Social housing in Belgium is often perceived as a burden for those living in the residential neighbourhoods where housing projects are constructed. Its presence can even initiate the economic decline of surrounding private properties. Nonetheless, through joint efforts of various public administration agencies, local governments try to prevent these negative trends. With the help of architectural competitions, we can nowadays observe some of the best architects of Belgium and Europe engaging in projects to confront such challenging issues. Projects like Savonnerie Heymans in Brussels or Jerusalem Social Housing in Schaarbeek are putting many old clichés about living in social housing to the test.
It only shows that striking architecture itself can help to revive many urban neighbourhoods. Still, not all social housing projects call for completely new buildings. There are many existing housing blocks that already provide accommodation to those in need. And in many of these places, public administration hasn't the means to venture into new and ambitious projects. Moreover, some of these places are just fine the way they are, regardless of their imperfections and their dated look. In some of these cases the social housing buildings somehow “grow on” their inhabitants, progressively developing a specific local identity.
Geelhandplaats in Antwerp is amongst these places. Built just a few years before World War II in the northern parts of the city, it gave shelter and became home to about 170 low-income families. The building itself is an interesting example of the multi-residential architecture of that period. But contrary to its contemporaries, it isn't a singular building, surrounded by green open spaces; instead it is a large open courtyard surrounded by six-story high, continuous housing blocks.
The open space in-between the tall blocks is a keystone of the project. Not only does it provide views and daylight for the apartments, but it also creates a platform for social interactions between neighbours. In this sense it is the heart of the housing project.
The disproportion between the number of inhabitants at Geelhandplaats and the available open space, however, led to its constant abuse which ultimately brought the inner-courtyard to a very poor state. As the only open public square in the neighbourhood (or at least semi-public) it no doubt attracted citizens of the much wider area. People of different ages and cultural backgrounds used this space to interact and simply hang-out, giving the place a special aura worth preserving.
Yet capturing such an ephemeral atmosphere required something more than legislative initiatives or typical revival strategies. It had to be a composition that could exist independently of any visual references in the world. A work that takes the liberty to alter the space and its experience in more conspicuous ways, reflecting the social and cultural conditions of the local society.
Hence the traditional language of an urban environment had to be abandoned and replaced with an alternative vocabulary, which can be found in the dialectics of abstract art. Works by Karl Benjamin and Gene Davis became benchmarks for the new design transforming the surface of the Geelhandplaats courtyard into a monumental painting or tapestry.
The "colourful carpet" is made out of various rubber strokes, rolled out one after another, following the gentle slope of the square. The slope itself was artificially engineered to discourage teenagers and young adults from intensive and rough sport activities and as a result also to ensure the safety of the target group of families with small children. Introducing soft and porous paving material also significantly improved the acoustic comfort of the surrounding apartments.
As most artworks have a life of their own, usually distinguished from our everyday reality, they are understandably contained within a boundary which allows us to comprehend it. A simple frame has the power to draw a line between fantasy and reality, simultaneously increasing the importance of the artwork itself. At Geelhandplaats too, the colourful tapestry fits into a passe-partout of brown brick and white concrete which helps to accentuate the strength of the central piece. Through its ordinary character, the peripheral zone of the courtyard acts as a no-mans-land but accommodates such facilities as maintenance, garbage collection and access for ambulances or the fire brigade. This distinct contrast between the technical and formal, and the open and free brings to the fore that which is really important here: the peaceful and joyful life of the local urban community.
The revitalised Geelhandplaats is definitely an eccentric element in the urban puzzle of Antwerp. Its atypical design and peculiar look clear the environment of the usual clichés and stereotypes, paving the way towards a new identity for the neighbourhood. We could call it a "deep rehabilitation" project, which in this case not only rehabilitates the physical features of the space but also initiates a new perception of the place, allowing for countless interpretations.
And so, for some, Geelhandplaats is reminiscent of the Flemish rural landscape, while for others it reflects the vitality and diversity of a contemporary city. In fact, it doesn't try to represent anything; it is what it is, present like the people themselves and everything around them.