E.U.’s new Tower of Babel

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Pairing the European Union’s new facility in Strasbourg with the medieval painter Brueghel’s Tower of Babel has occurred to not a few on the Internet, and not without very good reason. You can almost assume that the designer intended to dare critics to draw the obvious comparison. Modern architects are like that. Harum-scarum! But the E.U. is a fount of many voices, “out of many, one,” so to speak, and amounting to babble only in the eyes of critics. But the critics may be correct. The E.U. is a quagmire, but less of a babble, literally or figuratively, than the United Nations: Many more voices, even more babblicious.

At the risk of shocking my friend Malcolm Millais’s eyeballs into a furious roll, I have to say that the photo he sent of the E.U.’s new headquarters in Brussels is quite cute. Modern architecture has here created something that may come as close to beautiful as can be imagined by objective observers in the full capacity of their sanity. Below is a nice photograph taken from an extensive shoot at Dezeen, “E.U. headquaters features glass box containing curvaceous glowing lantern.”

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New E.U. headquarters in Brussels. (Photos here and below from Dezeen)

The new building, whose design was led by the Belgian firm Samyn and Partners, perhaps does not even rely for its high aesthetic quality on the historical building at its lower right corner, to which the larger structure has been attached. Another photo below from an angle taken at dusk also shows off its delicate loveliness. The building appears pregnant with the future of Europe. (Yes, I myself cringe at the words flying off my keyboard.)

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Having said all of this, let’s reiterate what has not been said: As architecture the building is ghastly, like almost all modernism. Like all such buildings, to imagine a classical or other traditional building in its place is to imagine an improvement in its civic beauty. However delicate it may be, the new E.U. headquarters still crushes the spirit of passersby, hazards the future potential for beauty on the rest of the boulevard, and is unsustainable. For that matter, it is not a building anyway but a sculpture, a big sculpture pretending to be a building. And if the next photo offers any evidence, there are times (such as daytime) when its elegance doesn’t really come up to snuff. Yawn!

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The box containing the lantern is interesting, regardless of the last picture. The picture below, contrasting the surface of the old building with the surface of the glass box in which the spherical “lantern” sits, or hangs, or whatever, is described below the photo by Alyn Griffiths, author of the Dezeen article, along with an architects’ statement.

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The transparent walls that wrap around the new northeast corner of the building comprise a patchwork of 3,750 recycled wooden window frames procured from renovation or demolition sites across Europe.

“This new facade will be both a practical and philosophical statement about the re-use of these traditional construction elements, expressing the European diversity of cultures,” said the architects.

Haw! Haw! That statement of the architects – how typical. Still, even I must admit that the patchwork of recycled windows is interesting and, if you get close enough, even elegant. How entirely sad that so few works of modern architecture can strive to merit even the derision in masquerade that is this seemingly glowing review from Architecture Here and There!

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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15 Responses to E.U.’s new Tower of Babel

  1. Wil Howard says:

    The ball enclosed in scaffolding reminds me of when they renovate a building with protective scaffolding to keep the debris from contaiminating the surroundings and hide the work being done.


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  4. Johnn says:

    “This outer area is converted into a glass atrium protecting from the urban dust”

    The dust, that is, the dust of the masses out there in the city, the new aesthetics of techno-glamour indulges in a sterile-cleanliness for the elites and their bureaucratic armies, who consequently in their high rising buildings, secular cathedrals as symbols of power -with a double protective layer … may feel like gods supervising the world, while the dirty masses walk down there on the dirty earth. I am not religious, but, oh vanity and lust for power?


  5. Johnn says:

    More symbolism?
    “Roof falls in on the European Parliament”

    Under the banner of alleged human caused climate change, the EU technocracy also imposes its regulations on architecture EU wide (fast top down regulated reshaping of society):


    ” smart readiness of buildings”, “Smart technologies”, “long-term renovation strategies”, “Better performing buildings” while their roofs come tumbling down and the last economic crisis came as a surprise to them.


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  7. Jacqueline says:

    Good lord. You are a terrible writer! I can only imagine your style is for a very small base. If you’re going to give something a bad review that is also snarky you need to give the reader a reason to not like the person on the receiving end of the review. You can start with them being boastful or hell even spending too much money will do. This is just pretentious art queen gossip. It’s no better than the man buns that sit at the outdoor store and make fun of middle aged customers that don’t know if they need a mountain bike or a road bike. I would suggest looking at roger eberts critiques or really just any random person on rotten tomatoes. You might be inspired and develope charm and wit. Otherwise just tweet this to your friends and spare passers by like me from the dick wagging.


  8. Anonymous says:

    The end is near repent now


  9. Steven ransom says:

    hello my friend, im writing to get your professional opinion on the eu building in strasbourg, the architects say publicly the building was designed around the look of an old amphitheatre, yet it so resembles the breughel painting of the tower of babel. surely, the architects cannot expect us to believe there were no hush hush consultations to discuss the look of the tower of babel painting and the eventual look of the strasbourg building?
    thank you
    steve ransom


    • I suspect you are correct, Steve, but it doesn’t really matter, does it, that some architect thinks the EU, as an organizing principle for Europe, is a tower of babble. No surprise he wants to keep that thought secret. I suppose you must have seen my recent post about architects who deny that their buildings resemble penises and vaginas and exploding twin towers. It must have been a week or two ago. Right up your alley.


  10. Blue Panther says:

    The Dezeen article also shows the very bold interiors and I find the lavish and geometric use of color and blond wood actually very cheerful and optimistic. Bureaucratic buildings are either coldly elegant or sinister spaces that crush the spirit and I find the approach here very humanizing.


    • Good! We should all strive to find as much pleasure in as wide a spectrum of architecture as we can. We would all be happier if we all liked crappy architecture the most! The very idea of boldly colorful rooms gives me a headache, unfortunately. Oh well. I’ve said as much as I will say about that E.U. building’s charms, and not a word more!!!


  11. A Subscriber says:

    Where’s your Christmas-y generosity of spirit, Dave? Isn’t this building ‘at least’ as beautiful as our lovely Embassy in London? And aren’t they both perfect compliments to their respective neighborhoods? C’mon, lighten up, will ‘ya? 🙂


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