Renaat Braem

Fondation pour l'Architecture

In a pamphlet published in 1968, the Flemish architect Renaat Braem referred to Belgium as “the ugliest country in the world.” His critique of reckless urban planning and his vision of architecture as a social tool form the basis of this retrospective exhibition, which features photographs, maquettes, drawings, and collages. Braem’s career has consistently reflected his socialist ideals over a period of more than 50 years. His projects operate in the realms of the imaginary, the utopian, the practical, and the mundane. Braem cannot be tied directly to any one style. Yet he remains remarkably consonant in his concerns. One of those revolves around the notion of height and the way in which structures such as skyscrapers could function as measures of social equality. His buildings treat elevation as a reflection of faith.

The most visually striking pieces in the exhibition are Braem’s plan and drawings from the ’30s, in which human figures are integrated into the architectural renderings through collage. One finds casual strollers, athletes, businessmen, and above all, workers. In each piece, however, the effect is the same—a dynamization of space and a transition from imagined to real time. Braem’s conception of the picture plane, which owes a great deal to Russian Constructivist poster design, is again a reflection of his political ideals. Just as Braem saw the world moving toward socialism in the ’20s and ’30s, so do his projects situate the role of architecture within that movement. Architecture could anticipate socialism, his work argued, creating buildings and spaces that liberated people from the spiritual and physical oppression of capitalism. In a collage entitled Aperçu matériel historique de la culture occidentale (Historical materialist view of Western culture, 1933), Braem ambitiously criticizes the entire history of art and architecture in this light.

The architect’s solution to a Belgium marked by chaotic, patchwork building was La Ville Linéaire, a project originally drawn in 1934 to occupy the area between Antwerp and Liège, but later expanded to include all of Belgium. Conceived as a series of linear zones in which society would combine the advantages of modernity with the pleasures accorded by nature, the project also functions as a synthesis of Braem’s constructivist, futurist, and expressionist tendencies. From the dwellings to the sports center to the crematorium at the edge of the sea, it proposes that one might live one’s life in a regulated and enhanced but environment. Even the disillusionment of the Stalin years could not destroy Braem’s vision. It is this continuity that gives the exhibition its sense of contemporaneity.

Michael Tarantino