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Proceedings of the panel “Still on the Margin: Reflections on the Perspective of the Canon in Architectural History” (1st Conference of the European Architectural History Network, Guimaraes, Portugal, 17-20 June 2010)
Transcending the canon

Bringing Invisible Architects into the Picture

The case of the reconstruction after the World War I in Belgium
Donner à voir les architectes invisibles de la reconstruction en Belgique après la Première Guerre mondiale
Ellen Van Impe

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1Useful as it may be to have a canon of top architects and buildings for educational purposes, such a selection cannot suffice from a research perspective, because to a certain extent it is arbitrary and might simply reflect power mechanisms. The Centrum Vlaamse Architectuurarchieven uses its mission to map, conserve and open up private archives on the Flemish/Belgian built environment to constitute a collection of archives representative of what was being designed and built in Flanders over the years. Future researchers will have access to a broader range of source material. The study of the entire panorama of design and building activity will be stimulated.

2The architecture of the reconstruction after World War I in the Belgian front zone and its perception in Belgian architectural historiography serves as an interesting case. It shows how canonization operates on different levels. For example, an individual architect’s access to “the system” determined whether his or her work would be included in the canon. Likewise, other actors (contractors, entrepreneurs, patrons) have long been neglected by researchers. Finally, sometimes entire building campaigns were excluded for not fitting into a modernist avant-garde logic. A thematic and contextualized approach, focused on the construction activity in a specific period and place, provides the insight needed to question and broaden the canon of Belgian architecture.

3Destruction was massive in the area known as the Westhoek (Ypres, Diksmuide, etc.), and its reconstruction was a matter of national importance. A lot of research has so far been devoted to the role of the national institutions and to the debates between “modernists,” advocating a radical change, and “regionalists,” proposing a more or less identical reconstruction of the pre-war situation. Only recently, a more detailed understanding of the local development in the Westhoek emerged. It considers not only architects of national renown, but also local builders, contractors, gas and electricity companies, local, provincial, and national intermediary organizations, patrons such as school boards, religious organizations, etc. We traced the archives of all these different actors in the reconstruction process, and published their references in an archival guide. If necessary and possible, the documents were transferred to public archival institutions.

4Furthermore, this approach made the profile of the “reconstruction architect” active in the Westhoek clearer. On the basis of the archives of the central service for the reconstruction, a ranking of the most productive architects by number of designs can be quantified. The top ten turned out to include several names of architects who were practically invisible in the literature and archives. The dates and places of birth, professional training, and death were unknown.

5From the perspective of architectural historiography and the formation of the canon, these “gaps” are significant. They confirm, for one thing, that the canon is not primarily concerned with quality. Typically, a canon is believed to consist of architects whose work was considered qualitatively (and not necessarily quantitatively) remarkable. Some of the architects whose work made it into the canon did in effect produce buildings considered to be of quality. However, other examples suggest that power and access to powerful patrons also helped. Established architects like Jules Coomans or Jozef Viérin managed to get commissions for important buildings in larger or better known towns (Ypres, Veurne, Nieuwpoort). They designed town halls, main churches, belfries, etc.—buildings which were naturally much more visible than the regular housing or small village churches designed by other less powerful or less established architects. Of course, this is merely proof of a well-known mechanism: lack of access to important commissions excludes architects from the canon.

6The fact that many of the reconstruction architects were unknowns is a sign that on the whole, the reconstruction was perhaps judged of minor qualitative importance. In effect, reconstruction historiography tends to dismiss it as a missed opportunity for the modernist avant-garde. Pre-war property structures were reestablished, making a new urbanist structure for the devastated regions impossible. Modern systems such as garden cities could only be built outside of town centers in peripheral regions and were often deprived of “community forming” buildings designed by the architect in charge. The style of the reconstruction in the Westhoek can also be described as historicist or at least regionalist. Instead of being treated like a blank canvas for radically modern designs, it was rebuilt in a style inspired by regional architectural history.

  • 1 Marcel Smets and Centre d’histoire urbaine (Leuven) (eds.), Resurgam. La reconstruction en Belgiqu (...)

7The first serious research into the reconstruction from the perspective of architectural history was conducted in 1985 (Resurgam)1. Although the importance of the reconstruction as an overall building campaign was rightly understood, the general tone is rather negative as to the result. In terms of the canon issue, this research, important though it was, did little to reconsider the preexisting canon oriented towards modernist avant-gardes rather than mainstream building and construction. Meanwhile, the architects themselves, some of whom worked in the reconstruction at the beginning of their career, often seem to undervalue their reconstruction work in later résumés.

8The thematic approach of reconstruction architecture, embedded in its specific historical context, offered many opportunities for canon-broadening. To trace more information on productive but historiographically invisible architects, we checked the registers of architecture schools, so as to ascertain their educational background, at least. Membership files of architectural associations also proved very useful, both the school registers and the association files being sources so far often underused. Such an approach brings “mainstream” architectural activity into the picture, unconcerned with canons and “top architects.” For example, from the archives of the Société centrale d’architecture de Belgique, a Brussels-based association, we could deduce that many architects were eager to receive government assignments in the devastated regions, although most of them were dissatisfied with the way the assignments were distributed.

  • 2 Sofie De Caigny, Annelies Anseeuw, Annelies Nevejans, Ellen Van Impe, Het Gekwetste Gewest. Archie (...)

9The Centrum Vlaamse Architectuurarchieven hopes to expand research into exactly those kind of sources—architectural schools, architects’ associations, architectural periodicals, and exhibitions—that provide a cross-section of architectural activity. This approach goes beyond canon concerns to focus instead on architectural networks and architectural culture at large.2

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1 Marcel Smets and Centre d’histoire urbaine (Leuven) (eds.), Resurgam. La reconstruction en Belgique après 1914, Exhibition Catalogue (Bruxelles, Crédit Communal, 27 March–30 June 1985), Brussels : Crédit Communal, 1985.

2 Sofie De Caigny, Annelies Anseeuw, Annelies Nevejans, Ellen Van Impe, Het Gekwetste Gewest. Archievengids van de wederopbouwarchitectuur in de Westhoek, Antwerp: Centrum Vlaamse Architectuurarchieven, 2009.

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Référence électronique

Ellen Van Impe, « Bringing Invisible Architects into the Picture »ABE Journal [En ligne], 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 27 février 2012, consulté le 03 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Ellen Van Impe

Project manager, Centrum Vlaamse Architectuurarchieven, Antwerp, Belgium

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