December 30, 2010

Two Rooms & a Kitchen.

Better a humble house than none. A man is a master at home.

A pair of goats and a patched roof are better than begging.

- Hávamál

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Reminders of Göteborg's (Gothenburg's) purpose-built nature appear both throughout the city and over the course of time, throughout the city's history. Once its fortified walls came down, Göteborg grew in a distinctly planned rather than organic fashion. It easily impresses visitors as a city consisting of a number of small towns tenaciously held together, rather than large municipality — the second largest in Sweden, fifth largest in Scandinavia — with a natural centre. The principal reason for this is that the city has had town plans drawn up (despite the challenging geography of a barren, rocky, hilly archipelago, interspersed with wetlands) at practically every point in its history, with every major style that dominated Swedish architecture — Classicism, National Romanticism, Functionalism, Modernism — leaving indelible marks on the cityscape, and very brief periods of unregulated planning and construction.

One of the best examples of the practically self-contained "mini-communities" that make up the city of Göteborg is the primarily residential district of Kortedala. Laid out and mainly constructed between 1952-1957 in what until then was a rural area, Kortedala was the second Satellite Town in Sweden (the first being Vällingby northwest of Stockholm) — a smaller metropolitan area established at some distance from and largely independent of a neighbouring larger metropolitan area (similar to Britain's New Towns). The first such district to be created in the Göteborg area, Kortedala (derived from Korta dalen, the "short valley", as opposed to nearby Djupedalen, the "deep" or "lengthy valley") consisted largely of three to four story low-rise buildings, eight to nine story high-rise buildings, and some 300 single family houses, comprising 8,300 flats in total by the early 1960s. Exceptionally few among these were larger than one bedroom flats.

Kortedala's buildings were constructed in eight neighbourhood units around four local squares (one large and three smaller ones), with a streetcar line (opened in 1957) running through the middle of the district, connecting it with central Göteborg. Most of the district's streets received names relating to horological and calendar events, hence the first families moving to the brand new district in November 1953, found themselves living on Kalendervägen ("Calendar Street") and Månadsgatan ('Month Street"). Planned for 21,000 inhabitants, the district peaked at 28,000 in the mid-1960s, and is currently home to some 15,000 people. Built a decade before Sweden implemented its infamous Million Programme, Kortedala has largely managed to maintain its ambitious character of a welfare state's idealised "good homes", with fully equipped kitchens, bathrooms, and hardwood floors available and affordable to every citizen.

Where international delegations once descended to learn how to construct "good-quality" housing areas from scratch — complete with easy access to education, healthcare, shopping, entertainment, and other essential services — the average visitor can now inspect a two room flat restored to its original, mid-1950s-state at the Kortedala Museum. Housed in a standard 65 m² (≈ 700 Sq Ft) flat, carefully restored with original paints, wallpaper, and period-style furnishings, the museum offers a glimpse of what comfortable, modern living SEK 165/month (roughly C$ 31.85 in 1965, the equivalent of C$ 217 in 2009) could rent in Sweden 55 years ago. It's an opportunity to literally step back half a century to the point in time when the Swedish welfare society — the project which for a brief period provided worldwide renown to this otherwise quite parochial nation on the outskirts of Europe — began taking shape, and the dream of a place of one's own (with indoor plumbing) became a reality for an increasing number of Swedes.

Run by volunteers, who are on hand to share their own memories of growing up and living in the district, the tiny time capsule opens up practically every Sunday of the year to display its exhibits of an optimistic post-war decade, when the future seemed brighter for the typical family of five (two adults and their three children) that would've inhabited a flat such as this one. The majority had moved to Göteborg following the Second World War, primarily seeking employment in industry, and most had been relegated to the city's 30,000 one-room flats (barely 200 of which had indoor plumbing). Yet the Kortedala museum-flat isn't merely an artifact of a time when "common people" began to afford decent housing with essential amenities close by, but also "luxury" goods like record players, televisions, even holidays abroad — evident from some of the kitschy, "exotic" bric-a-brac strewn about the place. It's also a unique testament to a time when Swedish politicians still had the audacity to envision a decent standard of living for all their citizens, to elevate the poorest above the sordid squalor of industrial slums. Kortedala remains a reminder of a time when it still seemed possible to create an ideal society according to a master plan.

(More images of the museum-flat here.)

December 27, 2010

Fortification & alimentation.

When passing a door-post, watch as you walk on, inspect as you enter.

It's uncertain where enemies lurk or crouch in a dark corner.

- Hávamál

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Göteborg (Gothenburg) is a purpose-built city, its current incarnation developed from the Swedish kingdom's fourth and ultimately successful attempt to establish a presence on the North Sea coast. Having clawed possession of the Göta river estuary at Rivö fjord by the middle of the 13th century, the Swedes set about constructing a port to not only make their presence permanent, but also detract trade from the Danish and Norwegian settlements previously dominating the coast. The first Swedish attempts either failed to draw enough visitors, or were so successful the dominant Danes couldn't help but raid and burn them to the ground.

Yet by the time king Gustav II Adolf's Göteborg (as it became known) was completed at the beginning of the 18th century, it was one of the strongest fortified cities in Northern Europe. However, little of its once-impressive fortifications remain, as the winds of war not only shifted away from the city, but also because advances in martial technology and strategy rendered its stationary fortifications obsolete. The majority of the city's defences were torn down at the beginning of the 19th century — leaving only the armoury, Kronhuset (the "Crown's House", one of Göteborg's oldest brick buildings, erected 1643-1655), a single bastion, most of the moat, and two fortified sconces constructed on hills once overlooking the city.

The oldest sconce, Kronan ("the Crown"), erected between 1678 and 1689 on Rysåsen ("Ryd's Hill"), was originally connected to the walled city by a caponier, and has been topped by a gilded copper crown since 1697. Having lost its military importance by the early 19th century, it served first as a prison, later a shelter for the homeless, before being purchased by the city from the state in 1925. For nearly a century, between 1904 and 2004, the sconce housed a military museum (now mothballed) before being turned into a private function hall. As the last Danish attack on Göteborg took place in 1643, before any of the currently remaining defenses were even constructed, neither Kronan or any of the other fortifications were ever tested in battle.

Though the second sconce, Västgöta Lejon (commonly Lejonet, "the Lion"), was begun at the same time as Kronan, it wasn't completed until 1699 — at which point it became apparent that, although built on the strategically important Gullberget ("Gull's Hill"), it could quite easily be bombarded from other nearby hills. Hence, the dud sconce mainly found use as a warehouse for gunpowder made in an adjacent factory. Yet it remained a military installation until 1942, eventually becoming (after restoration work in the early 1970s) the private hall of Götiska Förbundet ("the Geathic Society", a social club of national romantics). The crowned lion brandishing a sword and shield currently crowning the sconce is an 1893 reinterpretation of an earlier original.

The sole remaining bastion, officially named Carolus XI Rex (the Latin rendition of "King Karl XI") but commonly known as Carolus Rex, is the last standing reminder of the city's once imposing fortified wall, which gradually replaced earlier earthen fortifications. One of thirteen such polygonal bulwarks projecting out from the wall, Carolus Rex wasn't completed until 1731 — over a century after the city's official founder, Gustav II Adolf (1594 1632), had (as the story goes) stood on the hill the bastion now occupies, and pointed toward the site where he desired the new city to be constructed.

Though a statue supposedly depicting the event has stood in what once was Stora Torget ("the Great Square", now Gustaf Adolfs Torg, "Gustaf Adolf's Square") since 1854, the rapacious monarch founded no fewer then fifteen cities throughout his realm. Hence any sense of distinctness Gothenburgers may derive from their city's origin should be tempered by the fact that statues of Gustav II Adolf can be found in numerous other places, (clearly) equally proud of such royal distinction. Never mind that Göteborg, despite receiving city privileges from its founder as early as 1621, was largely constructed during the reigns of his successors.

However, Gothenburgers are likely unique in continuing to commemorate Gustav II Adolf's demise by stuffing their faces with pastry each November, on the very day the king was killed in the Thirty Years' War. For a while a battle also raged between the city's most prominent confectionary families, the Arnholts and the Bräutigams, as to whom had first devised the infamous pastry, and initiated the tradition. (Having provided Göteborg's inhabitants with marzipan and pastries since 1870, the current, fifth generation of Bräutigams appear to have won through sheer longevity.)

The late 19th century origin of the tradition is now as shrouded in fog as the king himself was said to have been the day he got shot. Nevertheless, the novelty caught on, and by the early 1950s the "Gustav Adolf Pastry" could be bought in 43 Swedish cities and towns each November 6th, in sixteen different varieties in Göteborg alone. Currently the most common incarnation is a variant of the classic Swedish Princess cake, topped with a relief of the king's head in chocolate. Though vaguely macabre, the notion of Göteborg's pastry chefs striking coin from a king's misfortune is largely consistent with the city's tradition of having been founded for militant trade.

December 19, 2010


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It's easy to get the impression that the German air force is responsible for constructing all of Belgium's national airports. The first, at Haren, was opened following the First World War, on the opposite side of the German-built Zeppelin airfield at Evere — using the same field as the military. The second, current national airport, Brussels Airport at Zaventem, dates back to the Second World War, when — once again — German occupiers constructed an airport at Melsbroek, near the Belgian military backup airfield Steenokkerzeel. (Urban legend has it that the locals directed the Germans to Melsbroek, as it was an area often enveloped in fog.)

By 1948, civilian aviation in Belgium had outgrown Haren aiport, and Melsbroek was designated as the new national airport. However, in 1956 history repeated itself, as the Belgian authorities decided to construct a new airport in preparation for the 1958 World's Fair, utilising the same runways, but with the new terminal buildings located in Zaventem. Unable to shake its martial past, the old civilian airport is now used by the Belgian air force (as Melsbroek Air Base), sharing its runways with the current civilian airport at Zaventem — making this perhaps the only airport in Europe at which one can land and take-off from runways originally constructed by German occupational forces.

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The most common urban myth surrounding Sweden's largest airport, Stockholm-Arlanda, is that its name is pun on the Swedish verb "landa" ("to land"), and that it was chosen by a naming contest held by Sweden's largest weekly magazine. While a contest was in fact held when construction commenced of new airport in the Swedish capital region, capable of handling intercontinental traffic, the contest jury chose to endorse the name originally suggested by the projects toponymist. Derived from Arland, the archaic name of Ärlinghundra hundred where the airport is situated, the new airport's name had an "a" added to be analogous with other Swedish place names ending in "-landa" ("land of"), making Arlanda in fact the "Land of Streams" (with "Ar-" being an ancient Swedish form of "å", the noun for "stream".)

Despite the somewhat droll name, Arlanda merely lands one in one of the dullest airports in Europe, where the myth of the progressive, organised Swedish society is done in by something as rudimentary as lack of clear signage. (Even smaller airports in Sweden mange to make the transition from the international to the domestic terminal smoother.) Hence its main claims to fame remain having once been listed as an emergency landing site for NASA's space shuttle, the Jumbo hostel (a decommissioned Boeing 747-212B converted to a 76 bed hostel), its policy to never close due to snowfall, and that Sweden's first Starbucks franchise opened here last February.

November 30, 2010

The Little Béguinage.

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In the middle of Gent stands a refuge, secluded from the bustling city by the Neerschelde and a high wall and various other structures surrounding it. The main point of entry is a Neoclassical gate, dating back to 1819, its narrow alleys eventually opening up on a courtyard lined with beech and lime trees. The courtyard itself is dominated by a large church, which overlooks some 100 small houses, a small chapel, an administrative building, a hospital, and remnants of a farm — all bearing the name of a saint. This is the béguinage of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Ter Hooyen ("Our Lady of Hay"), more commonly known as Klein Begijnhof, or "the Little Béguinage", one of the best preserved of its kind.

It's one of three such complexes in Gent, one of eighteen in Belgium, all of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (The other Heritage Site entry in Gent is the city's belfry, which is listed with 55 others in Belgium and France.) Though originally laid out in the 13th century on the meadow known as Groene Hooie ("green hay"), from which the béguinage derives its name, most of the current structures date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Its main church, named for the same "Lady of Hay" as the surrounding béguinage, was built between 1654 and 1658, with a new façade added in 1716.

Most likely named for the priest Lambert le Bègue (Lambert the Stutterer), a self styled Catholic reformer who lambasted the abuses and vices of fellow clergy from his Liège parish, béguinages were semi-monastic religious communities, established across the Low Countries as well as parts of Northwestern Germany at the beginning of the 13th century. Unlike regular monasteries or convents, béguinages didn't require those who sought refuge there to take vows or withdraw from the world. Nor did they have to surrender their property (if they held any), or pay the exorbitant admission fees demanded by other "spiritual" institutions, and they were free to "return" to the world at large whenever they wished.

Perhaps because of this, béguinages tended to attract single women in particular; unmarried or widowed by the various religious wars and crusades that were shattering their communities at the time, or perhaps simply choosing a life of attending to the poor, prayer, and charity after their own fashion. In fact, it's tempting to suggest that béguinages may have provided a viable alternative for women who wanted more out of life than simply becoming some man's chattel. Particularly as the béguines initially supported themselves through manual labour rather than through alms.

Many came to teach the children of town folk, the low nobility from which many of the béguines themselves were drawn — the very segment of society that would one day become the middle class. However, as time wore on, the béguines and beghards (their male counterparts) began relying on begging or rich sponsors to sustain their communities. Soon too, their "unregulated" lifestyle (no to forget the profits they were diverting) sparked the ire of Catholic Church, which set about branding them heretic and — as is its wont — persecuting them.

Despite the church's attempts to stamp them out, the béguinages continued to exist and function well into the 20th century, with the last béguine in Belgium, Sister Marcella, the last béguine of Kortrijk, currently living out her nineties in a rest home. In fact, the Little Béguinage by the lower Schelde endured not only the impounding of religious real estate that followed in the wake of the French Revolution, but also being pawned off on a duke in 1862, before becoming the property of a private organisation in the mid-1920s — with the last remaining béguines inhabiting their modest domiciles well into the 1990s.

Today, the lay sisterhoods little houses have been largely converted into condominiums, offering one story with an attic, sometimes a basement and a small back garden, enclosed by high whitewashed walls. Some of the larger structures, except the church and chapel, have also been utilised as ateliers and galleries. A "gated community" of sorts, the little béguinage is now a semi-cloistered environment for people who wish to retreat from inner city life after 10PM, when it's main gate closes to non-residents.

November 10, 2010

Rubens House.

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In 1610, after returning from Italy and marrying artist's model Isabella Brandt (1591 — 1626), Flemish diplomat, painter, graphic artist, designer, and collector Peter Paul Rubens (1577 — 1640) purchased a property on what was then Vaartstraat (now the Wapper) in Antwerpen (Anvers). Having specifically received permission from the sovereigns of the Spanish Netherlands to establish his studio in his ancestral home town rather than at the court in Brussel (Bruxelles), Rubens set about altering the residence in subsequent years. Though famous in his own time for his paintings of various religious and mythological subjects, portraits, landscapes, tapestries, and scenes inspired by historical events, he's perhaps now more readily associated with "rubenesque" figures, given his penchant for painting mature, fully-developed women, rather then abnormal, starved wretched wenches of the sort widely idealised today.

In accordance with his artistic ideals, Rubens added a "fully-developed", Baroque portico and studio, a semi-circular 'Pantheon' to house his art collection (one of the largest in Antwerpen at the time), and laid out a garden, all inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity and the Italian renaissance. The new structures gave the otherwise quite traditional 16th century residence the resemblance of an Italian palazzo, and were unequalled in Antwerpen at the time. The façade of the studio (where some 2,500 paintings were produced with the help of the artist's colleagues, assistants, and pupils) in particular demonstrates how the Rubens' stay in Italy influenced not only his paintings but also his ideas about architecture.

Notable among the rare paintings on display throughout the house are Adam and Eve, one of Rubens' earliest known works, finished before his departure for Italy in 1600, and his acquisition of his more familiar expressive style, as well as Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry, one of his last — and unfinished — paintings, revealing the technique and collective effort dedicated to its creation. Equally notable is one of only four self-portraits Rubens painted, dated to around 1630, when the artist was in his early fifties. Apart from its rarity, it also differs from, say, the many self-portraits of Rubens' contemporary Rembrandt, in that Rubens chose to present himself in the guise of the distinguished gentleman diplomat he mainly appeared to have thought himself as, rather than the painter — the Flemish Baroque master — which became his distinction.

After Rubens passed away, his second wife, Hélène Fourment (1614 — 1673) continued to live in the house, even renting it out between 1648 and 1660 to William and Margaret Cavendish, refugees of the English Civil War, who established a riding school there. Once the Cavendishes moved on, the residence was sold by Rubens' heirs. Largely ignored and subjected to various renovations, it was acquired by the city of Antwerpen in 1937 and, after a thorough restoration, opened as a museum in 1946. The reconstructed Baroque garden, restored in the 1940s, was completely relaid in 1993, leaving the portico and the garden pavilion as the sole authentic parts of the 17th century complex — though all the plants currently grown in the garden were known in Rubens' time, including sunflower, tulips, fritillaries (misionbells), and potato plant specimens imported from "the New World" as decorative plants.

A glass pavilion, designed by Stéphane Beel (with Maur Dessauvage and Laurent Ney), housing visitor facilities — such as reception, cloakroom, and shop — separate form the actual residence itself, was constructed on the Wapper in 1999. This elegant solution to the type of space-related problems similar museums face (most historically important residences not having been designed with streams of visitors in mind) allowed the Rubens' residence to remain largely unaltered. The elaborate style of the courtyard, with its myriad of symbolic details, also make it quite clear the the exterior of the residence — facing the Wapper — was of little interest to Rubens. The residence rather gives the impression of being inhabited by someone who enjoyed living surrounded by art and beautiful objects, but had little need or desire for obvious ostentation, and who certainly didn't fit the stereotype of a struggling artist.

(More images of Rubens House.)

November 5, 2010

The Count's Castle.

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Practically at the centre of Gent stands what for all intents and purposes is a medieval castle: the Gravensteen ("Count's Castle"). The original structure was constructed in 1180, on a site by the river Leie (Lys) that fortified structures had occupied since the 9th century. Yet whether the fairytale building that can be seen and visited here today in any way resembles the original is hotly debated, mainly due to the extensive — some claim "imaginative" — restoration undertaken by the city of Gent in the late 1800s.

Having been constructed by the order of the then Count of Flanders, Philip I (1142 — 1191), the original Gravensteen was modelled on the crusader forts the Count had encountered during the fiasco later known as the Second Crusade. The castle then served as the seat of the Counts of Flanders until formally abandoned in the 14th century, though they rarely spent much time there to begin with, possessing many other castles and houses between which they frequently travelled.

In 1353 the castle housed the city Mint, between 1407 and 1778 the Raad van Vlaanderen (the Council of Flanders, the regions highest legal college) and a prison, before finally being turned into a cotton mill in 1807 — likely the first example of industrial repurposing of any building in Gent. New buildings were erected along the former castle's crumbling walls, parts of which were even recycled as building material for new structures. Inescapably, the decaying Gravensteen became a symbol of abusive power, feudal oppression, horrendous incarceration, and torturous inquisition.

Yet despite calls for its removal, it survived and, beginning in 1894, was subjected to a "romanticizing" restoration, considerably altering the castle to suit 19th century ideas of what the Middle Ages should look like. (Though a decent slice of the real thing can be seen in the torture museum housed in the castle since 2002.) However, as the only remaining medieval castle in Flanders, with a virtually intact defense system, the Gravensteen is among the most visited sites in Gent — if one of the scientifically least examined ones, with no serious archeological research conducted on the structure prior to the 1950s.

The castle is said to have succumbed to invaders only once, in November 1949, when students incensed by the rising price of beer (and the change of policemen's caps from white to blue making them indistinguishable from mailmen and taxi drivers) entered and occupied the Gravensteen. Alas, their siege — now notorious as the Slag om het Gravensteen ("The Battle of the Count's Castle") — proved unfruitful, with prices for the coveted beverages continuing to climb even as the defeated (and presumably quite thirsty) scholars filed out of the Count's old keep. Like so many disillusioned crusaders before them.

(More images of the castle.)

October 28, 2010

Belgian Fries Museum.

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Let's make it clear once and for all: there really is no such a thing as "French" fries. It may seem futile to protest, but the tremendously popular side dish's origin in Belgium is supported by what little evidence there is. Much of it is on display at the Frietmuseum ("Belgian Fries Museum") in Brugge (Bruges), the first and only of its kind in the world, and in itself indisputable evidence of Belgians' passionate preoccupation with the deep-fried potato strips.

However, it's the Americans — the people responsible for coining the specious misnomer — who have done the most to popularise the dish worldwide. Having themselves become obsessed in the latter half of the 20th century, to a point where only 16 of the 54 kg of potatoes each American consumed in 2006 weren't deep-fried or otherwise processed, they have acquainted the world with fries mainly through their fast food franchises; becoming the world's largest producers as well as consumers of fries in the process.

Unfortunately, their frozen, pre-packaged, pre-fried slices — often dusted with natural or artificial flavours — soaked in animal fats for 15 to 20 minutes, and treated with a sugar solution in order to caramelize the cooking fat to provide the "golden" colour Americans have been taught to expect, have very little in common with fries the inhabitants of the Meuse (Maas) river valley, somewhere between Dinant and Liège (Luik), began supplementing their diet with toward the end of the 17th century.

Genuine Belgian fries, as every Frietmuseum visitor is informed, are made from freshly sliced potatoes, cooked in unrefined beef tallow for six minutes at 130 - 140˚C, then left to rest for ten minutes, before being cooked a second time at 165 - 170˚C for at most another three minutes. While this procedure still results in high absorption of fat and significant reduction in mineral and ascorbic acid content, it makes for a culinary experience far removed from the mushy sticks of lard dished out in North American slop-shacks.

Established by the Van Belle family, who've also created Choco-story (the Belgian Chocolate Museum) and Lumina Domestica (a domestic lighting museum), the Frietmuseum opened to the public in May 2008. It's housed in the Saaihalle (Serge Hall), the oldest building in Brugge displaying a date (1399) on its façade, and though it was expanded in the 15th century to house the Consul of Genova (Genoa), the structure retained much of its original form, and required very little alteration in order to be converted into a museum space.

The museum's first two levels trace the history of the versatile, propitious tuber, from its humble South American origin to its current position as the world's fourth-largest food crop (after rice, wheat, and maize), through its metamorphosis into Belgian fries, and the impact the dish has had on Belgian culture, while its third level essentially is a friet shop. So while it seeks to educate a little through its entertaining displays, the Frietmuseum chiefly provides a venue for savouring the world's best fries — satisfying more than a craving for knowledge.

October 20, 2010

Book Tower.

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Towering atop Gent's Blandijnberg ("The Hill of Blandijn"), the 64 metre tall, 24 story Boekentoren ("Book Tower"), housing the Gent university library, is surely one of the most remarkable library buildings in the world. Devised in 1933 by Henry Van de Velde (1863 - 1957), as part of a new complex including the library and the institutes for Art History, Pharmaceutical, and Veterinary sciences, it was the Antwerpen native's first public commission in Belgium. An established architect, decorator, industrial designer, painter, and — along with Paul Hankar (1859 - 1901) and Victor Horta (1861 - 1947) — one of the leading proponents of Art Nouveau in Belgium, Van de Velde was a professor at the Gent university at the time, having previously mostly worked in Germany.

The site chosen for the new complex, atop the Blandijnberg, had been settled since Roman times, and would allow the tower to not only dominate the city's skyline, but complement its three "classic" towers — those of the belfry, the St. Bavo Cathedral, and the church of St. Nicholas — which made Gent renowned as the "medieval Manhattan". A fourth tower could've been added in the 16th century, had the megalomaniacal project to make the tower of St. Michael's church the tallest in the land not been aborted by religious wars. Van de Velde saw a chance to not only obscure St. Michael's stump of a tower, but add a structure on the highest ground in the city that would stand not only as a symbol of the university, but also as a beacon of science, wisdom, and knowledge.

However, the university's librarians and administrators were less than taken with the idea, commissioning an alternative, conventional building plan from architect Armand Cerulus (1896 - 1963). Yet Van de Velde managed to get his way, and construction of the tower began in 1936, with structural work and most of the façade finished three years later. To emphasise the building's modern nature, Van de Velde chose to erect a tower of reinforced concrete, relying in particular on the skills of colleague Gustave Magnel (1889 - 1955), the main proponent of prestressed concrete in Belgium. His Laboratorium Magnel vor Betononderzoek (Labo Magnel), dedicated to researching concrete and concrete structures, had been part of the Gent university since 1930. (Magnel also designed the first prestressed concrete bridge in North America, the Walnut Lane Memorial Bridge in Philadelphia.)

Then economic crisis and world war prevented completion of the project, forcing some materials to be replaced with cheaper or more readily available alternatives; Congolese Rosewood and marble replaced the metals, linoleum, and rubber consumed by the war. And although, at Van de Velde's insistence, 1% of the total building cost was dedicated to decoration, only Karel Aubroeck's sculpture De Runenleester ("The Rune Reader") and Jozef Cantré's relief were delivered, while commissions by leading Flemish expressionists Gustave de Smet (1877 - 1943), Constant Permeke (1886 - 1952) and Frits Van den Berghe (1883 - 1939) were unfulfilled. Quite unwittingly, Van de Velde's tower, crowned with an impressive belvedere, also provided German forces with a most excellent surveillance post during their four-year occupation of Gent.

Surviving the war unscathed, the structure remains a splendid example of Van de Velde's modernism, as well as one of the primary examples of interbellum modernism in Belgium, the structure's curved lines, rounded corners and edges perhaps being his most obvious signature. But he also had a hand in creating its black iron window frames, floor patterns, doorhandles, furniture, even radiator covers. Modernist principles guided the design, with — for instance — incidence of light determining the position of reading rooms; the main and the periodical reading rooms faced south and received the most exposure, while the manuscript room faced north, remaining shielded from light.

Home to a unique collection some 48 km long (or nearly 3 million volumes, using Library of Congress classification — though in one librarian's words "not systematically"), the Boekentoren is due to undergo long overdue restoration, the urgent need for which has been recognised for at least the past 25 years. Limited space and inadequate climate conditions have rendered it unsuitable as a repository for its vulnerable and irreplaceable collection, dating back beyond the founding of Gent's first university library in 1819. Not to forget that it also fails in providing a healthy work environment for its 72 employees (62% of whom were women, with an average age of 41 in 2008) and numerous patrons.

In 2005, the university board invested € 30 million (≈ C$ 42.5 million in '05) in the restoration project, though to reach the 2003 estimate of € 41 million (≈ C$ 63 million in '03) individual sponsors were invited to purchase each of the 23 million cm² of the Boekentoren's façade at a rate of € 1 per cm², or one of 352 steps in its staircase for € 250 (≈ C$ 354 in '05) per step. During the restoration, scheduled to take place between 2013 and 2019, the most sensitive parts of the library's collection will be housed in a brand new underground repository, to be constructed beneath the library courtyard between 2011 and 2013. The repository is intended to continue providing a space for storing parts of the collection in optimal conditions even after the main restoration is completed, its three air conditioned floors — the lowest equipped with a sprung floor and doubly high shelves — containing some 40 km of compact book shelves.

What makes the Gent university library's collection unique is its origin in collections of various local abbeys, churches, and monasteries abolished in the wake of the French Revolution, as well as the rapacious expansion undertaken until the First World War, adding private collections and archives, numismatic collections, posters, prints, engravings, and ephemera. Whether storing the sensitive materials underground, while retaining the lending collection in the tower, will change the level of access remains to be seen. Though currently anyone can register as a patron, only librarians and staff have access to the tower (what in library parlance is referred to as "closed stacks"), with requested materials being delivered in small metal baskets by a paternoster.

When the original construction ended in 1942, it left Henry Van de Velde dissatisfied; the finished result clashing with his desire for unity in design as well as materials. It was also considerably smaller, lacking not only some of the original plan's structures (such as the archeological and ethnographical museum) but also many of the minor details he was so keen on (like the specially designed steel furniture). One can only wonder what Van de Velde would've made of the considerable facelift in store for the library, which plans to deposit the majority of its collection in a direction directly opposite of the symbol he helped create — to represent the power of science and the book as a universal medium of communication.

(More images of the Book Tower.)

Additional input by Sarah Polkinghorne.

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