Building Brussels. Brussels city builders and the production of space, 1794 – 2016

Building Brussels

Building Brussels' Baukultur

Building Brussels Kick-off workshop

Today cities are confronted with the paradox of the results of former functional zoning – originally introduced to protect the viability of urban neighborhoods and to stimulate economic growth by relocating industrial activities to business areas outside the city center – and the disappearance of many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and their artisanal knowledge with them. Urbanists, heritage managers and policy makers are now pleading for the revaluation of traditional know how, a reintegration of these businesses in the city center and further support for those activities that have remained thus far in the city. This means that a careful planning of former industrial areas within the city is necessary, as well as the re-use of existing industrial heritage. By finding modern technical solutions for the nuisances that expelled these businesses in the past, more attention can be paid to the complementarity of functions reintegrating businesses and their clients, and work and life at short distance to each other. For the Brussels Capital Region in particular, such an approach is crucial to address a double socio-spatial challenge. First of all, the Capital Region is faced with a strong demographic growth, which creates pressure on industrial areas and buildings to be used for housing. Secondly, Brussels is in great need for jobs, as unemployment numbers among its youngsters without advanced or higher education degrees are particularly high.

Between 2016-2021, this IRP investigated the viability of small and medium enterprises in Brussels from a locational, architectural, business-historical and heritage perspective. The focus lies on the construction sector, where the need for locally anchored and traditionally trained craftsmen and material suppliers is high. The latter strongly participated in the production and construction of urban space. However, they were gradually outranged due to economical evolutions, urban policies and regulations that forced (small) contracting firms, material suppliers and craftsmen to reorganize and relocate their businesses. Paradoxically, today the need for qualified craftsmen and firms as well as knowledge about the local (historical) material resources is urgent due to the growing interest and need for the reuse of buildings, qualitative restoration projects and sustainable urban environments. This research is timely in the light of the actual rezoning of the Canal zone (Kanaalzone) in Brussels and the necessary conservation and re-use of existing industrial heritage in the city center. The IRP develops an interdisciplinary methodology to trace, understand and evaluate past urban transformations and offer solutions for sustainable future urban development. The results will transcend the case of Brussels and will be applicable to other historical cities as well.


The research project resulted in workshops, publications, an exhibition and 3 PhD's:

Sarah De Boeck obtained the academic degree of Doctor of Interdisciplinary studies (VUB) in 2020 for her dissertation Making space for the foundational economy: Urban economic policy and planning perspectives from Brussels under the supvervision of Michael Ryckewaert, David Bassens and Heidi Deneweth.

Frederik Vandyck obtained the academic degrees of Doctor of Engineering Sciences (VUB) and Doctor of Architecture (UAntwerpen) in 2020 with his thesis Built to construct: learning from the architecture of constuction workplaces in the Brussels-Capital Region under the supervision of Ine Wouters, Michael Ryckewaert and Inge Bertels (UAntwerpen).

Matthijs Degraeve obtained the academic degree of Doctor in History (VUB) in 2021, with his thesis Building Brussels: Construction Entrepreneurs in a Transforming Urban Space (1830-1970) under the supvervison of Heidi Deneweth, Stephanie Van de Voorde, Inge Bertels (UAntwerpen).