Antwerp bets on the MAS

Inaugurated on 17 May, Antwerp’s new metropolitan museum has become a talking point for its architecture. But will it, as its designers have hoped, bring lasting change to the Flemish city? Planner and columnist Filip Canfyn is not convinced.

Published on 20 May 2011 at 14:29

It is now a year since I wrote, “the 65-metre tower for the new century will be built on Antwerp’s Eilandje [“Islet” in Flemish], where in times past the old harbour was fragrant with fuel oil and noisy with the metallic sound of rigging in the wind. In building the Museum aan de Stroom [literally “Museum on the Stream”] or the MAS as we prefer to call it in this era of abbreviations and short messages, Antwerp has acquired not just another skyscraper, but a phenomenon — an urban phenomenon.”

I am truly crazy about the MAS, which is set to become the “Farmers Tower” of the 21st century. But having said that… Europe’s first skyscraper [the art deco tower, built in 1930s Antwerp, which for many years was the highest in Europe] did not make much of mark on world history.

If the Park Spoor Noord has a European scale on a horizontal axis, the MAS has an international dimension on a vertical one. Encountering this building, we at last have the feeling of walking in a city that looks like something, in a metropolis, or not to put to fine a point on it… in the big world. As I see it, the MAS has the potential to become an urban symbol like the Eiffel Tower, that could represent Antwerp on coffee cups, ice lollies and snow globes. The fact that Dutch architect [Willem-Jan Neutelings] has requested rights to the building’s image, says a lot about the effectiveness of this type of marketing…

Antwerp marked by an exodus of the middle class young

But has it made Antwerp more beautiful? Yes! Well almost. One MAS does not a spring make. Antwerp will have to adopt a more coherent approach with regard to quality. While it was being developed (the design of the MAS dates back to 1999), Michel Jaspers built the disgraceful Kievitplein and the monstrous university building in Italiëlei. And that is not all, we also acquired two clinical looking residential blocks on the Kattendijkdok, the vaudeville inspired port authority building designed by Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers’ enormously expensive court house which is already out of fashion and difficult to maintain. To some extent the MAS makes up for all of these, but not completely.

Is it an improvement for Antwerp? No! The Bilbao effect — the construction of a single emblematic building like the Guggenheim Museum, which projects a city into the international limelight — does little to improve the urban social context or resolve urban problems.

There is no doubt that the MAS will be greeted by a certain euphoria. Prepare for lavish praise of the engaging, creative and sexy nature of urban living. Brace yourselves: it’s time to wheel out the big quotes from Richard Florida [the American sociologist behind the concept of creative cities]. But we really should know better.

Like any city in Flanders, Europe or elsewhere, Antwerp has been marked by an exodus of the middle class young, who have moved to the near suburbs to live between the city and the countryside, while the underprivileged and willing Chinese living in cheap studio apartments have replaced them. Like all other cities, Antwerp has been obliged to compete against attractively priced housing estates with a range of property (that is too expensive or excessively poor in quality) in a system that refuses to take into account the cost of mobility and the waste of space.

Renew Antwerp and all the cities of Flanders

Antwerp is able to build a MAS, but unable to resolve these problems. And that is not all, because Antwerp is also worried by the influx of the poorer classes, the slumlords, and the confusion of native languages.

Antwerp’s problem — and this is a problem for every city in Flanders — has been caused by public authorities who, instead of making fundamental decisions about the urban environment and applying proper urban planning policies, have sought to engage the public’s attention with purportedly festive developments and the hollow discourse that accompanies them. Flanders should begin by launching a Marshall Plan to provide the massive sum necessary for the renovation of old residential properties (approximately half of the city) to make them affordable and energy efficient. Only the will it once again become a city that is open to everyone and belongs to everyone.

“Mas que nunca” (more than ever): the 1984 slogan adopted by authorities in Barcelona in their drive to revitalise neglected areas of the city in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics brought with it a major influx of new investment. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the MAS became a “mas que nunca” force for the much needed renewal of Antwerp and all the cities of Flanders, so that they could not only benefit from superficial make-overs, but also become better places to live.

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