The architecture of maverick Belgian architect Lucien Kroll may be expressive, quirky and prolific but remains largely invisible and inscrutable
Amid the murmuring of a new dark age across our perniciously corporate landscape, with dark, dissuasive technology propelled by fakery and bluster, it is refreshing to reconsider the work of maverick Belgian architect Lucien Kroll, a man who once told Norman Foster to his face that he was the greatest architect of the 19th century.
Kroll’s architecture of engagement and participation became popular in the aftermath of May 1968, but his is a long-term effort independent of fashion, harnessing a tradition of structuralist thinkers (such as Claude Lévi-Strauss) drawn more to Dogon tribesmen than citizens of the new republic; to actual place rather than abstraction. Indeed, in Kroll’s case, to get ‘beyond authority’ altogether.
Home of European bureaucracy, Brussels was blighted as much by postwar Modernist development as by Patton and von Manstein. Symbolically, the Bauhaus was to blame, and Pruitt-Igoe was blown up. A hotbed of resistance grew around the La Cambre school (where Kroll graduated) with militant urbanist Maurice Culot presenting ‘counter projects’ based around local activism. Culot took a specifically leftist, revolutionary, stance; his comrades including later formalists (and royal apologist) Leon Krier and Bernard Huet (later editor of Architecture d’Aujourd’ hui).
Ten years older than Culot, Kroll cut a smart figure already creating happily untidy buildings, Curl describing them as ‘perhaps Adhocism (Jencks) and certainly of improvisation’. While many might bristle at the notion of any long straight line as ‘fascist’, nobody stuck to his guns longer and tighter than Kroll. Indeed, the idea gained currency, even across these pages, through the highly influential work of long-time AR contributor Peter Blundell Jones.
Kroll’s most dramatically untidy building of them all, La MéMé, the student complex for the Medical Faculty at the Catholic University of Louvain, became something of a cause célèbre without the celebrity. It still appears impossible, and as a revelation; nestling delicately between the giant slab blocks for teaching and administration. The plans illustrate period enthusiasms for ‘clustering’. But in appearance, somehow impermanent in the manner of garden structures, reminiscent of ant hills or (stacked) bee hives, certainly ad hoc in variety, yet with a vocabulary of materials that has somehow (improbably) stood the test of time. Recent pictures show it looking very happy indeed. But that’s not exactly the point; in negating his authority as expert and subverting the mode of production, Kroll probably got as close to the work of social theorists Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord as it might be possible for an architect to get, and in the aftermath, suffered virtual professional exile as a consequence.
Or perhaps that’s just the politically normative way of thinking about him, for Atelier Kroll actually produced a roster of more than one hundred buildings and projects between 1955 and 2008, many of which are as undemonstrative as his persona. It’s just that a lot of them are in France.
Across a disintegrating Modernist housing scheme in Alençon, Normandy, where the residents beat up the authoritarian janitor for not letting them walk on the grass, Kroll wound a series of tracks that locals eventually recognised as their own archaic routes (roots?) and so the ancient ways triumphed over Brutal Modernism, even if the shopkeepers never forgave him for the vegetative mounds that then obscured their shop windows.
For a monastery in Rwanda he was determined not to ape the cliché of the vernacular (beginning to ‘look like Club Méditerranée’) and invented a new, surprisingly formal arrangement, while in a plan for a proposed new Rwandan capital, Kroll showed an equal determination to maintain native organisational structures and informal shanty town patterns.
And for a planned brewery for Kronenbourg, he divided what would predictably have become a giant shed, as big as the town it sat in, into four sectors designed by ‘preferably hostile’ teams to simulate the notion of a town’s growth over time. Meanwhile, across many housing schemes, the architecture, while not exactly simple, was effectively demure.
Underlying it all lay Kroll’s ability to listen. Whatever our Modernist heroes had proclaimed, this was the moment for humans rather than humanism. So Kroll listened more (and no doubt more painfully) than almost any architect in history. For Culot, this wasn’t urbanism, but Kroll’s enthusiasm for participation made Ralph Erskine at Byker Wall and Rod Hackney at Black Road look like door-to-door salesmen. If the opinions of adults proved unhelpful, Atelier Kroll mobilised the children, and Kroll even promoted donkeys when it came to town planning; for the donkey, as a ‘holistic animal’, far from being the butt of Le Corbusier’s jokes, should be celebrated as at least sensible enough to be reluctant to venture where no man has gone before.
This offers us a picture of an undemonstrative character, yet Kroll exuded (or exudes, he’s 91) conviction. He developed a language of construction that is more circumstantially wonky than demonstratively expressive, rich in quirky material, variety and detail, not so much intended to shout of the author’s creativity, but of process rather than product, and also necessarily cheap, as well as incorporating every opportunity for nature to take hold. But there would be no hero and no tragedy, just lots and lots of hard work; shared endeavour, a Rousseau-inspired social contract, a great deal of effort expended so as not to ‘interfere with the unwitting’. There is something of the religious scholar about him, an eminence, a man who can see beyond the bubble (and rubble) of the everyday and savour it, and there was plenty of work for religious orders too, especially the Dominicans, but only when they could see beyond their feudal heritage.
Kroll also exudes that air of inscrutability. The investigative journalist ‘chasing the money and the love’ is defeated at the gate. The interior person is invisible. Kroll mentions, once, that he is a grandfather, Wolfgang Pehnt mentions he’s from a family of engineers. That’s it.
Reaction was chequered. Kroll was dismissed from the Louvain site in 1978, when only four of the proposed eight buildings were ‘complete’. In the era predating military-style professionalism, The Architects’ Journal struck a supportive pose in Astragal. Within the war of words on ‘freedom’, ‘participation’ had been enabled by use of Dutch architect John Habraken’s system of structure and infill panels for internal walls and facades, which the students could move around as they wished (Kroll does not shun technology, only the way it is implemented). Charles Jencks would originally refer to this as a ‘totalitarianism of enforced participation’. Even worse, Geert Bekaert slated it as ‘simulated anarchy’ and compared the complex to Disneyland. Meanwhile, the university authorities got cold feet about the whole thing as critical interest soared.
o the precise level to which the process went ‘beyond authority’ remains controversial and the subject of PhDs. But Kroll himself perfectly understood his responsibilities, along with the naivety of anybody thinking they would get exactly what they wanted. He sought to synthesise or mix up the demands; a form of weaving perhaps (a fine line between this and ‘orchestration’), stating ‘Ours is primarily a political project and not an aesthetic one. It is more or less un-geometrical, anti-authoritarian, anarchical, that is to say, human’.
Further: ‘We instinctively avoided every kind of authoritarian imposition threatening the landscape: bureaucracy, closed working methods, isolation, factory processes, and ordering systems’, and embraced instead, ‘a world of openness, co-operation, osmosis, empathy, mimesis, and fluidity’.
So, the context of Belgian (and French, German and Dutch) society; the traditional disquiet between the Walloons and the Flemish, Protestant and Catholic, the secular and the religious, and those bureaucrats wielding power ‘hunched over their desks’ and those without it, and the outpouring of student solidarity of 1968, makes La MéMé quite a period piece; quite a monument. Of course, subsequent students never changed the layouts of their rooms as they might, and, of course, like all great monuments to revolutionary processes, it leaked.
Later commissioned for the metro station underneath, Kroll collaborated with the Dutch radical ecologist Louis Le Roy, together with long-standing partner, wife and landscape architect Simone. The liberal scattering of literal organic references (petals, tree trunks) and the softening of almost any hard line, and in the celebration of almost every nonchalant left-over event, Kroll’s ethos now demonstrated not so much conceptual complexity as deep ecology; just as the world began to dwell not just on the imposition of power structure, but what that was doing to the Earth itself.
It’s 36 years since I wrote my first essay on Kroll, comparing him to Maurice Culot and Leon Krier; all adventurous for a new and better way of doing things than the bureaucracy of Modernism presented. Subsequently, participation and engagement has become the fraudulent, obligatory ‘consultation’, a militaristic and reductive process. Kroll’s initiatives to widen responsibility and to allow people to contribute meaningfully to the built environment couldn’t have been more different, his analogy being the Sioux working the computers, rather than the ubiquitous bean-counters.
La MéMé may now represent something of a paradox, but so does Kroll as an architect. Pretty much all the photographs in Buildings & Projects (1987) were taken by him; and there are no pictures of him. ‘Promotional material’ it simply isn’t. In fact, unlike today’s architectural show ponies, Kroll and his oeuvre remain practically invisible. Those buildings, photographs and plans represent the extent of his involvement in an overall evolutionary change. Publication perhaps marked a point when his efforts reached a full stop, but his work has also been said to culminate ‘when anything that possibly still makes it resemble a “Kroll”, is cancelled out’.
Apocryphally, one day a Japanese photographer called the office; he could not find the residential area Cergy-Pontoise in Paris (his assignment), but the office delighted in telling him he was right in the middle of it.
So this career reminds us that it might be better to travel hopefully than to plan our arrival with bells and whistles; that the paralysis of myriad spectacles might be overcome; that there is great value in challenging a means of production that is not only thoroughly oppressive, but mind-numbingly dumb. However, there’s a catch; by the fourth edition of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Jencks had also sided with Postmodern classicism. The upshot? There may be only so many ways to cook architecture; but it’s certainly the case that architecture is usually cooked.