“In the past, Brussels was not exactly a city with a fabulous urban development policy, but nowadays, high-quality architecture and built environment are explicitly on the agenda as a priority,” says Kristiaan Borret, Bouwmeester Maitre Architecte (BMA) for the Brussels Capital Region. Introduced in 2009, this independent position was introduced by the regional government to improve the spatial quality of urban development projects throughout all of Brussels.
In this edition of the Eurocities Urban Pioneers series, we talk to Borret to better understand how the BMA uses its ‘soft power’ to advise and encourage public and private stakeholders to aim towards quality design of spaces in the Belgian capital. An increasingly popular best practice in Belgium since 2000, the Bouwmeester’s first role is to professionalise and better organise architectural competitions for public service contracts. However, the role quickly broadened in Brussels, including the general promotion of higher quality architecture and the built environment and embracing all areas of urban development, such as architecture, urbanism, public space, landscape, etc.
Behind the BMA there’s a whole team, and almost half of their time is dedicated to organising and running architectural competitions. These focus on transparency; for example, all of the jury’s reports are published, and the process is freely available on the BMA website. The templates for competition are also used to discuss with private developers and encourage them to opt for better-quality projects.
The BMA office also offers to advise future permit applications through regular meetings discussing the quality of the potential application with all public actors. Similarly, the team utilises a method called ‘Research by design’ to provide insights and creative input during the initial phases of projects. This approach helps shape the direction of each project and contributes to discussions about urban policy more broadly.
The BMA has also been recently selected as one of the 30 good practices of the EU-funded project Living Spaces‘s catalogue, a peer-learning programme designed for local and regional authorities to learn how to plan and implement high-quality architectural policies and projects. Brussels will host a peer-learning visit on the role of the BMA between 17 and 19 June 2024.
What are you trying to achieve in your position?
Being able to support good design in order to improve life in the city gives me so much joy and motivation every day.
In general, I aim for better spatial quality in Brussels by pushing the ambition in all urban development projects. It is not about beauty versus ugliness – though that is not without importance. It’s about a broad conception of the quality of architecture, urbanism and public space, in which sustainability, social justice, inclusion and the ecological transition all play a part.
To achieve this, my team and I work transversally with a colourful multitude of actors. We organise competitions, do research by design, and give advice. We intervene officially, in the context of building permits and behind the scenes, by guiding policies or interacting with professionals and actors of the civil society.
While the short term is driven by moving as many projects as possible in a more ambitious direction, in the long term, I want a widely shared culture to gradually emerge in Brussels, addressing urban development projects with a higher ambition of quality. Then the practice will run itself, and the Bouwmeester will be able to make a difference focusing even more on particular issues.
What’s your personal motivation to do this job?
An architect and urban designer by training, I love the creativity of design to find solutions. At the same time, I have always been looking to commit myself to societal responsibility.
In my current role as Bouwmeester, the two really come together perfectly. Being able to support good design in order to improve life in the city gives me so much joy and motivation every day.
Walk us through a day in your shoes.
There are days completely taken by the jury for a competition. First, the architects each present their ideas; then you deliberate with the members of the jury on the best proposal.
Such days are completely dominated by one topic, but there are also many days that consist of a range of meetings and discussions on a variety of topics.
Then there are regular public lectures, press contacts or debates, also abroad, taking you out of your own bubble to exchange views with others. Lucky me, not one day is the same!
What are your main challenges?
The Bouwmeester works for the Brussels government but in an independent position. Because we belong to no one, we can work with anyone. Of course, projects to improve the city never succeed alone, so we always work transversally and with numerous clients, government departments and stakeholders.
Because we belong to no one, we can work with anyone.
When was the last time you felt that your position had a positive impact on your city’s inhabitants?
I like there to be impact on the ground in real life. That’s why I’m always in good spirits when I pass by a new building or public space that has just been finished, and even more happy when someone says it’s good. Then you are reassured that it is appreciated by others because you are doing it for them.
If you had a magic wand, what could significantly improve the way you do your job?
There is so much reluctance to do things differently, and yet we live in a time when change is really necessary. I would really like to see more voluntarism, even if it is a bit unknowing or naive because at least we try something: “They did not know it was impossible, so they did it.” (Mark Twain)
Pitch your job to other local, regional, national or European governments.
Laws, planning tools and regulations can guarantee a basic level of quality in urban development. But if we want to pursue excellence, then we need other design governance approaches that prove to be more immediate and effective in responding to urban challenges. The role of a Bouwmeester, like in Brussels, might be a convincing example of the real impact such a ‘soft power’ governance approach can have on the quality of the built environment in a city.
Main photo credits: Jonathan Ortegat
This interview is part of ‘Urban Pioneers,’ a Eurocities series published every first and fourth Monday of the month spotlighting innovative and original job positions in municipalities across Europe. Each article in this series highlights a job position aimed at improving wellbeing, health conditions, society and the environment in cities. From tackling the urban heat island effect to countering gender imbalances to encouraging sustainable mobility, ‘Urban Pioneers’ showcases how cities are leading by example and breaking new ground in enhancing people’s quality of life. ‘Urban Pioneers’ jobs can inspire national, regional and EU authorities to create similar positions in their own structures, multiplying across Europe’s regions and nations the positive impact that started in cities.