Lucien Kroll: utopia interrupted

A visit to the MéMé 40 years on. An icon of participatory architecture, this generous, open and intentionally incomplete complex has always been resisted by the institutions.

From the air, the (ex-) rural Belgian landscape looks like a carpet studded with a fine pattern of suburban houses. Their infinite and idiosyncratic variations on the theme of individual living reflect a variety without difference . Not expecting much, I glance through the airline's in-flight magazine handed out by the hostess. An article on the new museum in Brussels dedicated to Magritte closes with the image of a painting that I don't recognise. Yet it seems familiar: standing out against a Magrittesque sky are buildings (the suburban architectures of so many of his paintings) piled on top of each other in apparent disorder, similar in design but with subtle variations in the shades of colour and scale. The title is not given, but the caption wonders: "A comment on Belgian architecture?" A mental short circuit sparks a connection between Magritte's invention and a photo of the MéMé, the building I am about to visit. The cross-references between these images are notable, but conceptually the gap is wide. Magritte's painting embodies the possibility of a new figure, though it does not take shape; instead we get a mixture of juxtaposed but unrelated elements. The heterogeneous image of the MéMé, on the other hand, according to its architect Lucien Kroll, is the fruit of an assemblage by empathy of its diverse parts. An open process becomes the motivation for its form and complexity. This can't be reduced simply to the production of an architectural object or even to an aesthetic, but is if anything the prototype of a radical overturning of architecture. The MéMé would thus be a manifesto- building: recognised as an "icon of democratic architecture", it consecrated Kroll as the champion of participatory architecture. Its role, however, is not confined to the albeit relevant sphere of participation. An object of cult worship and fierce attacks, the building in the Woluwe- Saint-Lambert campus is a destabilising feature of 20th-century architecture. And as a veritable objet bouleversant , it reveals surprising analogies with practices more likely to occur in contemporary art.
L'invention collective
Participation is a complex matter, as Giancarlo De Carlo reminded us when he pointed out that the communicative attitude of architecture is potentially available to all. Communication through architecture is an eminently political act, Kroll maintains: the architect is the catalyst of a creative process and social dynamic, in respect to which they make their knowledge available for the translation of interpersonal relationships into a suitable space. The participatory process therefore has to be set in motion; or at least, architects must step out of themselves and put themselves in the shoes of future residents. Architecture must be saved from the architect's exclusive dominion, and redirected towards participation, with "an action open to new necessities and to decisions that are always provisional and incomplete". In short, an architecture-process (defined by Kroll as Incrementalism ) occurs which is not all that different to Process Art. From 1966-'67, that movement had in fact rejected all seriality to highlight the process of the work's construction and its evolution in time, with the aid of assorted natural and industrial materials. The ramifications of that Process Art reached as far as Joseph Beuys, whose biography, along with his ecological commitment, contains an event curiously shared by that of Kroll. Almost simultaneously in fact, in 1972, Beuys was dismissed from his post as professor at the Düsseldorf Academy for having supported the occupation of the school by its students, while UCL (Université Catholique de Louvain) prevented the Belgian architect from completing his design of the campus, due to cultural incompatibility. Between 1970 and '72 the UCL's Social Zone was a theatre of experimentation, research and options, later explored by Kroll as he turned increasingly to an overview of living. Here the scale and complexity of the brief enabled him to envisage an action whose outcome would reach beyond the architectural object to an intricate dynamic entity. "Like a spongy living tissue", it is defined in a continuous exchange with its surroundings. In this light, the circulation layout assumes a crucial role. On the micro-urbanistic scale, a network of access points meticulously subverts the plan with the reduction of a sixlane highway to a minor connecting road. A decade later, the same logic of permeability underlies the Alma subway extension, for the only opensky station in Brussels, to a project by Kroll himself. But above all it is on the scale of the building that the logic of a continuous flow is to be seen, in a result somewhere between Escher and Piranesi: in the MéMé "everything communicates and opens, each element sees and can understand and meet the other. The floor slabs are open between one level and the next, the walls are cut out, the skylights are transparent everywhere, and the balconies are visible to one another. There are numerous entries, so people can come from anywhere, from the cellars to the attics and terrace staircases, from the walkways". This allows even what are often cumbersome restraints, such as fire escapes, to be dealt with in different ways. There is clearly a tribute here to the concept of community living and to a "transparent" society closely allied to the ideas of those years. However, the Maison Médicale also includes "opaque" zones, for "regular" accommodation: different but mitigated in the construction of a collective design – not the same thing as the "new subjectivism" which produces mass personalisations, hyperrequested by the market.
Four views of the “attics”.
The top two floors were divided between
students who had activities in common and
who also personally designed their spaces and
furniture. When Atelier Kroll subsequently
built the interiors, they carefully followed
the indications of the future inhabitants.
Four views of the “attics”. The top two floors were divided between students who had activities in common and who also personally designed their spaces and furniture. When Atelier Kroll subsequently built the interiors, they carefully followed the indications of the future inhabitants.
Le grand jeu
A highly original methodology is devised by stimulating an intuitive and spontaneous knowledge, "a game with a direct impact on reality". This enables a historical stratification of the work to be recreated in vitro , starting from a rejection of canonical unities (function, language, time). But what language? If after the modern, regularity and symmetry conveyed nothing but a sense of unnatural order, one might as well turn to "situationist" practices in architecture too: to consider the first element at random (as from a pack of playing cards); noting where it stands in the configuration and where its specific characteristics reside, so as to fit it into a general context without destroying or reducing it to an abstraction. A mosaic is thus completed, where the sign's motivation is aleatory. All this, in the case of the MéMé, is translated into the much discussed elevation with its mixture of windows and wood, aluminium and iron panels: a repertoire of constructional elements using the modular coordination of assorted elements. Here we have an extreme case of technologies explored for their creative scope, as an answer to much of the architecture of the same period which failed to achieve anything beyond bare prefabrication. "First of all classify the inhabited landscape within 'global' human knowledge, and then discuss the means of materialisation: everyone has something to contribute. Relations will also have to be reinvented with newly artistic techniques," remarked Lucien Kroll about his project for the French Pavilion at the 2006 Venice Biennale. One of these means of materialisation is certainly that of nature. The wild gardens planted on the artificial hillocks around the MéMé, under the pioneering guidance of Louis Le Roy, alluded to another open, autonomous and natural process, since nature contains every possible structure. The institution's fear of losing control over the process led to its botanical and other "normalisation", but did not wipe out every trace. Big trees today rise irregularly on the slopes, setting the measure of time past. It is not time that frightens this project, whose construction bears all the signs of its development, in a sort of preventive archaeology. But the years have witnessed a succession of incongruous and disrespectful alterations perpetrated by the university, which has never wanted to accept the value of this architecture. Paradoxically, the MéMé ought to be a listed "monument", not so much to freeze the process as to avoid its ruin. Like a haemostatic ligature, closed doors, blocked passages and unused walkways today obstruct the flow of life. Instead of imposing restraints, the legitimacy of decanting from one difference to another ought perhaps to be recognised: like the continuity in difference observed by Lucien Kroll precisely in the fragmented landscape of Belgium. Raffaella Poletti
View of the administration-school
building. The emergency exits were added
after construction had already begun,
in order to adapt to regulations that had
changed in the meantime. This alteration
harmonised, however, with the complexity of
the facade and enhanced the mosaic effect of
the architectural composition.
View of the administration-school building. The emergency exits were added after construction had already begun, in order to adapt to regulations that had changed in the meantime. This alteration harmonised, however, with the complexity of the facade and enhanced the mosaic effect of the architectural composition.
The east front of the MéMé and,
on the left of the photo, the glazed block with
the apartments for singles, which houses
individual university lodgings (jokingly called
“fascist” due to the decision not to share
accommodation).
The east front of the MéMé and, on the left of the photo, the glazed block with the apartments for singles, which houses individual university lodgings (jokingly called “fascist” due to the decision not to share accommodation).
The “administration-school”
building and, in the foreground, the Alma
underground station. In the background,
the hospital block. To mitigate the latter’s
presence, Atelier Kroll developed free and
“landscaped” forms.
The “administration-school” building and, in the foreground, the Alma underground station. In the background, the hospital block. To mitigate the latter’s presence, Atelier Kroll developed free and “landscaped” forms.

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