Samuel Thomas

From within the Ruin

Following the NGOs’ and associations’ desires to attempt to rebuild the image of Europe, they decided to choose Brussels as their starting point. The owner of the Tour Sablon, having been unable to continue any longer with the task of justifying and defending the replacement of Horta’s Maison du Peuple in the 1960s, decided to sell the building to the associations. In order to figure out how to use the existing and globally disliked building, they took a step back and questioned their own opinion on the problems and issues of Europe.


The European Union’s history starts with an economical treaty and builds itself from there onwards. Today, the two main problems are the lack of an initial and relatable image of Europe for the European citizens and a political power which lacks transparency and needs a better opportunity for discussion between its many stakeholders. This top-down image of Europe, that can easily be related to “power” and “money” can also be given to the Tour Sablon. For the associations and NGOs it therefore became clear that it was necessary to first of all disassemble this image before it would be possible to rebuild it. From the top-down ruin of the tower will then emerge the new bottom-up image of Europe, imagined by and for its citizens.


In the case of the existing building, the decision was made to keep as much of the building as possible, in order to maintain the image of the tower and thus the symbol of the “existing” Europe. By subtracting physical elements from the building (e.g. parts of the structure, floors, ceilings and facades) a series of new, open and diverse spaces will appear within the left-over “ruin”. To bring light into the former parking garage, a sequence of floors was removed and the spaces then organised around two courtyards. The first one is directly accessible from the square and attracts the visitor through the front portico and to the base of the tower, and the second courtyard replaces the parking garage’s ramps.


The existing entrance of the tower is now used as a restaurant, making the most of its street-level facades to animate the neighbourhood as it is the case on the other side of the square. The main entrance has now been moved and placed upon the curved facade, as it once was for the Maison du Peuple. After entering the base of the building via a covered staircase, the visitors are brought into the courtyard and then the European Citizens House. The base of the building covers the first six floors and is used as a multi-functional culture center, composed of all the necessary elements to give the visitors the possibility to discover, discuss and develop the “European idea”.


A third core is added along the “spine” of the base, which is the main circulation spaces of the tower and from which no floors have been removed. Smaller, more intimate rooms and the access to the main functions of the Citizen’s House (event hall, workshops, exhibition spaces, etc.) also emerge from this central circulation. On either side of the spine, floors have been removed in order to create more generous and open spaces. On the side of the entrance, an exhibition space and open learning spaces have generous double ceiling height and dialogue with the square and the neighbourhood from the outdoor portico. On the other side, workshops and their communicating temporary exhibition spaces are also developed with a double ceiling height and overlooking balconies and in the back the auditorium and library spread over three floors each.


On top of the base of the building is the community garden, with its both open and closed spaces meant to teach and to learn from other communities and cultures. This public space is the first of three which can be found within the tower and aims to bring back the symbolic visibility of the renewal of the tower and of the rebuilt image of Europe. In the middle of the tower, to combine the functions of temporary housing and offices, a meeting space is generated. The auditoriums, cinemas and café offer unique views onto the surroundings and generate “picture” like views. On the top floors, a rooftop restaurant also benefits from the views over the city.


The facades of the base and the tower are then modified in a similar way to the rest of the building. The main appearance and materiality of the base is kept and what is removed is then reused and reinterpreted. The tower is however reduced to its bare minimum and then left with only the necessary structure. A new, self-supporting facade is then placed on top of the existing one and gives the tower a lighter and less monumental impression and allows the internal functions to be visible from outside. With the aim being that the tower can be seen from all over Brussels as an accessible building where something is constantly happening, this open façade shows to the city that the building is always open to discussion and improvement.