The New York Times

March 2, 2002, The New York Times

A Capital of Europe?

Brussels is primping

“The crazier the idea, the better.” That was the directive that Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, gave to a group of designers and thinkers who were asked for suggestions on how to create a single European capital.

Mr. Prodi has lamented the lack of any clear embodiment of contemporary European might. The area of Brussels that is the headquarters of the European Union is an ugly tangle of glass and concrete that houses tens of thousands of multilingual bureaucrats. “I want Brussels to become a place that all citizens of the union can relate to,” he explained.

That is why Mr. Prodi and the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, invited a dozen prominent figures — including the author Umberto Eco; the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas; G’rard Mortier, the former director of the Salzburg Festival; Bronislaw Geremek, a historian and former foreign minister of Poland; and Juan Ignacio Vidarte, the director general of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao — to offer their ideas about a makeover for Brussels.

At the heart of the matter is the question of what makes a capital city. Do traditional notions of place remain relevant in an era of increased interdependence and lightning-speed communications? How can one create a sense of power and authority that won’t tread on the sensibilities of the member nations?

For centuries, governments around the globe have tried to inculcate a sense of national identity through capital city complexes made up of architectural monuments, grand boulevards and cultural institutions attesting to native creativity. Washington is one of the most successful examples of a government’s creation of an environment that exudes power.

By contrast, the relatively modest Belgian capital was chosen in 1958 as a temporary home for the European Union’s predecessor, the European Economic Community, partly because it was no rival to the continent’s traditional urban focal points of nationalist pride. As the European Union grew, large swaths of 19th-century town houses were razed in Brussels to make way for offices, built by a consortium of developers and then leased or sold to the union by the Belgian government.

“There is an absurd situation where the European government is like a hermit crab inhabiting building after building without any responsibility for its iconography or values,” said Mr. Koolhaas, a winner of the Pritzker Prize in architecture. “Europe is forced to present itself in accommodation that is undignified.”

Mr. Koolhaas has been urging the European authorities to elevate the architectural quality of their new administrative quarters. He has also drawn up a proposed new symbol for the European Union, an abstract shape resembling a bar code, with colors derived from the member nations’ flags.

Giving Brussels itself a new aura is a delicate task. Many citizens of the European Union’s 15 member countries are already worried that the union’s unelected bureaucracy threatens their own national identities. In Britain The Sun, a tabloid, denounced the brainstorming sessions on the capital as “the final move to establish Europe as a superstate with its own flag, passport, anthem, currency and center of power.”

As a result, the European Union is likely to take a low-key approach, said Elena Saraceno, a policy adviser to Mr. Prodi who wrote an official report summarizing the recommendations of the brainstorming sessions. The report, expected to be released this month, will propose holding an international architectural competition to upgrade the union’s quarter, while expressly avoiding any attempt to match Washington or Beijing in grandeur, Ms. Saraceno and other participants said.

“Politicians always want to build monolithic architectural symbols — pyramids and statues,” said Mr. Mortier, a Belgian who is to take over as director general of the Paris National Opera in 2004. “But Brussels should never play the role of Washington. Brussels should be a spiritual capital. At the moment, people in Spain or Sweden consider Brussels as a pure administrative center and they don’t have any emotional relation to the city.”

He argued that this could be changed by highlighting European diversity through the creation of new museums, arts festivals and a post-graduate academic institute in Brussels similar to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. Mr. Vidarte of the Guggenheim agrees. “Brussels should be a place where the different identities of European peoples are represented, rather than imposing one single European identity which may not exist,” he said.

Mr. Geremek suggested that the whole notion of a single capital was perhaps misconceived; he preferred to preserve the idea of an “itinerant capital” linked to Europe’s feudal origins.

Now the European Parliament treks back and forth between legislative chambers in Brussels and in Strasbourg, France; it has its secretariat and translation service based in Luxembourg. The European Central Bank, which introduced the euro currency last month, is in Frankfurt, and a new European agency for food safety will soon be in Helsinki, Finland. Still, Brussels is the permanent seat of the European Commission, and the European Council (made up of government ministers from the European Union) is moving to abandon its practice of holding summits twice a year in different European cities in favor of convening solely in Brussels.

Mr. Eco, a semiologist best known for his novel “The Name of the Rose,” somewhat facetiously suggested that if the union were looking for a new symbol of power it might best choose an existing Brussels landmark like the Manneken-Pis, the popular bronze statue of a diminutive boy urinating into a pool of water. Better that, he said, than overweening architectural gestures.

Like most Europeans, Mr. Eco agrees that the conventional image of a capital hardly seems suited to the unconventional European Union. As Robert Geyer, an American political scientist who won a recent essay contest on the capital question sponsored by European Voice, a Brussels-based weekly, wrote: “Trying to force Brussels to be seen as and act like a traditional national capital for Europe would be absurd and dangerous to the European project.”

As Mr. Geyer put it, “Europe needs a capital like a tree needs a chainsaw.”