When 51N4E were asked to convert the ground floor of an empty office building in the European Quarter into a multifunctional space, their first approach was to finish stripping all of the building’s interior claddings. Now a bare concrete shell with minimalistic fittings, StamEuropa is an open invitation to the citizens of Europe to find agency in the face of the EU’s imperviousness.
The European Quarter Fund, an organization dedicated to improving the image of the European Quarter, and the European Quarter Area Management Association, reached out to Vraiment Vraiment, a public-interest design agency, to help them create a ‘truly democratic’ space within the European Quarter, currently infamous for its monofunctional and impenetrable institutional buildings and lack of spaces open to appropriation by citizens. The seven-storey building on the corner of Rue d’Arlon and Rue Jacques de Lalaing had been empty for the past ten to fifteen years and was set to be demolished. Vraiment Vraiment convinced its owner, the Belgian Buildings Agency, to redirect the budget allocated to a tax on unoccupied buildings to the lightweight renovation of the building and negotiated a five-year lease for a hybrid space.
StamEuropa exists through the involvement of a wide variety of actors: public, private and non-profit. The place of the architects in this constellation is one of translation of programmatic ideals into meaningful spaces within a restrictive budget. 51N4E pursued this collaborative ideal by reaching out to various experts in space-making, in particular textile designers Chevalier-Masson and landscape designers Plant en Houtgoed, who occupied the intermediate exterior space of the colonnade and the adjoining street.
The complexity of the project process stands in some contrast to the extreme clarity underpinning the design process. The double-height space is stripped bare of any form of ornament, revealing only the patterned residue of the glues and mortars which once upheld the heavy wall claddings. The furniture – small but heavy stone and steel tables – is made of the remnants of the hexagonal marble cladding in the lobby, while the bar is made of leftover casting materials. The façade testifies to the intermediate state of occupation: the masonry blocks between the columns which used to restrict access to the empty building have been partly removed. Their cut-out creates a frieze of half-circles echoed on the inside by a heavy hanging curtain. With a vertical opening system reminiscent of Venetian theatres, it offers thermal and acoustic insulation and allows the space to be partitioned.
Including a small bar and a variety of seating and discussion configurations aimed at literally and metaphorically getting users outside their comfort zone, StamEuropa now hosts a wide variety of events. From discussions and debates hosted by citizen and democratic lobbies to artistic performances and installations, as well as a bicycle repair shop and a tool rental service, the hybrid and flexible programme may well spread out over the upper floor in the coming years, de facto becoming a new prototype for the conversion of office buildings into multipurpose spaces for citizens.