Carola Hein. The Capital of Europe: Architecture and Urban Planning for the European Union. London: Praeger, 2004. xii + 315 pp. $124.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-275-97874-7.
Carola Hein, ed. European Brussels: Whose Capital? Whose City? Brussels: La Lettre VolÃ©e, 2006. 313 pp. $19.00 (paper), ISBN 978-2-87317-290-9.
Pierre Laconte, Carola Hein, eds. Brussels: Perspectives on a European Capital. Brussels: Foundation of the Urban Environment/Editions Aliter, 2007. 130 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-2-9600650-0-8.
Reviewed by Helen Meller (School of History, University of Nottingham)
Published on H-Urban (November, 2007)
Challenges of the Physical Presence of the European Union: Cities,
The three books under review here form an extraordinary compilation. Carola Hein has achieved something few architectural and urban historians manage. In the space of three years she has produced a monograph on the European Union (EU) and its three "European" capital cities--the summation of twenty years of research--followed by a volume of essays from a wide range of scholars interrogating her interpretations, and finally a volume from those politically and administratively responsible for the well-being of Brussels in its current role as the leading center of the European Union. The rarity of all this is that she has managed to raise the debate about the core values relating to a tripartite "European capital" both in academic and political terms. While many historians have been writing about capital cities, their form, and their history, none has attempted to explore, in this depth, the history of the "non-capital" of Europe. It was a fateful decision to try and avoid the nationalistic undertow of capital city building for the European Union in order to emphasize its role as a federal institution.
The position Hein takes is that it is important to give thought to the physical shape and context of the institutions of the European Union. There is no escape from the politics of place on local, regional, national, and international levels and the symbolism of institutions. As the European Union expands, there is even a case for moving these institutions further east and rebuilding. Yet this prospect only emphasizes the importance of what has been achieved so far and how it fits into the social and cultural history of the idea of European unity. There has to be a center for Europe and its institutions and they have to be somewhere. By studying the results on the ground, in Brussels especially, but also in Luxembourg and Strasbourg, it is possible to explore a new phenomenon: a polycentric headquarters, a network that has social and political implications. The architectural design of the buildings and their locations in these cities has had a huge impact on local and regional government in a way perhaps not originally perceived by the decision-makers setting up the European Union.
Sharing the functions of a "capital" city was intended to strengthen support for further European unification and to make the European Union flexible enough to incorporate future growth and expansion. Sometimes this approach has worked and sometimes it has generated more problems. But these issues have considerable political significance. While the literature on the European Union and its future is often couched in political and legal terms, the role of the European Union as a physical entity has been somewhat neglected. As a historian, Hein has made it her objective to redress this. She develops her ideas most fully in her monograph, The Capital of Europe. Hein builds on her earlier work to produce a major and important study of how something approaching the ideal of a European Union has been realized in bricks and mortar, glass and concrete.
Her work is not only an architectural history though, or even an analysis of visionary plans and the difficulties of achieving them. She has rooted her study in the wider cultural and political issues in the evolution of the European Union over the twentieth century. European institutions and their administrative enclaves are the physical evidence of a passionate commitment to the peaceful development of Europe after the two major world wars. The creation of the European Union, whatever its economic, political, and social objectives, has witnessed a quiet struggle to establish a European identity that can be recognized as such by the rest of the world. EU buildings and the areas around them have had a significant impact on the cities in which they were placed.
Of course, the vision of a European identity is, at base, political. What interests Hein, though, is not the long legacy of the evolution of European identities that stretches over centuries, but the very precise moment when international and European organizations were formed that required some kind of built identity. Her book is divided into two sections: the history of imagining the future of a united Europe and the building of the major institutions in Luxembourg, Strasbourg, and Brussels. It is a structure that works really well as it enables a full investigation of the cultural and political background of the concept of a united Europe in the first part. In the second, the interaction of the demands of European institutions on their host cities can be viewed at the national, regional, and local levels, thus greatly enriching the overall analysis. The men responsible for the outcomes, architects and politicians, are given their due.
Before the First World War, the peace movement gave a boost to ideas about "world" cities. These were imagined as large urban centers marked by monumental architecture and art that signified their special status. Hein writes perceptively about these utopian ideals but the major emphasis of her work is on the period after the Second World War when the European Union began to be forged, modestly, without recourse to any monumental symbolism. It was enough that three locations were eventually chosen to house European institutions. Yet perhaps not enough thought was given to the question of what would happen to these small centers over time, both in terms of their own growth and development and the expanding needs of the European Union. All three cities, Luxembourg, Strasbourg, and Brussels, have long histories predating the European Union and different challenges in terms of economic and social development in the late twentieth century. Their geographical spaces reflected their unique cultural and historical contexts.
The building of the European Union institutions, however, was to have an enormous impact on them. Far more than the buildings of other international organizations such as the United Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), EU buildings have changed the sense of space in their respective locations. What has been achieved, still beleaguered with problems, is a polycentric reality that acts as a hub to a network of cities and regions. It is a unique paradigm for the future, less overtly nationalistic, based on peaceful co-existence rather than war. The second part of Hein's monograph deals with the often difficult path to this achievement. Her analysis, backed up by lengthy, detailed and fascinating footnotes, demonstrates the complexities of this creation and highlights the continuing challenges which could yet undermine any future progress.
In the course of researching her book, Hein interviewed a number of people with strong views about the way forward. When Romano Prodi was president of the European Commission, he called in 2001 for a conference on the "European capital city" and the future of Brussels. Did the European Union even need a capital city or cities? Should the European capital be made to symbolize the European Union in the eyes of its inhabitants? For the future integration of Europe, was it necessary to concentrate European institutions in particular flagship cities? Or was it better to continue a process that had already begun of distributing such institutions more widely across Europe? Building on her interviews, Hein was able to gather a number of "intellectuals" (to use the French term) from academia, from the professions, from the civil service, and politics to debate these issues in print. She then edited their contributions for the second work under review: European Brussels: Whose Capital? Whose City?
The work is divided into four sections: an introduction by Hein; a section discussing the idea of European identity and the capital of the European Union; a third section on Brussels as a European capital as seen by its major stakeholders; and finally some conclusions. There are many lively pieces. In the second part, the major theme is "imagining the capital of Europe" and there is a strong architectural element, some of it written by those who have designed and worked on EU buildings. The third section is much more concerned with the direct impact of the European Union on Brussels and those who live there. A paper from a civil engineer who worked in the city highlights the problems of cooperation between administrations on national, regional, and local levels. There is also a timely reminder that the city must not forget its ordinary inhabitants whose lives continue outside the sphere of the European Union and its institutions. Hein's main conclusion is that there has been little effort put into integrating EU institutions and activities into the most powerful of its headquarters cities, Brussels.
This brings us into the realm of those who engage in that task: planners and government officials. The final volume reviewed here has been published under the auspices of the Foundation for the Urban Environment, a nonprofit, public-interest institution set up in 1999 in Brussels. The volume is somewhat awkwardly constructed, a "think-tank"-style report with clear political messages that are listed at the back. The volume is a manifesto explaining all the reasons why Brussels is and should remain the major hub for EU institutions. It also introduces the viewpoint of the Brussels-Capital Region, a new administrative unit in Belgium's local government structure, responsible both for the capital city of Belgium and its EU sector. Hein has edited this work together with Pierre Laconte, current director of the Foundation of the Urban Environment. Laconte provides a section on the history and present prospects of Brussels and Hein discusses the making of a European Union capital. Mainly, however, this publication is meant for the general reader with many maps, illustrations, and short texts.
The critical achievement perhaps is that the editors have managed to engage top officials from the European Commission and from the Belgian Brussels-Capital Region to contribute long pieces on what they expect from a European capital city and what challenges they see ahead, including the need to respond to changes brought by globalization. In economic terms, regionalism, rather than nationalism, is the motor of change and a strong case is made to keep Brussels as the largest center of EU institutions. Belgium has already become a decentralized state, divided into three autonomous regions, experienced in developing cross-federal discourses on administrative issues. Building valid European city networks, especially with the expansion of the European Union, requires the facilitating role of Brussels with its experience and expertise. The text of this publication is in English, French, and Flemish, a demonstration of cosmopolitanism itself. It represents the last step by which Hein has managed to bring her efforts to develop the discourse on the European capital into the realm of the politicians and administrators directly responsible for the future of the physical fabric of the European Union.
Taken together, these three volumes provide a unique historical record of a twentieth-century phenomenon: the capital of Europe and the role of European institutions in shaping and influencing urban change. Hein's work should be read by all academics and students of the European Union and global urban development, by politicians and administrators, and by members of the European Parliament from the old, established and newly joined countries in the European Union. The uneasy relationship between a political demand for symbolism and imagery and the political necessity of creating institutions beyond the reach of nationalistic identities needs both an informed understanding from member states and a commitment to the fundamental values of the European Union itself.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-urban.
Helen Meller. Review of Hein, Carola, The Capital of Europe: Architecture and Urban Planning for the European Union and
Hein, Carola, ed., European Brussels: Whose Capital? Whose City? and
Laconte, Pierre; Hein, Carola, eds., Brussels: Perspectives on a European Capital.
H-Urban, H-Net Reviews.
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