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Friday, July 1, 2022

On The Coffee Table: Bold Ventures by Charlotte Van den Broeck

Belgian poet and author Charlotte Van den Broeck explores the dark side of creativity through the stories of thirteen tragic architects.

In thirteen chapters, Charlotte Van den Broeck goes in search of buildings that were fatal for their architects – architects who either killed themselves or are rumoured to have done so.

The stories range across time and space from a church with a twisted spire built in seventeenth-century France to a theatre that collapsed mid-performance in 1920s Washington, DC., and an eerily sinking swimming pool in her hometown of Turnhout.

We caught up with Charlotte to find out where the idea for this curious book came from, who her design inspirations are, and what the reaction to the book has been from living architects.

Bold Ventures by Charlotte Van den Broeck

Where did the idea for this book come from?

It started with the municipal swimming pool in my hometown of Turnhout, in Belgium. When I was growing up, an extremely expensive, somewhat showy newly built swimming pool was earmarked by the municipality. Due to persistent breakdowns and strange occurrences, the pool was never open for more than three consecutive months. The water turned white and the newspapers printed “swimming in milk”, the lifeguard was beaten senseless by a little boy, a ponytail got caught in the purification filters… In the end the pool had to be closed permanently. The reason for the closure was not officially communicated, but it was soon suspected that it had to do with the installation of the technical room, which was in the process of sinking into the swampy ground. It was rumored that the architect was driven to despair by this error and took his life in the basement, the scene of the failure.

This heimat story was mirrored years later, when I heard in Vienna that the architect of the State Opera also ended his life because of persistent criticism on the opera project. It was said, among other things, that the building was sinking into the street.

From this parallel I went in search of other stories. Out of curiosity, albeit deontologically irresponsible, I typed in wikipedia the search term: ‘architects who committed suicide’. Before I knew it, I had landed in a dark corner of architectural history. A first superficial glance yielded dozens of case studies. One story led to another. The multitude of examples made me decide to embark on an in-depth investigation of public space, architecture and failure. From there I started studying and travelling for three years.

Muncipal Swimming Pool, City Park, Turnhout

Which tale from the book has impacted you the most and why?

I think the story of the British-Napolitan architect Lamont Young. He had a utopian and ecological vision for urban planning in Naples at the beginning of the twentieth century, but nobody took him seriously because he was considered an outsider. For example, he envisioned a subway line that would connect the lower city to the upper city and wanted to transform the poverty-stricken suburb of Bagnoli into a kind of Venice in the South where green spaces were provided for the working class to relax. With the rubble from the excavations for the metro he wanted to build museums there. In the end, a metro line only came in the 1990s, ironically according to Young’s plans. In Bagnoli, instead of this green space, throughout the twentieth century, there was a polluting steel plant that seriously poisoned the soil. The disregard for Youngs work and ideas had enormous consequences both for him personally and for the city in the decades that followed. 

Is there a significance behind having thirteen chapters?

It’s a bit of a bad joke: thirteen as an unlucky number. I had a longlist of twenty-four case studies. Some were well-known buildings and architects, some were forgotten. I wanted a mixture of historically verifiable cases, but also was interested in urban legends in which the architect’s suicide was linked to a construction error. Often the story turned out to have had a greater impact in the historical record than the structure or the architect himself. This interested me enormously and raised questions about veracity. It gave me the opportunity to also reflect on storybuilding, literally: how stories are ‘built’ and impact perspectives on reality.

Crandall’s Knickerbocker Theatre, Washington DC.

Who are your design inspirations?

I feel very inspired by contemporary female architects, for example Francine Houben, or Oana Bogdan.

Have any architects approached you about this book?  

Yes, I have had the opportunity to speak with some architects who have taken the time to read the book. The most beautiful reaction I got is that the complexity of the profession gets attention; the struggles, artistic and personal, but equally between the different agencies involved in projects, the enormous responsibility the architect bears, the sometimes conflicting roles of artist, craftsman, diplomat etc.

What are you working on next?

I’m researching for a new non-fiction project. In the bulk of research for ‘Bold Ventures’, I found a compelling story that leads me to Tasmania.

National Library of Malta, Valletta

About the Author

Charlotte Van den Broeck is a Belgian author. Her first collection of poetry, Chameleon (2015), was awarded the Herman de Coninck Debut Prize. Nachtroer (2017) won the triennial Paul Snoek Prize for the best collection of Dutchlanguage poems. David Colmer’s English translation of these two collections was published as a single volume by Bloodaxe Books in 2020. In 2019 she published her prose debut Waagstukken (Bold Ventures). The book was a Dutch bestseller, won the Confituur Boekhandels Prize, the Dr. Wijnaendst Francken Prize and was shortlisted for the Boekenbon Literature Prize and the Jan Hanlo Essay Prize. Her third collection of poems, Earth Rubbings, was published in Dutch in 2021.


Rebekah Killigrew
Rebekah Killigrewhttp://www.rebekahkilligrew.com
Editor | ww.architecturemagazine.co.uk | www.interiordesigner.co.uk

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