Today, Ugly Belgian Houses has more than 100,000 likes on Facebook and over 77,000 Instagram followers. Similar accounts in other countries have been created along the lines of Hannes’ example. He noticed a few years ago that his view on Belgian architecture really triggered something. "It all started when I lived in a small village and had to cycle 20 kilometers to Bruges every day," Hannes says. “I cycled along a typical Belgian road. I was traumatized there. What I saw every day really hurt my eyes. I took a photo and tweeted it. Suddenly everyone started to retweet it. I was just mad at the ugliness.” The madness meanwhile turned into marvel.
I continued to post photos for a while and collected them on a website. Not everyone liked that. ‘Dear Mr. Asshole’ was the salutation of one of the complaint emails from homeowners and architects. “I started to get a little scared. In Belgium, an architect has copyright on his design until seventy years after his death. I thought; ‘I better take the site offline’. A while later I saw this:
It reminded me of The Scream by Edvard Munch. Then I decided to share that photo on Instagram.” That felt a bit more low-key than a website and he added that if people were really upset with it, they could email him and he would take it offline. No need to threaten with a lawsuit.
Hannes says sorry
Hannes decided to make a book about the ugly houses, but he had to go to the owners and involved architects to ask for approval. Not everyone wanted to cooperate, but this was also a good opportunity to say sorry for what he ‘did’. And of course that also lead to good conversations. For the Belgian TV show Iedereen Beroemd (translated as ‘Everyone is famous’, in which ordinary Belgians are the protagonists), he traveled through the country to say sorry to the owners of ugly houses.
Nowadays, he doesn’t really have to stroll around for new ugly houses: he gets a lot of photos and tips sent to him. Also from yesterday’s audience: a Belgian woman tipped him off about “a white house in Aalst with a blue canvas on the side with a gigantic plane on it.” Nevertheless, he occasionally still takes pictures himself. How long will he keep doing this? "Until an Ugly Belgian Houses Lego box comes on the market."
Ask for the sake of asking
After the lecture, the audience still has many questions for Hannes. And of course the most frequently asked questions are always among them: “What does your own house look like?” We have to use our own imagination as Hannes does not show a photo but he lives in a small apartment of 80 m2. And which house he finds the ugliest? This house (see picture) with the many windows and doors. (Not so) fun fact: during the first weeks after this was finished in the 1980s, many accidents happened here, caused by people looking back marveled at what they just passed.
But how is it possible that there is so much ugliness in Belgium? Hannes explains that there are clear differences between Belgium and the Netherlands. For example, there is one welfare committee in the Netherlands, but there are several organizations in Belgium that are entitled to an opinion and sometimes turn a blind eye. And things change over time, like a construction line that is moved backward or forward, causing strange indentations in a street. Or a provisional wall to which another house will be built, if ever.
If you are curious about where bricked up windows and doors come from, also a typical phenomenon in Belgium; they originate from the time of Napoleon, Coudenys explains. “Back then there was a tax on windows and doors and therefore they were counted. So people started to brick them up. Which you still see a lot in Belgium."
"I often hear ‘Oh but Bruges and Antwerp are so pretty’. Rent a car and you'll see what the problem is," Hannes says. But don’t be mistaken that the architecture in The Netherlands is his ideal: “Here there is ugliness as well. But in a different way. It is very ‘copy-paste’. So many of the same houses. Then I’d rather see a really ugly house than a boring house. We Belgians are and will always be surrealists."