Our cities are becoming more and more modern. Unfortunately, old buildings all too often have to make way for new projects. Do we show enough love for our urban heritage? ‘Tearing down to replace is only the cheapest in the short term,’ says Flemish Government Architect Erik Wieërs.
Stagnation means decline. A saying that also shows itself in our cities. They change at a whirlwind. With the regularity of the clock new, modern buildings pop up. Sometimes giants, often from a project developer, often newer than new. But where there are winners, there are also losers. In this case: our old buildings. All too often they have to make way for a total new construction project. But is that necessary and do we want it? Do we pay enough attention to our existing patrimony?
“Too little account is taken of what is already there, which is the wisest choice anyway,” says Flemish Government Architect Erik Wieërs. He is not alone in that opinion. “The new construction projects are appearing with incredible speed and impact. Both in the cities and in our village centers. Unfortunately, this often happens without thinking about the existing patrimony,” says Sofie De Caigny, director of the Flemish Architecture Institute (VAi).
She illustrates this with a well-known example: the Eilandje in Antwerp. The place where city and port merge was once dotted with warehouses, like a silent witness to the past. Today you only see this around the oldest docks, close to the center. Further north, the history of a lively harbor district has been replaced by residential blocks. Only the water, some harbor relics and the street pattern are still reminiscent of the harbour. “The historic character of that neighborhood can no longer be seen in the architecture. Very unfortunate,” says De Caigny.
Developers are also starting to see that the Flemish like diversity and identity. That also has an economic value.
Money makes the world go round
By exchanging old buildings for new construction, we therefore threaten to give up architectural-historical value. A sensation that at least feels bitter. But then why does it happen? The answer is obvious: money. “It is often argued that tearing down to replace is the cheapest option, but that only applies in the short term. In the long term, it is always wiser to keep what is there,” says master builder Erik Wieërs.
Money makes the world go round, certainly in the real estate world a truth like a cow. However, we should not paint the entire sector with the same brush. “There are also very progressive project developers, who do focus on reuse, who want to honor what exists,” says Wieërs. And we are even seeing that more and more. “There is a rapid evolution going on. There will be more attention for the existing”, Sofie De Caigny (VAi) nods. “Developers are also starting to see that the Flemish like diversity and identity in his or her home. ‘t Groen Kwartier, the former site of the Military Hospital in Antwerp, is a good example. A large part of the existing patrimony has been repurposed for different types of homes: lofts, single-family homes, new-build apartments… This diversity is well received by the market and also has economic value.”
The turnaround seems to have started, although there is still a long way to go. Governments can play their part in this. For example, they can create stricter requirements or carry out quality control through (city) master builders, as is often the case now. Who knows, even the difficult economic situation could turn things around? Anyone who renovates at home knows it well enough: the prices of building materials are rising at an enormous rate. Perhaps that disadvantage also has an advantage? “New construction is now often cheaper than reusing existing ones, but will that remain the case?” De Caigny wonders. “Who knows, we may reach a point where reusing materials and buildings will become cheaper than new construction. That would shake everything up.”