‘Heritage is only as valuable as what the neighborhood thinks about it’

If it’s up to owner Fernand Huts, the iconic Boerentoren will get a makeover with lots of glass and greenery. That there is a lot of reaction to this shows how sensitive the debate is. ‘Heritage is more than a matter of form, it has an existential value.’

‘A city without debate is a dead city’, Fernand Huts concluded his presentation on Tuesday. Together with the top architect Daniel Libeskind, the managing director had just revealed the plans for the new use of the Boerentoren in Antwerp, which Huts bought from KBC in 2020. Huts, entrepreneur and managing director of the logistics company Katoen Natie, must have sensed: There will be a reaction to that .

The purpose of the Boerentoren is clear: It will be a cultural tower with at most space for a few cafés, but no offices, apartments or hotel. The two visual interventions in particular caused quite a stir. The tower will remain intact on the outside – everything will be removed on the inside, also because asbestos has been identified – but there will be two additions. At the top, there will be a kind of glass cube, with a panoramic view and space for events. Along the tower there will be a similar glass column where stairs and elevators will be placed.



Huts wants to do something radically clean for the sake of spectacle. He wants to transform the Boerentoren into a new icon, instead of preserving the old icon – the core of why it’s heritage.

Erik Wieers

Flemish government architect

Huts, as is often the case, sees it big and will not settle for mediocrity. Immediately there was a contradiction. Erik Wieërs, the Flemish government architect, called it ‘disrespectful’. ‘The design deviates too little from the building and the existing style. It seems like the Huts want to add something so radically different just for show. He wants to make it a new icon rather than preserve the old icon – the core of why it’s heritage.’

Protection

This raises the question of what is the right way to deal with cultural and architectural heritage. ‘The heritage debate is about shared value,’ says Koen Van Balen, professor of architecture at KU Leuven and chairman of the Herkul steering group, the Institute for Cultural Heritage at KUL.

“The value of a monument can be formally recognized through a conservation procedure, but it is about more than that. That is the common point: Many groups feel targeted or even threatened by plans like this: experts and historians, but also, and much more than before, citizens.’

Fernand Huts imagines a striking extension to the Boerentoren in Antwerp.
©2022 Libeskin

Therefore, Van Balen says that the importance of a broad debate about the interpretation of the Boerentoren and how to deal with heritage should not be underestimated. ‘The central question is: is the value of the monument sufficiently recognised? We must realize the existential value of heritage. It is more than a matter of form.’

Polarization

It is almost impossible to answer that question objectively, says Matthias Francken, the director general of the Flemish cultural heritage fund Herita. ‘Some things can be expressed in numbers: it is the last building of that architect, it is the only one in the region, or, as with the Boerentoren: the first skyscraper in Europe. But heritage is above all collectively defined. That makes it very fragile: it is only as valuable as the current society living around it thinks about it.’

This does not mean that you have to make all decisions together, says Francken. “This entails a risk of downtime. Sometimes you have to dare to make decisions, even if they are controversial. The unfortunate thing about this proposal is that it immediately becomes so polarized. The typical ‘landmark’ architecture is dated. It provokes extreme views and removes support.’

Advice

On Thursday, Huts and Libeskind will meet for the first time with the Property Inheritance Authority to discuss the plans. “We keep an open mind,” says Cultural Heritage Minister Matthias Diependaele (N-VA). The municipality makes the final decision on the permit, but the agency can formulate (non-mandatory) advice.

‘We ask ourselves questions about the visual effect and function. But the zeitgeist also plays a role,’ says Diependaele. “In the 1970s and 1980s, an extension was supposed to be visually distinct from the original. It is much less now. But we must remember that we continue to create sufficient added value. The things that are built today are tomorrow’s heritage. Sometimes you have to dare to deviate’.

Clock jar

Professor of architectural theory and criticism Hilde Heynen (KU Leuven) also believes that change should be possible. ‘I am not opposed to an addition. The Boerentoren has a visual significance and was once built as a beacon of progress and modernity. A city changes, develops. Buildings can do that too.’

Heynen believes that the material program, the public function of the tower, is a sound idea. ‘But I am not yet convinced of the effect. It is a bit too chubby and visually no enrichment yet. It looks strange, but then again not strange enough to be exciting.’

It is not meant to place a city under a bell, concludes Francken. ‘Heritage is about how the generations before us have shaped our environment. It is up to us to add a new layer, motivated by nuanced views. That reflection is missing in the design of the Boerentoren.’

Three discussions of inheritance

The rock (Antwerp) > The renovation of Het Steen in Antwerp last year was not well received by the people of Antwerp. There were visual objections, but also criticism of the interpretation of the extension: a cruise terminal and tourist center.

Gravensteen (Ghent) > During the renovation of the Gravensteen in Ghent, protests arose about the impact on the environment: the construction of a new pavilion would cause part of the surrounding park to disappear.

town hall (Ghent) > In 2012, a new town hall at the foot of the bell tower in Ghent sparked controversy. Many complaints were purely aesthetic (the hall is derisively referred to as a ‘sheepfold’), but the structure would also obscure the view of the bell tower.

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