Ugly Belgian Houses and Imaginary Cities

Monday, June 22, 2015

On June 18th, I attended a panel called UP-POP, which discussed how culture and architecture feed into each other, especially in regards to how technology is constantly redefining how we interact with the built environment and how it interacts with us.

After an introduction from You+Pea (the design practice that organised the event), Hannes Coudenys from the popular blog Ugly Belgian Houses shared his experiences of how social media can make the public more engaged with architecture.

Sometimes I may lament the planning process in this country as being overly strict but Belgium is a warning about what can happen if the opposite is true. There are very few restrictions there, allowing homeowners there to build whatever they want regardless of their skill or lack of it. This anarchic architectural landscape attracts people from neighbouring countries who want to build whatever their hearts desire.

Hannes started documenting the most egregious examples on his blog, Ugly Belgian Houses. Browsing through, there are homes that look as if they were designed by Dr. Frankenstein, pulled from gaudy fairytale illustrations or simply chopped to pieces.

There are countless websites and blogs about architecture but they’re rarely funny. By joking about architecture’s failures rather than celebrating its successes, Hanne’s blog gained widespread popularity outside of the usual circles. Injecting humour into the subject gave it a popular appeal that architecture usually lacks, and Ugly Belgian Houses is now available as a book.

Of course, the owners and architects of the featured houses often weren’t so amused. When he started up, Hannes fell foul of the messy world of architectural copyright, with owners and architects threatening to sue if the images weren’t removed. Because of this, only a fraction of the houses Hannes photographs are actually uploaded – and looking at the ones that made it, I can’t imagine how appalling the ones that didn’t must be.

The next speaker was Holly Lewis from We Made That, an architectural studio that specialises in public projects. She shared her experiences on a number of regeneration projects where her studio examined the local area and engaged with the public in order to make changes that were meaningful and true to their environment.

Holly’s message was optimistic. She believed the public do care about architecture and are deeply affected by its successes and failures. By opening honest channels of communication, public projects can cause meaningful change and make people feel more invested in their neighbourhoods.

Finally, Darran Anderson, author of the upcoming book Imaginary Cities, discussed how fictional architecture influences architecture in the real world. In fiction, creators are unconstrained by laws, costs or physics and thus are able to dream up impossible structures and cityscapes, which can be a significant source of inspiration for architects.

As technology, materials and resources have evolved, much of what was once imaginary is becoming reality. Darran’s tour through science fiction’s cities didn’t look quite as far fetched when compared to the increasingly surreal skylines of Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong. This new school of extravagant, international architects wear their fictional influences on their sleeves, producing designs that draw far more from sci-fi than any real world tradition.

Darran also explored how fiction’s newest medium, videogames, are influencing the next generation of architects. For me, wooden blocks and Lego were how my childhood self played with architecture at its most basic form. Now, it’s Minecraft where children are able to explore in limitless 3D space, even collaborating with their friends to build complex virtual structures.

By becoming acquainted with 3D design at such a young age, the next generation is able to adapt more easily to design programs such as AutoCAD and 3DSMax, which are an essential part of the modern architect’s tool kit. Schools are wise to see the educational potential of Minecraft, which has managed to combine play and creativity with tremendous success.

UP-POP was a part of the London Festival of Architecture, a yearly celebration that provides educational and industry events across the capital. It takes place every year, so keep an eye on next June if you have a personal, academic or professional interest in architecture.

John Dyer-Grimes

Hannes Coudenys can be found at and @uglybelgianhouse on Twitter.

Holly Lewis can be found at

Darran Anderson can be found at and @Oniropolis on Twitter.