Face of Flanders: Leo Van Broeck


The new Flemish master architect has raised a few eyebrows with his comments on the advantages of urban life

Redrawing the map

No sooner was his appointment announced than the new Flemish bouwmeester – or master architect – had thrown a cat in among the pigeons. The Flemish, he said, were paying the price for their desire to live in their own house on their own plot of land outside the cities. City dwellers represent less of a burden on society, and new construction on the outskirts of small towns and villages should be stopped.

Flanders has 1,200 small towns and villages, and one in three Flemings lives there. Of the rest, a fair number are planning to move there one day, or wish they could. So Leo Van Broeck’s words were bound to cause a reaction. The Rural Guild ventured to suggest it might not be a great idea to drive everyone into urban centres. Van Broeck later amended his statement – Flemings should not necessarily migrate to the cities; even the centres of smaller towns were better than the constant eating away of rural land by new construction. The countryside was being “inhabited to death”, he said. 

Van Broeck studied architecture at the University of Leuven and started teaching there in 1995, becoming professor of architectural and urban design in 2006. A year later he set up in private practice with Oana Bogdan in the centre of Brussels. Since then they have worked on projects in Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and Genk, as well as Uppsala, Dubai and Iasi in Romania. The bureau only takes on urban projects.

His new job almost didn’t exist. His predecessor, Peter Swinnen, was only the third holder of the post, who oversees the quality of architectural and town planning projects in Flanders. Swinnen was dismissed in February last year, five months before the end of his term. No detailed reason was given.

The government had already said it planned to scrap the post altogether, with the responsibilities taken over by panel of experts. In April last year, it said it had changed its mind on advice from the sector, and advertised a vacancy. At the time, no suitable candidate came forward, and the vacancy was re-advertised in February this year.

“The map of Flanders is like a sort of cluster-bomb,” Van Broeck said. “It’s easy to see how it’s impossible to service the region with public transport. Redrawing that map will be a difficult but extremely profitable operation.”

Photo courtesy Vlaamse Bouwmeester