Brussels: Brutopia

Scheme: Brutopia | City: Brussels | Developer: Brutopia | Architect: Stekke + Fraas  Landscape Architect: tbc

Resident feedback: Q: ‘What do you like most about this place?’ A: ‘Les voisins’ (the neighbours)

Fancy cleaning the common areas where you live twice a year? And doing the gardening? What about sorting the rubbish out? It’s a step too far for a lot of people, but the pragmatic pioneers at Brutopia (a contraction of Brussels Utopia) are more than willing, if it means saving service charge and engendering a feeling of collective responsibility. 60 individuals who couldn’t afford to live in what was on offer in Brussels got together from 2007 onwards and went painstakingly through the steps needed to buy land and then get a new community designed and built to their collective brief, completing in 2013. Andries Fluit, a resident, admits that achieving all this involved a mix of luck, government grant (10% of cost), committed individuals (some of whom gave 600 hours of their own time to the scheme) and a substantial amount of goodwill. But they did it, and it feels like a wonderful place to live.

A five and a six storey building face each other about 20m apart across a pretty but playable courtyard garden (c. 200 dwellings per hectare for those who like stats). Brutopia.mcdThe ground floor is nearly all sold or let to commercial ventures, including an older people’s drop-in centre and a small eco-business. A laundry and common space take up the rest, the latter being ‘yours’ for two weekends a year. 29 households bought shell apartments above with a communal ventilation system and acoustic flooring ready installed. Further fitout work was up to them. Green features include automatic external blinds which close when it gets too hot and a PV array on the roof. The 27 cars parked below the buildings didn’t quite say ‘eco’ to me, though they were accompanied by a zillion caged bikes of all shapes and sizes. The buildings are clad in aluminium standing seam cladding which is industrial but crisp and nicely detailed. Balcony balustrades are made from a cheap mesh which ought to look tacky but doesn’t, mainly thanks to green-fingered residents. The garden side is where the elevations open up with huge balconies (individually sized according to storey height) and first floor flats have the option (almost universally taken) of a stair down to the communal space. Brutopia 2The serenity I experienced in this hidden gem of a garden is apparently occasionally broken by the odd plane and by the 30 children who live in Brutopia – one of the few points of occasional contention in this otherwise blissful place.

The architects live in the building which I am sure is very instructive for them. It’s not clear how the community will evolve as the original residents move on, or rent their homes (which is allowed, surprisingly). Keeping an ethos like Brutopia’s alive requires an awful lot of effort, talking and trust. I very much hope they manage it.

Thanks to Andries Fluit for spending 90 mins with me on a very sunny Saturday.

2 comments on Brussels: Brutopia

  1. As you say ‘Keeping an ethos like Brutopia’s alive requires an awful lot of effort, talking and trust’, but so does regenerating an area once it’s started to fail. Does this type of approach (mainstream in many European and North American countries) have a significant role in making places that really work well?
    When most other industries are embracing (or being transformed by) ‘user-generation’, collaboration, sharing, intelligent infrastructure etc. (end of list of buzz words!), why do you think that the example of Brutopia is not more common?

    1. I think all sizeable public sector sites in London should have a piece set aside for co-housing or a variation. There is substantial latent demand from that sector, even if it will always remain a niche, relatively speaking. Affordability is the key for this group, not just self-determination. Including co-housing as part of large schemes appears to be standard practice in Holland. My experience of trying to enable co-housing as part of developments or indeed even in its own right in London has been very laboured: authorities and other parties do not seem to have a template process to enable this. So a lot of time is spent going round in various legal circles. It would be good to find/create that template and then make it far more widely known and easy to use for both sides. Co-housing groups also tend to be composed of very committed individuals who are trying to hold down day jobs. This makes it so hard for them to spend the time it needs to purchase part of a site and effectively ‘be a client’ for their building. Looking at this site: co-housing organisations these groups are mostly not London-based, due to site costs and risk I would imagine. That’s why in London it has to be enabled via public sector land and made much easier.

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