Architect's Journal about architecture from Flanders

After nearly two decades at the Flanders Architecture Institute in Belgium, director Sofie De Caigny steps down this summer. She spoke to the British architecture magazine Architect's Journal about the Flander’s architectural scene, her favourite UK firms and winning work in Belgium. The article also presents Dennis Poh, from April 2024 the new director of the Flanders Architecture Institute.

Architect's Journal about architecture from Flanders
"Flanders creates good soil to grow quality architecture"
‐ Sofie De Caigny, director Flanders Architecture Institute

Open Call procedure

De Caigny has witnessed and showcased how Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern region has been shaped by architectural interventions from ‘super interesting’ small-to-medium-scale home-grown projects, to scaled-up ‘higher level’ imports from UK practices including Caruso St John and David Chipperfield.

An authority on procurement, De Caigny puts the strength of Flanders’
architecture tradition in large part down to its ‘progressive’ tender
system which, after overcoming a major existential threat almost a
decade ago, is now thriving and continuing to attract British as well as
Belgian architects.

The so-called ‘open call’ competitions system, developed by the Flemish Government Architect, has been hailed as among ‘the most progressive architectural cultures in the world’. But it was nearly scrapped in 2014 by Flanders’ then newly elected coalition government.

The outcry that followed, including from international admirers of the Flanders system, ‘behind the scenes’ policy influencers and more than 1,000 members of the public who gathered at the VAi for a debate around the role of the government architect, showed people ‘really cared’, says De Caigny.

This backlash led to the decision to keep the Flemish Government Architect, endorsing a system which De Caigny claims actually ‘came out stronger’ in the end and still gives ‘smaller, younger offices’ the chance to win commissions for major public buildings. The approach means procurement criteria often ‘leave room for experiment’ in architects’ designs, and the vlaams bouwmeester will further liaise with commissioners to champion projects that are culturally rich and environmentally forward-thinking.

As De Caigny says, ‘If you can create a good soil, then it’s easier to grow beautiful flowers.’

It is unsurprising the RIBA has recognised De Caigny. Her in-depth knowledge of architecture stretches beyond borders.

Asked how our system differs, she answers: ‘The UK is much more capitalised, and, just in general, the power of development and all the economic forces behind even one competition [mean] it’s a different game.’

Yet while Flanders frequently epitomises ‘small is beautiful’, De Caigny believes UK architects have imported a skillset traditionally ‘lacking’ in the area.

According to De Caigny, the UK sits shoulder to shoulder with Germany and the Netherlands – and a big step ahead of Belgium – on its delivery of larger projects, including the regeneration of former industrial sites, large-scale residential, and ‘massive developments around railway stations’.

Gepubliceerd op 6 juni 2024