A transversal reading of the jury

In June 2023, the international jury of the Brussels Architecture Prize spent a week whittling down more than 170 submitted entries to just 24 nominated projects, 4 laureates, a Promising Young Architect Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award. Dorte Mandrup, president of the jury: ‘I was amazed by the scale and quality of production in Brussels over the last three years’. This is the report of a series of difficult choices.

On 20 April 2023, no fewer than 176 projects (see list, p. 152) were submitted for the Brussels Architecture Prize which recognizes outstanding architectural projects located in the Brussels-Capital Region or designed by Brussels architecture firms. During the first meeting with the jury members – architects Dorte Mandrup (president), Job Floris (vice-president), Eva Prats, Meriem Chabani, Gaye Geipel and Markus Bader – each project was discussed individually by the A+ team and situated within the context of Belgian architectural production. On this basis, the jury was asked to make an initial, reasoned preselection. The general criteria of the Prize were again highlighted: The projects had to demonstrate outstanding quality in terms of their architecture or creation process. They also had to contribute to society in a positive way and pay special attention to sustainable building in a broader sense – for example, through reuse, renovation, conversion, passive construction, contribution to the circular economy, focus on renewable energy, accessibility or attention to soft mobility. In this regard, the jury members were assisted by external experts from Renolution – the programme of the Brussels-Capital Region that helps businesses and individuals with sustainable renovations – who had reviewed and evaluated all the projects beforehand. The jury were also asked by the organizers of the Prize to strive for diversity when selecting the nominated projects, both in terms of the programme, ambition and process within the project itself, and with regard to the composition of the design studio.

After this initial preselection, nearly 100 projects were still in the running. After a second round of discussions, the jury members chose the projects they would later visit with a view to making a final selection and choosing the winner in each category. For each site visit, the architects themselves were invited to explain the project.

Public Space

The jury immediately realized that many of the projects submitted in the Public Space category were the product of a former residual space, often part of an abandoned railway track. The Ixelles Highline by MSA and Ney & Partners is a good example of this, just as Park Pannenhuis by Landinzicht Landschapsarchitecten also stirs the imagination. As part of the Tour & Taxis site, this new park was closed off from the outside world for many years after the closure of the railway, resulting in tall trees, lush plants and a pristine biodiversity. Another theme in this category was the arduous task of turning a hyper-commercialized space in the city centre into a truly public space. This was successfully achieved on Rue Neuve, thanks to BUUR’s approach. Meanwhile, generosity to the neighbourhood reached new heights in the project by BOB361 in collaboration with Michiel Pauwels, in which the private interior area of a social housing unit was adapted to serve as a park for the entire neighbourhood, as well as in ‘Open Streets’ by Filter Café Filtré, where it is not the built space but metropolitan activism that contributes in a fundamental way to social cohesion and the liveability of the city.

‘Parc des Brigittines’ by Générale was highly praised for its multifaceted approach, the architects having created new connections at the neighbourhood scale, designed a playground tailored to the residents’ needs, and broken through the monofunctional residential character of the housing block by integrating productive public spaces. The site visit showed just how indispensable this programme was to quality of life in the neighbourhood. The jury unanimously selected this project as the winner in this category. ‘The project puts a disadvantaged neighbourhood in the spotlight and shows how good design and care can bring about transformation’, says Meriem Chabani.

Major Intervention

In this category, three pressing urban issues were discussed: the repurposing of office buildings, high-quality school construction in a hyper-dense environment, and the integration of productivity in the city, whether residential or otherwise. ‘Victoria Tower’ by 51N4E responds to the need to give the monofunctional office tower a second life and typologically seeks a solution for it. ‘ESP Karreveld’ by Agwa tackles two needs at the same time by converting an office building into a school. For this, they managed to reuse a maximum of materials, which makes this conversion extremely circular. Both ‘Brasserie de la Senne’ by Générale and ‘Novacity I’ by DDS+ and &Bogdan generate places where productivity can flourish in an urban environment. ‘Novacity’ also contributes to typological research on the combination of housing and productivity. Various schools and crèches were submitted for this prize. ‘GRAB Schaarbeek’ by Geurst & Schulze in collaboration with Java Architectes, and the school ‘De Telescoop’ by URA Yves Malysse Kiki Verbeeck immediately caught the jury’s attention, thanks to the high architectural quality of those projects, especially given the extreme complexity of the task, and the combination of new construction with conversion. In the end, the latter project was preferred because of the almost acrobatic agility with which it inserts itself into a very difficult plot. Eva Prats: ‘The project intensifies the exploratory, surprising aspect of the inside of a housing block, an intensity that influences the different interior spaces. This creates a rich, meticulous sequence of shifts in dimension and natural light, each giving a different atmosphere to the different daily situations taking place inside this school.’

Small Intervention

As many as sixty-four entries were small interventions, ranging from 6 m2 to just under 1,000 m2. This meant there was a risk of comparing apples to oranges. The jury decided rather quickly to adopt as its starting point the urgent need for high-quality, affordable housing in the city, with a focus on sustainability. With the exception of the redesign of Théâtre Océan Nord by Carla Frick-Cloupet and Victoire Chancel – a project that showcases talent and inventiveness with the limited budget typical of this type of micro-commission – all of the small interventions were residences. And all of them set new standards in terms of spatial quality, sustainable use of materials, and integration with the immediate environment. Despite prior discussions as to whether today one should even be showcasing individual homes, the jury unanimously chose ‘Maison Jupiter’ by V+ as the winning project in this category because of its pioneering attitude to sustainable low-tech building. ‘Maison Jupiter offers a treasure trove of architectural lessons and innovations. The project thoroughly explores how a low-carbon footprint can be achieved in low-rise homes, with elegant solutions for water management, heat production, natural ventilation, and coexistence with non-humans’, says Meriem Chabani.

Extra Muros

This category showcases the production of Brussels offices outside of Brussels. The diversity of the entries was impressive, and the jury again tried to give preference to urban projects with a positive spatial impact on the environment and a well-thought-out social ambition. Indeed, all of the projects take a position on what architecture can and should be today, with an emphasis on reuse, use of materials, detailing, social impact and climate awareness.

In the end, ‘Parc des Ateliers’ by Bas Smets, near the Luma Museum in Arles, was chosen for its innovative character. ‘The project transformed a sterile, desolate, desert-like site into a beautiful, lush, comfortable public park in a short pace of time, accelerating the natural evolution of the surrounding landscape typology’, says Dorte Mandrup. ‘With great understanding of microclimatic conditions, the park has been skilfully designed to develop as a self-sustaining living organism.’

Honorary Mentions

Alongside the twenty-four projects, two people will also be honoured. The jury will select a promising young firm from all the firms with partners under 40 who submitted an entry for the Prize and present it with the ‘Promising Young Architect Award’. A scientific committee composed of representatives of our Brussels partners will then draw up a shortlist of potential winners for the Lifetime Achievement Award, from which the jury will pick a winner.

This edition’s award for emerging talent goes to Laura Muyldermans, who for years has straddled the gap between theory and practice, architecture and contemporary art, building and critical reflection on building, thereby constantly pushing the boundaries of architecture.

This edition’s Lifetime Achievement Award goes to not one but three people: Olivier Bastin, Chantal Dassonville and bOb Van Reeth, who were the first people responsible for implementing a successful architectural policy in Brussels, Wallonia-Brussels Federation and Flanders respectively. They laid the foundations of the procedures and tools that today serve as a reference for achieving architectural quality in Belgium and beyond. Though they have had successors, they were the first, and this recognition seeks to secure their legacy. Thanks to them, Belgium has a rich architectural culture and the Brussels Architecture Prize a raison d’être.