Flemish architects rethink seaside in new exhibition


The Flemish Architecture Institute gives up-and-coming talent a voice on the future of the coast’s landscape in an exhibition called Shifting Lands

Every project sees an end to coast’s many high-rise buildings

The Berlin Wall. That’s how architects sometimes refer to the strip of apartment buildings and other high-rise constructions on the Flemish coast. It seems like this concrete strip won’t ever go away, forever dominating the 67-kilometre stretch of land that borders the North Sea.

But is this how it really has to be? The Flemish Architecture Institute (VAi) asked five young architectural firms to brainstorm how they would like Flanders’ coastal landscape to look in 50 to 100 years from now. With every project offering a different take on the coast’s architectural landscape and every project razing the “Berlin Wall”, the results are fascinating.

Stefan Siffer, the VAi project leader for the resulting exhibition, isn’t surprised. “Today’s situation doesn’t have to be representative for the one in 50 to 100 years’ time,” he says, waving about the climate reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “If you go back the same amount of years, you’ll also notice a lot has changed since then.”

Siffer considers our coastline to be one of the biggest challenges for architects and urban planners because it requires a constant balancing act between adapting and intervening.

Wisselland (Shifting Lands), the title of the new exhibition in the Knokke-Heist Culture Centre, refers to the intertidal landscapes that will rise when the idea of a straight coastline is abandoned. This kind of landscape requires Flanders to return some land to the sea, in return for a new coastal experience and perspective.

The exhibition shows how “shifting lands” can reconcile the land-sea fluctuations with the residential, recreational and economical needs of local communities. Its biggest accomplishment lies in letting the architects have their say before their opinions are drowned out by project developers, policymakers and lobbyists.

A wake-up call

“Isn’t it sad that we can never enjoy our seaside landscape like nature intended it to be?” Frederic Vandoninck asks. This Antwerp architect is presenting his “Verrekt zicht” (Darned Sight) project at the exhibition, which offers a stark departure from residents’ and project developers’ obsession with sea views.

“A natural seaside landscape has an ecosystem of mudflats, tidal marshes and dunes, which are in constant flux,” Vandoninck says. In Flanders, these kinds of landscapes can only be found on the outskirts of the coast, in the national reserve Het Zwin or in De Panne. Vandoninck suggests we spin our seaside architecture a quarter turn, so that the landscape can freely move between piers and evoke a more expansive view as if, he explains, “the landscape is scraping against the architecture”.

If you pause to consider the current coastline, such a project seems impossible to realise. “In our exercise, that line is already corroded by the sea,” says Vandoninck. “Our coastal ‘line’ starts at the 15-metre altitude line, but this can vary in the hinterland.” Scientists assume this is a safe zone, which won’t be flooded and will be able to withstand the mega storms that occur every 100 to 200 years.

A star-shaped city

All five architectural projects on view factor in that the sea level is bound to substantially rise because of climate change. But in addition to problems tied to the rise of sea-levels, the coastline is also being threatened by irregular rainfall, which can cause serious drainage problems since the hinterland is already silted up by allotments. 

The way our coast looks is a consequence of how we buy and sell houses

- Frederic Vandoninck

Vandoninck says that the utopian “Verrekt zicht” could serve as a wake-up call. “The way our coast looks is a consequence of how we buy and sell houses and how authorities here have always encouraged private ownership,” he says. “If you step away from that, you get a totally new dynamic.”

He refers to “Diepzee” (Deep Sea), a project designed by the Ghent-based Maat Ontwerpers firm. “Diepzee” shifts the economic activity of a port to a new city to be built in the North Sea, in the process creating space for a more natural development at the shore.

“.zip CITY”, another project featured in the exhibition, also champions more open space – not by conquering the sea, but by defragmenting the shifting lands. “We think it’s important to stop cities from expanding,” says Nick Ceulemans, the C in the Limburg-based C.T. Architects firm. “To avoid more traffic jams and particulates, we should live more compactly,” he says. “Nowadays, we call Mechelen a city, but compared to what a city was like in the middle ages when fortified cities arose, it’s just a place where houses are a little bit closer to each other than in the countryside.”

A big open space designed for public and community use – like parks or markets – makes up the heart of Ceulemans’ future city. Structurally, his city differs from the walled cities of the middle ages because it doesn’t look like a circle; it looks like a star. Distinguishing between communal (in the heart) and residential (points of the star), he builds his city from the inside out and, just like Vandoninck, at a safe distance from the current seawall.

“At first, this new city will overlook the existing built environment, but in the long term hopefully the retrieved open space,” Ceulemans says.

He has reason to be optimistic. Land is much cheaper and space is still left further from the coast, which could help convince real estate developers. “In our example, they can keep doing their trademark property development – assigning prime, more pricey locations closer to the heart of the city. Locations further away from that heart would be accessible by public transport.”

A political framework

Co-operation between all parties is also crucial in the “Deltaclusters” project. Instead of a combination of piers or stars, a series of clusters enters the shifting lands here. In these configurations, different interests are brought together in “islands of clustered living”, so that not just investors and developers are involved. A cluster of health-care facilities, a holiday resort or an Olympic stadium transforming into a residential area are all possible options.

We think it’s important to stop cities from expanding

- Nick Ceulemans

The ultimate decision to draw a sharp distinction between residential areas (the city) and nature (the rest) of course remains political. All architects participating in Wisselland realise this. “Our common goal is to give the landscape back its original destination,” says Ceulemans. “But you can only do that by moving people. I do feel real estate developers are ready to take steps, but surely there will be a lot of resistance from landowners,” he says. “We all know the Fleming is attached to his little front garden, even if it serves no particular purpose. But if authorities, guided by architects and urban planners, set a goal and a good framework in which to work, and afterwards let the developers do their job, maybe what looks utopian now will one day become reality.”

By the way, anyone seen the Berlin Wall lately?

Until 12 January
CC Knokke-Heist
Meerland 32

More exhibitions this week

Photographies 1976-2010
Jane Evelyn Atwood
After first taking portraits of Parisian prostitutes in the mid-1970s with no formal training whatsoever, this American photographer began taking her camera everywhere. She paid special attention to the margins of society, and her affecting images of the blind, refugees, amputated war victims and prisoners are all on view in this retrospective. Until 12 January, Botanique, Brussels

Amabilis insania: The Pleasing Delusion
Folkert de Jong
After participating in the Long Live Sculpture! Middelheim group exhibition in 2006, which ended up earning him a residency at the Antwerp museum, the Dutch artist is back with 11 new bronze sculptures, with both figures and still lifes. De Jong still models his work on synthetic materials first, but when later translated to metal, his images alienate and bring visitors face-to-face with their own mortality. Until 6 April, Middelheim Museum, Antwerp

Fred and the Cloud
Tom Schamp
After graduating from Sint-Lukas in Brussels and completing additional graphic arts training in Poland, this illustrator quickly developed a distinctive style, mainly using acrylic paint on cardboard. Best-known for his ingenious illustrations in children’s book, he has amassed many prizes. The current exhibition at M Museum recounts the travels of Fred the dog and his friend the cloud, Wolk. Until 16 February, M Museum, Leuven

Flemish coast

The Flemish coast is a 67-kilometre sandy stretch on the North Sea. With its wide beaches, quiet dunes and polders, it’s Flanders’ most-visited tourist attraction.
Day-trippers - A two-hour drive at worst from most Flemish cities, the coast especially draws day tourists during the summer.
Kusttram - Connecting Knokke all the way to De Panne, the “Coast Tram” is the staple means of transportation along the coast. It’s the longest tramline in the world.
Theater Aan Zee - Every summer, a 10-day music and theatre festival is organised in and around Ostend.

coast municipalities


kilometres long


million visitors annually