.

Throughout the lecture, de Geyter presented XDGA’s projects very clearly and logically, from context, concept, and then design. This highly rational approach prompted an audience member to ask, “When does the beauty appear?”

“It is difficult to talk about what you find beautiful,” the architect responded. “In our case, beauty comes more from an in-depth analysis of the layers of relationships that exist. But, at the same time, I have to contradict myself, because we are really convinced that a project should not just be the fruit of this kind of work. It has to be something that survives if you take all of this analysis and knowledge away.”

Katherine Cannella, Student ASLA, is a Master of Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Virginia.

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