Extolling the Virtues of ‘Ugly Belgian Houses’
If the reactionary armchair architecture criticism that thrives in the current media environment is remembered for anything good, it should be for Ugly Belgian Houses. Which is a blog about ugly Belgian houses, but it is also so much more than that.
For one, it is also a book now, featuring 50 homes from the blog. Social media manager Hannes Coudenys takes tips and self-submissions, but for the most part, he finds his subjects on scouting expeditions. Since he posted his first house in 2011, he reckons he’s seen just about every pyramidal contemporary cottage and ungainly faux chateau in the country.
He also feels that all of Belgium has come to hate him, or used to, before he softened his touch. “I went mainstream,” he jokes over Skype. “In the beginning I was angry, and people were angry at me, but now they kind of enjoy the blog. We all hate our houses, but we love them as well. We’re proud of our ugly Belgian houses.”
As the anger has subsided, Coudenys’ captions have lost their teeth. They’re still just as cheesy, though. In the book, one residence shaped like the base of a corded telephone “tries to phone home,” while one brick house with a wall of slapdash apertures reminds him of “never-ending popup windows in Windows.” But while he’ll still tell a house to go home because it’s had too much to drink, he is less likely to speculate that the architect was drunk when he designed the place.
Most humorists with very narrow subject matter can probably relate. It’s hard to make fun of something for so long without growing to love it. Since the book was released, Coudenys has become something of a brand ambassador for his country’s eccentric residential architecture. The Bartlett School of Architecture has invited him to come give a talk.
In some ways, bad art can be more instructive than perfect art. Coudenys has learned to detest historical pastiche and contemporary eclecticism in their myriad forms, and he still accuses Belgium of having an overabundance of both. He traces his country’s high level of weird little homes back to postwar housing subsidies, and the romantic homebuilding tradition they engendered: young post-collegiate couple and architect against the world, building something that has never been seen before.
Coudenys also traces this tradition to Belgium’s “history of being oppressed. The Dutch have been ruling us, France has been ruling us, we have always had to be brave little Belgians. We were finally being set free and subsidized to do what we want. After school, you find a girl, you get married, and you build your own house, and it’s not OK for it to look like the neighbors’ house.”
Coudenys complies with owner requests to take images down from the blog, and patiently fields the occasional accusation from an architect that he is ruining their livelihood. Thanks to Belgium’s strict copyright laws, around 90 percent of the homeowners Coudenys asked about having their homes featured in the book were safe in refusing him. But by and large, as he writes in the books’ introduction, the people who said yes “think it's fantastic. The child of one owner jumped up and down in excitement when we rang and asked for permission to use their house in our book: ‘I knew you'd come, at last!’”
Another homeowner once asked Coudenys why he didn’t call the book Special Belgian Houses. But after four years of poking fun at architectural exuberance, Coudenys is a firm believer that “boring is what’s really ugly.”
More good reads from T+L:
• In Photos: New Orleans’s Historic Architecture
• A Photographer's Obsession Has Made Sweden's Gorgeous 'Broccoli Tree' Instagram Famous
• Heading to the Whitney? Here’s Your Ideal Day in the Meatpacking District