Location: Amersfoort, The Netherlands
Scale: 7.850 m²
Team: Jason Slabbynck
The story of the Belgians monument on the Amersfoortse Berg is known by few. Just like in Bertolt Brecht’s poem Questions from a reading worker (“Great Rome is full of triumphal arches. Who erected it?”) Passers-by wonder at the sight of this brick building who were the people who piled the stones of this monument on top of each other, when they did that and especially, from what reason they started it. This while the refugee theme is more topical than ever today. The present competition design aims to both unlock the history of the Belgian monument and also to introduce passers-by to the status of ‘being a refugee’ in an experience-oriented way.
War always creates refugees. When Germany, just after the outbreak of the First World War, violated Belgium’s neutrality, many Belgians (especially soldiers) were forced to flee to the Netherlands. An estimated 21,000 Belgian refugees ended up in the town of Amersfoort in 1914, a heavy burden to bear for the local population, who had only a few thousand more heads. The Belgian war refugees were housed in wooden barrack camps near Amersfoort. Just like today in Calais, these camps were filled with boredom and incidents with fatal consequences.
Some saw the Belgian refugees as a burden, others saw them as an opportunity. Omer Buyse, for example, the director of the Université du Travail in Chaleroi, who had organized vocational training for unskilled workers before the war in Chaleroi, in an attempt to increase workers’ returns. This man set up work schools in the barrack camps near Amersfoort. After the war, he argued, the military would then be able to return home as skilled and rebuild the country.
The Belgians monument, which was built on top of the Amersfoortse Berg, is, as it were, the first case study of this social project. The monument, designed by the Flemish architect Huib Hoste, served as a thank you to the Netherlands for the reception of the Belgian refugees, but also as a practical test of the skills learned in the working schools. For example, the monument was built entirely in brick with rich detailing in a style akin to the Amsterdam school.
A century later, various areas of alienation occurred. Today we are looking at the bricklaying techniques used in the Belgians monument with open mouth. Despite the merits of the metamorphosis that the construction industry has undergone, a great deal of professional knowledge and many crafts have been lost miserably. Who cannot appreciate the subtleties of the bricklaying techniques used in the Belgians monument? We also find it difficult to find a substantive connection with the Belgian monument. Because of the ubiquitous threat of terrorism, we still live in fear today, but war itself has become a far-from-our-bed show, something trapped in our picture tubes and with which we have no direct contact. Europe’s open borders policy has been going on for long enough to be taken for granted, with all its consequences. There are voices here and there to close borders again, to keep refugees out, to separate from Europe …
In the midst of all this, the Belgians monument rises, like an astonishing relic from a distant past that few can still place. It is astonishing to contemplate the craft needed to create this monument. It’s strange to think that Europeans were once refugees in need themselves …
Monuments are erected to commemorate events and persons. That commemoration mainly means communication. In its current state, the Belgian monument misses the spot exactly there: “it doesn’t talk”. Hikers will pass by without discovering the enormous potential of this structure, without being informed of the amazing craft required to erect this monument, without knowing why and by whom it was built. An additional problem is that the Belgian monument, once built on a barren mountain and thus visible from afar, now threatens to disappear in a sea of green …
To turn the tide, it would be wrong to put something new and impressive in the heart of this site that is going to run with all the attention and that would not be visible from the environment. A continuation of the already existing sequence of elements (the lane, the memorial wall, the intermediate garden, the Belgians monument and the square) that is conceived from the perception of the site and has the quality to frame the site as a whole, both literally and figuratively, Moreover, it is a better option for passers-by to discover the Belgians monument.
This competition design takes the Belgian monument as the center of an imaginary circle with a radius of about 100 meters (which therefore just does not extend to the edges of the park landscape). In the places where this imaginary circle intersects with one of the many access roads, small walls are erected that form physical obstacles for the park visitors. These walls, 11 in total, form a boundary that defines an interior (the site of the Belgian monument) and an outdoor space (the world around it). In each wall there is an atypical opening, which on the one hand causes an axis shift in the walkway and on the other hand conditions the passage of the passers-by. The confrontation with a physical obstacle, the axis shift and having to adapt to the shape of the opening in the wall, offer passers-by a unique experience that is the first step of a mental awareness of the site.
Boundaries are extremely paradoxical data. On the one hand, a boundary severely limits the physical freedom of persons, the right to go and stand where you want. On the other hand, a border always stimulates the imagination. What is on the other side of the border? Which world opens up when you cross the border?
During wars and in conflict areas, boundaries become more important. Imminent danger causes walls to be erected so that the danger can be stopped. Walls have been erected between East and West Berlin, Mexico and the US, Israel and Palestine over the past hundred years to prevent groups of people from crossing borders. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe resolutely opted for the open borders policy map: the Schengen adjournments were applied and expanded. Europeans today live virtually without borders.
Whenever a physical boundary is established to stop groups of people, the human imagination begins to work. One wants to overcome the border: one punches a hole, one climbs over the border, one walks around the border, or one finds another way. Everything is possible with the necessary physical effort. The inventiveness of the East Berliners, the Mexicans and the Palestinians knows no boundaries.
Europe’s open border policy has almost made us forget the experience of what a border is. Open borders are not self-evident, therefore it is valuable to dwell on this achievement from time to time. The openings in the walls, arranged in a circle with the Belgians monument as the center, ask the passers-by to sacrifice (in this case a physical effort) and put his imagination to work. Do I walk around the wall or do I go through the opening? How do I bend down? How do I make myself a bit narrower? Can I jump over the wall?
The 11 walls scattered around the site are constructed of high-speed brick, a commonly used building material that hides behind our facades and, when used naked, evokes a sense of banality and anonymity. The ends of the walls have been serrated and suggest that the walls do not stand alone, but are part of a larger whole. If the walls are extended, the circle that has the Belgians monument as its centerpiece is obtained. The 11 walls nevertheless each have their own identity, because each wall is constructed in a different masonry bond and has a different opening. The openings are each accentuated by a long row of stones, a playful reference to the rich brick detailing that can be found in the Belgians monument.
As a visitor, walking on one of the paths that lead to the Belgians monument, one is suddenly confronted with an obstacle: on the path there is a wall. The walker decides whether he will walk around the wall (which will eventually lead to elephant paths), whether he will crawl through the hole in the wall. Both options require an extra physical effort: both options break the pattern of walking through without thinking, both options put the imagination of the border-faced walker to work.
Since commemoration is always communicating, there is a tableau in front of and behind each wall. These trays are concrete blocks that correspond in shape to the recessed opening in the relevant wall. Parallels can be drawn with the rolled stone in front of the entrance to the Cyclopes Cave or in front of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The tableau in front of the wall (that you encounter as a walker when you are on your way to the Belgians monument) tells something about the Belgians monument. One reads the story of a soldier who was interned in the wooden barracks camp a century ago, one gets acquainted with the architect who designed the Belgians monument, one experiences what it was like for the inhabitants of Amersfoort at the time to receive so many Belgians. The tableau behind the wall (that you encounter as a walker when you leave the site of the Belgians monument) no longer has the function of preparing people for the encounter with the Belgians monument, but makes the connection with the outside world again. At each wall you get the opportunity to read a testimony of a contemporary refugee and his border experiences. On the one hand (when entering the site) you will find information about the Belgian monument), on the other hand (when leaving the site) testimonials that reflect on the fate of refugees today.
On the octagonal square behind the Belgians monument there is one wall without an opening. The concrete tableau is still anchored in the wall in this wall and on this tableau the Belgians monument and the design of the 11 walls surrounding the Belgians monument are explained in general terms. People who regularly visit the site will feel particularly appealed by certain walls. Athletes will consider it a challenge to overcome all obstacles. If it is not possible for certain people to crawl through the openings, they can simply walk around the wall.
As mentioned above, the construction of the Belgians monument was a social project: the Belgian refugees had learned various crafts in the work schools set up by Omer Buyse and were able to test them for the first time during the construction of the Belgians monument, a kind of practical test. Bet. In addition to the cultural and historical dimension, we must not forget this social dimension of the Belgian monument. An alternative to having these 11 walls carried out by a contractor is to start up a participation project. Local vocational schools and possibly even local residents who are interested in learning something can join forces to supervise the brickwork of the 11 walls. In professional schools, the laying of a straight wall is one of the first tasks that are presented. This acquired knowledge can be used in Amersfoort. Since the 11 walls are to be built in a different masonry context and each have an atypical stone-rimmed opening, they make up 11 interesting case studies. The participants of this participation project will gain a better insight into the materiality of the Belgians monument and what it means to build something similar. The new project, most likely built by the Dutch, is an answer to the Belgian gift from a century ago, which is responsible for safeguarding a beautiful green area.
In order to get a feel for different masonry bonds and the necessary craftsmanship, as an architect I myself built a wall in the correct masonry bond in one of the supplied models on a scale of one out of ten and experienced the value for myself. of such an act in order to better appreciate the architectural style of the Belgian monument. It would be nice to be able to give the same experience to a young generation.
In concrete terms, the walls are constructed of quick-building blocks with a size of 29x14x14 centimeters. The walls are completely conceived, which means that the width of the walls is equal to the length of one stone. This provides the necessary stability and also allows different masonry bonds. The openings are realized by making a mold of the desired shape, around which the stones are then bricked. The openings are accentuated by a band of stretch layers. When the wall is finished and the stones balance each other, the mold can be removed. A negative of the mold used then serves as a mold for the concrete information columns that will be placed in front of and behind the wall. Both the walls and the concrete information columns or tables are anchored to the ground with a concrete foundation.
Strange objects, physical obstacles, walls built on the middle of a path, but still containing an inviting opening and possibly elephant paths around the obstacles will give the Belgians monument site a new visibility and stimulate passers-by to approach. These walls will not only adequately inform walkers through the concrete tableaux about the how and why of the Belgian monument, but will also offer them an interesting border experience. Visitors will want to discover all the other walls, stimulated by one wall, move through the strange openings in these walls, perhaps notice the different masonry connections and read the stories written on the concrete columns. First and foremost stories about the Belgians monument, but on the other side, going out, also testimonies of contemporary refugees. For example, the Belgians monument will communicate again. Walkers will receive answers to the questions formulated in the poem by Bertolt Brecht and, in the sense of the word, Brechtian, will be able to make the link with today, with the current situation. Not only textually, but also experience-oriented. This competition design also includes a social aspect, the participation project that gives young people from vocational schools and possibly also interested local residents the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and discover the craft that was necessary to erect the Belgian monument.