From 10 February to 27 March 2022, the Halles Saint-Géry in Brussels will host an exhibition on the past and present of the Brussels building sector. The opening of the exhibition on Thursday 10 February was accompanied by a symposium, with the participation of Brussels architect Kristiaan Borret.
Despite their crucial role, little is known about Brussels’ construction companies. Because of their small-scale organisation, the building sector often remains invisible, both to researchers and policymakers. To grasp the complexity of the sector and understand their needs, geographers, historians and engineer-architects from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel studied various angles in the Re/Building Brussels project. They looked at the Brussels building sector from 1695 to the present day with an innovative, interdisciplinary view.
The exhibition and conference are the culmination of the research project ‘Building Brussels’ (2016-2021) and the starting point of the follow-up project ‘Rebuilding Brussels’ (2021-2026). Both have been funded as interdisciplinary research programmes by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and are conducted from the research groups Architectural Engineering, Cosmopolis (Geography) and HOST (Urban History). Within both projects, the entrepreneurs, workers and artisans in the Brussels building sector form the common research object.
The construction sector in Brussels
The focus of the research is on the essential character of the construction sector for the city. Construction companies are responsible for the production and maintenance of an urban space that is constantly evolving. This is no different today than it was in centuries past. In the Brussels-Capital Region, both the historic city centre and the surrounding municipalities have been and are undergoing constant reconstruction. Hundreds of contractors, carpenters, plumbers, ironsmiths and other craftsmen have built the city into what it is today. The many companies and one-man businesses usually specialise in some aspect of the building process, from carcass work to the finishing touch. They are also usually organised on a relatively small scale. Their work and storage spaces are located in workshops and warehouses that are spread throughout the city and are well embedded in the dense urban fabric.
But Brussels’ construction sector also faces some pressing challenges. The sector’s presence has come under increasing pressure in Brussels in recent decades. Rising property prices, mobility and parking problems are making it increasingly difficult for construction companies to retain their place in the urban fabric. This not only has an impact on the flexibility with which they can respond to nearby construction and renovation sites, but also has consequences for local employment and the length of material and production chains.
Research projects ‘Building Brussels’ and ‘Rebuilding Brussels
The first project ‘Building Brussels. Brussels city builders and the production of urban space (1794-2016)’ comprised three completed doctoral projects: by Sarah De Boeck (social and economic geography), Frederik Vandyck (architectural engineering) and Matthijs Degraeve (business and urban history). It provided new long-term insights into the organisation, composition and spatial needs of the Brussels construction sector.
The insights gained from this, together with the challenges for the construction sector, will be included in the new phase of the research project, which started in 2021, under the title ‘Re-building Brussels (1695-2025): the construction sector as an engine for social inclusion and circularity’. Here the focus is on long-term evolutions in the sustainable and socially inclusive character of the construction sector. Doctoral students Lara Reyniers and Louise Huba study practices of demolition and reuse, while mechanisms of inclusion and labour market inequality are analysed by doctoral researcher Karoline da Silva Rodrigues.
The exhibition and conference will present the research results of the Building Brussels project and introduce the follow-up project Rebuilding Brussels. In the conference, Brussels bouwmeester maître architecte Kristiaan Borret will point out the current importance of the themes for Brussels, and international experts Gilli Hobbs and Judy Stephenson discuss, respectively, the importance of circular building practices and the labour market of the urban construction sector in a historical perspective.
- Halles Saint-Géry, Place Saint-Géry, Brussels
- More info including current measures: https://www.vub.be/arch/project/expo-re-building-brussels