Eutopia or Filip Berte’s inside-out utopia

by Koen Van Synghel

Eutopia is a project with its own vocabulary. So here is a concise glossary; what one might call the building blocks of Eutopia (and the House of Eutopia).

Mobile Embassy

is an old caravan converted into the Eutopia reception office. This is where Filip Berte held conversations and interviews with people from every level of society. These conversations provided the input for the themes developed in the House of Eutopia.

Eutopia

is a visual research project in which Filip Berte makes a personal analysis of the contemporary geographical, political, historical and cultural European entity, and translates it into an installation that includes sculptural and architectural artefacts.

House of Eutopia

is the final aim of the Eutopia project. The House of Eutopia is to be erected on a piece of waste land in the European quarter in Brussels, and comprises the skeleton of an archetypical ‘house’ with a cellar and three storeys. Each storey corresponds to a ‘room’. The rest of the site is ‘inaugurated’ as the burial ground for Eutopia.

Rooms

in terms of form and purpose, they balance on the line between architecture and sculpture. The rooms are actually installations that are open to the public. While waiting for a suitable building site in the European quarter in Brussels, the House of Eutopia is presented in the form of finished components, and these are the ‘rooms’. There is a total of five rooms: Protected Landscape, Collective Memory Mass Grave, The Graveyard, The Blue Room and White Space / Mirror.

Pars pro toto

to each room or component the principle applies that each part carries the whole within it.
Protected Landscape: is a closed space in which several ‘landscapes’ are created on different scales (from life-sized to the scale of a model). Protected Landscape is the first room in the House of Eutopia to be completed. Its theme is migration, the control of internal and external boundaries, asylum policy, etc.

Collective Memory Mass Grave

is the second room and cellar of the House of Eutopia. It embodies the theme of ‘the collective memory of Europe’. The aim of the installation is to draw a ‘psycho-geographical map’ of the ‘Memorial Territory’ of Europe and to visualise the ephemeral nature of the collective memory. It is open to the public via subterranean passages where one can ‘rummage’ through archives.

Memorial Images

are the often suppressed images in the memory that Filip Berte ‘digs up’ out of the dark European past and reproduces as a painting, drawing or diorama. Afterwards they are ‘buried’ again in the Collective Memory Mass Grave installation.

Memorial Multiple

more Memorial Images are made in the form of a multiple (limited edition of five) and can thereby circulate in Europe once more.

Collective Memory Gallery

is an independent derivative of Collective Memory Mass Grave. Memorial Images are presented in an extremely compact gallery.

The Graveyard

is the third ‘room’, or the garden around the House of Eutopia. Whereas Protected Landscape focuses on the protection and strengthening of Europe’s external borders, The Graveyard penetrates them. In this way, The Graveyard offers a view of the outskirts from the inside out and takes the form of an ‘enclosed garden’ or a second wall around Protected Landscape.

The Blue Room

is the fourth room in the House of Eutopia. It represents the official, institutional Europe and, more specifically, is intended to visualise the problematic rift and poor communication between the European Union and its citizens and put it up for discussion.

White Space / Mirror

is the fifth and last room, and also the attic of the House of Eutopia. The attic is diametrically opposite to the cellar both in spatial terms and content. Whereas the cellar embodies the darker side of Europe’s past, the attic is meant to shed a utopian light on the European future. It is a place for reflection, where thinkers, writers and artists are invited, alongside politicians, sociologists and historians, to take the floor and formulate possible new or utopian perspectives for the future in Europe within this changing world. It is the only room that does not assume material form: it is the room that remains empty.

‘… c’est d’abord la dimension subjective de sa démarche qui
nous a intéressé: son aspect empirique, loin de tout didactisme,
sa poésie, son caractère artisanal aussi.’
Christophe Slagmuylder (Kunstenfestivaldesarts)

Some authors are also subjective voices, initiates, friends or fellow travellers. In this respect it is worth knowing that Filip Berte and the writer met in the mid-nineties, as student and lecturer, respectively, in architectural design. The design exercise handed to Berte and his fellow students was rather unusual. They had to design a city in the third dimension on the basis of an existing street-plan. Even though it was the plan of a baroque city, the students were free to think up any building volumes they liked, as long as it resulted in a consistent urban space.

Filip Berte conjured up a viable city with a varied topography that tempered the imperative symmetry of the plan and thereby gave a new identity to what in essence was a European, baroque, urban design plan. This design indicated that, even as a young student, Berte was a natural as far as the city was concerned, and understood that the city and architecture are media through which one can speak about man, the world, society, power and powerlessness, and also about beauty. What had been a utopian exercise – as student designs are almost by definition – now looks like a finger exercise for Eutopia, the project in which Berte is currently sounding out not so much Europe itself as its boundaries, and the boundaries of the ability to shape city and state. In this regard, architecture is not the castle in the air that just has to be built. It serves, rather, as a conceptual framework, as a tangible touchstone by which to test for its worthiness the shaky construction of Europe as an economic and political union.

Filip Berte graduated under Wim Cuyvers. Cuyvers is a unique figure in the architectural world, if only because he has brought death to the fore as a theme inherent to architecture, in the conviction that life and things in general only acquire strength and precision when confronted with it. Shortly after the last Balkan War, Cuyvers took his students, including Berte, to Sarajevo. The assignment was to design a new library for the city. This was because, on 25th August 1992, the university library had been blown to pieces and at least 700 unique manuscripts went up in flames, representing a large part of the written culture of Bosnia. Sarajevo was the city which, in 1914, determined the course of history when the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian double monarchy was murdered. In his graduation project, Berte must for the first time have experienced how an architectural design, in this case for a library, is more than the production of a building, and in fact exposes cultural histories and traumas. To the same degree that Sarajevo’s university library was a symbol of the destructive power of an imploding communist state and of blind nationalism, in Eutopia he is trying to visualise the mechanisms of society and the living histories of 21st-century Europe.

Filip Berte sees Eutopia as a piece of research. On the spatial conditions – inclusion and exclusion – which Europe creates as a side-effect of its politico-economic objectives.
Berte appears to step back from the restrictive categories of academic, architect and artist, but in fact he adds these roles together. He employs architecture as a free medium like a new sort of alchemist. In the first place he takes the liberty of putting architecture forward as an analytical framework, for example to get a view of what impact Europe has on space and its inhabitants, its asylum-seekers, including those who have tried everything and have failed, or, even worse, on those who are not able to enter Fort Europa.
But he goes beyond an analysis of Europe as a bastide where the revolutions of the south fail to appear or else break down. As an architect he is trained to design, to come up with solutions, to create operative syntheses in time and space, in material and form. It was in this light that he developed Protected Landscape, a concept that tries to capture Europe in an architectural dimension on the basis of a cultural history/political perspective.

The extraordinary thing about Eutopia, and especially the House of Eutopia, is Filip Berte’s urge to build it. He is not content to make an art installation or environment, which are popular modes in the contemporary art world but turn out to be all too dependent on the self-referential and protectionist setting of museums and art galleries.
He seeks out confrontation. Literally goes out into the streets. Steps to the fore in the public forum. Looks for partners to support his project, at least to provide financial and production support for the design stage. In concrete terms this means he has his eye on a piece of empty land in the European quarter in Brussels, at the heart of Europe, as a site on which to erect his House of Eutopia.
While Eutopia is essentially a staged space, where the architecture, rather than providing physical shelter or giving comfort, brings histories back to mind, writes and tells stories, Berte rearranges the debris of a tormented Europe and makes a show of them, thereby constructing a sort of visionary ruin for Europe.

The fact that Berte actually wants to build the House of Eutopia illustrates his intact faith in architecture as a system of conveying meaning, as a medium that is able to rouse empathy in the visitor. A belief in the architecture that is able to create authentic experiences and situations. In this respect Berte is following in the footsteps of the Situationists of the sixties, who even then also identified architecture with the power to create a unique, authentic situation that imparts to its user an original experience oriented towards a process of awakening.
However, over the last half-century cynicism has permeated architecture, which has led to an architecture that has overreached itself by showing off and producing insubstantial forms or, worse still, resigns itself to uninspired copying and the generic reproduction of spaces and buildings. When Berte thinks up something like Protected Landscape, a closed space with several ‘landscapes’ on different scales related to migration, the control of internal and external borders, asylum-policy, etc., he is touching on the basic elements of architecture, this being one side of the wall or the other, one side of the border or the other… At this point he is in fact referring to the condition – possibly either life-giving or life-threatening – of ‘intra- and extramuros’.

Protected Landscape is not a matter of whether the wall is in marble or steel and concrete, but of the conditions that create these walls or borders. Berte’s belief in the significance of architecture lies precisely in refocusing the elementary role of architectural elements.
Like it or not, his way of seeing Europe touches on the fundamental principles of architecture. Universal principles that also see to it that even if Europe takes a central position, even if this project seems to owe a lot to a certain form of Eurocentrism, it is essentially about the construction of a universal collective memory and consciousness.

Without therefore putting it explicitly into words, Protected Landscape reminds us of segregating constructions put up not only in Europe, but all round the world. Whether it be Guantanamo in Cuba, or the deadly no man’s land on the border between the United States and Mexico, or the wall between Palestine and Israel, Protected Landscape, and more generally Eutopia, acts as a mirror to the global perversion of the human habitat, public space, architecture etc.

Eutopia naturally raises questions, in the sense that Collective Memory Mass Grave reflects on the well and lesser-known catastrophes in Europe and thus turns its gaze backwards, which is a well-nigh natural reflex in the old continent. Or, as David Grossman commented regarding the segregation policy in the state of Israel and the Israelis’ inability to create an open society because they are imprisoned in the echoes of the past: the pogroms, the holocaust and anti-semitism. While Israel shapes itself on the basis of old spectres even more compulsively than the old continent, it seems as if Collective Memory Mass Grave, in the capacity of a ‘psycho-geographic map’ or ‘Memorial Territory’ of Europe, not only tries to make visible the ephemeral nature of the collective memory, but also tries to perpetuate this memory as a mould with which the future is formed (or deformed).

Collective Memory Mass Grave is accessible to the public via underground passageways where, as Filip Berte says, ‘the archives can be ‘rummaged through’’. This metaphor accentuates the seriousness and weight of the memory, the ballast and David Grossman’s alienating echoes.

Fortunately, this European reflex, the fixation on history, does not blind Berte to such things as the silent ‘war’ being fought out in Europe at the moment between its native and non-native populations. Berte incorporates this topic into The Graveyard, which is the garden around the House of Eutopia. In this garden he focuses on the four (blue) patches in Europe that represent the ‘margins’ in ánd around the European space. In this case it is the cities Tbilisi, Chişinău, Melilla and Brussels. Two of them are in the eastern ‘European Neighbourhood’, while Melilla, a Spanish enclave in Morocco, lies in the southern belt and for many Africans is therefore seen as the symbolic anteroom of Europe. This ‘room’ is given literal form by the iron gate that separates Melilla from the rest of the African continent. Once past the gate, one is legally speaking in Europe. Melilla therefore embodies the spatial paradox of an inclusive and exclusive Europe, since this place, even if it is European, nevertheless serves as a point of departure for the crossing to the European continent.

Brussels occupies a somewhat unusual place in The Graveyard, since this city is the centre of Europe, but it is precisely because of this status as a capital that it creates its own social margins and entropy by attracting fortune-seekers, who are today invariably labelled ‘illegal’. Berte includes Brussels in The Graveyard as a place of social margins because he considers the city – in the case of the asylum-seeker/refugee (illegal or otherwise) – as the symbolic place of arrival at the heart of Europe. At the same he time wants to incorporate the large group of Brussels homeless, who, together with asylum-seekers, every day seek out a highly-prized place in the overpopulated night reception centres, into his focus on the occupants of the margins in the European capital. In other words, The Graveyard probes into the worlds of Europe’s individual outsiders: the socially vulnerable groups, homeless, asylum-seekers, refugees and illegal immigrants.

In concrete terms, the four cities take shape in four separate films. They are personal portraits of the cities that owe a lot to the collaboration with Ruben Nachtergaele. He is a sound artist who accompanied Filip Berte on his travels to the ‘frayed fringes’ of Europe to make field recordings which he later transformed into soundtracks. These soundscapes draw the visitor in, capturing him, consciously or unconsciously – but certainly with emotion – in an alienating, uncanny soundspace.

You could see The Graveyard as an enlargement and extension of Protected Landscape. Plan-based and physically developed as an installation in the House of Eutopia, The Graveyard is ‘a zone’, a terra incognita, around Protected Landscape. In this way you might say that while Collective Memory Mass Grave is a valid architectural metaphor for the collective memory, The Graveyard, the third room in the House of Eutopia, embodies the present-day turbulence and the social margins of the European multicultural society.
In a certain sense Eutopia turns from a project intended to establish a collective memory into an undertaking that pricks a collective conscience.
In The Graveyard, Filip Berte examines and reveals the margins of today’s society, margins that are both inside and outside the walls of Fort Europe.

A crucial part of the Eutopia process project is The Blue Room, the fourth room in the House of Eutopia. This room represents the official, institutional Europe and, more specifically, is intended to visualise the problematic rift and communication between the European Union and its citizens and put them up for discussion. Berte particularly wants to question the notion of ‘European citizenship’. In short, what he wants to do is hold up a mirror to ‘ourselves’ – ‘we’ as inhabitants of Europe.

He gradually developed these questions into one large tableau during his stay in Berlin (June 2012 to January 2013). It is an installation with panoramic images of a city that still bears the scars of the Second World War, but at the same time is the setting for an indeterminable fury of building. This ‘fury of building’ does not so much a matter of the present construction of offices, which embodies Berlin as the renewed capital of the reunited Germany. The image that arises is more that of a divided Berlin, a city where The Wall – the most fundamental building element in architecture – creates a no-man’s land. A wall which, since Rem Koolhaas’ study of ‘the Wall’ as architecture, coincides with the heterotopias of a strip of desecrated land.

In his tableau Filip Berte also shows the absurdity of the Wall, which on the Western side became an attraction. Tourists could climb up a ladder or scaffolding to view the Wall with its barbed wire barriers, guard dogs and minefields, a manifestation of the totalitarian communist system. The tableau consequently presents ‘The Wall’ as a viewing device, more so because in the wall painting a young man appears at full scale – sometimes with bare upper body, sometimes in a sweater – which makes the viewer/outsider a passively (or is it actively?) complicit spectator. As a viewing and conceptual frame, what the tableau does above all is bring about an awareness; not only does it visualise the abstract notion of ‘us’, but at the same time it holds up a mirror to ‘us’, the visitors. It also makes the spectator aware that the Wall has several sides, that this generates various sorts of lives on each side. While the Wall is a physical consequence of a political system, it also refers to the walls we ourselves erect as humans: mental walls in the face of social systems and realities, or in the face of ‘the other’ who lives in and/or outside society. By means of these imaginary walls we position ourselves in relation to the existing social order and ‘the other’ who is either ‘in or outside society’. The walls unconsciously contribute to or embody the way we take responsibility and interpret citizenship.

Berte’s purpose with The Blue Room is to seek Europe’s self-image, and to take the spectator along with him on this quest. For this reason he is organising the room to temporarily isolate ‘us’ Europeans and through this physical experience to confront us with the notion of European Citizenship. One of the chief elements in The Blue Room is The Blue Book, an interactive digital book. It gives the visitor the opportunity to share his thoughts or views on European citizenship and identity with other people.

But the installation goes beyond Europe alone. The room-filling painter’s canvas that is an essential part of The Blue Room provides a sketch of the Wall under construction – or is it demolition? By showing the Wall precisely in a state of growth or decline, he automatically summons up the image of other walls, some outside Europe, that determine the condition of a state or a country. Walls that transcend the scale of a building and establish municipal or national boundaries. But also walls which, despite their apparently unyielding nature, are up for discussion. The wall that is under construction in Filip Berte’s Berlin, for instance, implicitly evokes the wall that Israel has (clandestinely) erected in recent years, thereby transforming Palestine into an absurd heterotopia, just like Berlin in the Cold War.

The highest and last stage in the House of Eutopia is the White Space / Mirror. This attic room is an extension of The Blue Room. The questions we were presented with as (complicit) spectators in The Blue Room continue in the White Space / Mirror, except that here the question remains open so that it calls on the spectator to reflect for himself on the meanings and forms of Eutopia. The attic in the House of Eutopia is diametrically opposite to the cellar both spatially and in its content. Whereas the cellar gives shape to the dark side of Europe’s past, the attic room under the roof is intended to shed light on possible new or utopian future perspectives for Europe in a constantly changing world. It is the only room that does not take any physical, material form. The room remains physically empty, but mentally it provides a ‘place for reflection’.

Filip Berte poses the question of identity in a spatial context and by architectural means. And although architecture, laden with culture, history, power, belief and so forth, is precisely Europe’s typically European straitjacket – as the artist Jimmie Durham has already indicated, Europe is ‘Trapped in Architecture’ more than any other continent – Eutopia nevertheless has a more universal significance. Eutopia may well be founded on the question of the identity of its space and its citizens, but in essence the Palestine question and the Arab and Turkish springs resonate equally well in Eutopia. By putting Europe in a spatial context, by studying and mapping its borders, Filip Berte also shows how powerfully Europe is still determined by an outdated concept of space. While the Japanese, in their Mâ concept, define space starting from a point, Europe still clings to the dubious concept of space as a container. Eutopia is an attempt to think in another ‘space’. A space for which all the media are enlisted. Filip Berte draws, makes films, takes photos, and builds installations. Integrates soundscapes. Builds.
In this way the language of Eutopia becomes tangible, spatial, physical.
That is how Eutopia is.

Koen Van Synghel, June 2013
(translation: Gregory Ball)