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Architectural Strategies of Dis- and Re-Enchantment: Building for the European Union Is Not a Master Narrative

Faculty of Art and Philosophy, Catholic Private University Linz, 4020 Linz, Austria
Religions 2023, 14(7), 823;
Submission received: 1 March 2023 / Revised: 29 May 2023 / Accepted: 8 June 2023 / Published: 23 June 2023
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Theology and Aesthetics)


This contribution looks at the different architectures for the institutions of the European Union in Brussels. Based on the ideas of the sociologist Max Weber, and later the theologian Harvey Cox, of an increasingly secularized, disenchanted urban society, the author first analyzes the earlier buildings for the European Community as an expression of a rationalist, even ‘disenchanted’ architectural strategy. This contrasts with the efforts of the European Union in the 21st century, which attempts to strengthen identification with the European Union by various means. One of these strategies—as the author points out—is to increasingly charge architecture with auratic meaning, in other words, to re-enchant it. Nevertheless, both architectural solutions do not offer a nation-like master narrative but are intended—each in its own manner—to represent a network of many individual parts.

1. Introduction

Discussing the buildings of the European Union in the context of ‘Religions and their Aesthetic Program’ may not seem obvious. Not only do the origins of today’s union of nation states lie in a primarily economically oriented alliance, but the founders also pursued the goal of allowing the people within Europe to grow together into a peaceful society based on ‘reason-oriented’ maxims (Burgess 2002). This happened, on the one hand, as a reaction to the atrocities during the Second World War and, on the other hand, within what the sociologist Max Weber already largely described as a disenchantment of modern society (Weber 1919). According to Weber, knowledge of the universe is less and less understood by reference to supernatural forces and salvation doctrines and more and more by reference to empirical observation and the experimental method of the natural sciences (Kalberg 2005, p. xxiii). The aesthetic products of this process, the buildings for the newly founded European organizations themselves, were committed to an international modernity in the post-war period, whose maxim ‘form follows function’ preemptively distanced itself from any religious or obviously empathy causing charges. By contrast, at the end of the millennium, the sociologist Richard Jenkins noticed a symbolic backdrop towards re-enchantment in political strategies. Accordingly, I will analyze the early buildings of the European Community as an expression of a social willingness to engage in rationalization in order to study the more recent buildings of the EU, especially the EUROPA building, in the context of a re-enchantment in a second step. For better comparability within the urban context, this phenomenon is examined using two examples from the city of Brussels, one of the three headquarter cities of the European Union.
The architecture of the European Union has not yet been discussed in the context of disenchantment and re-enchantment or theories of Max Weber. Nevertheless, this work is based on numerous previous scholarly articles, which are to be made visible here in the state of research.
Thierry Demey, the author of several books on urban history, provides an important insight into the history of urban planning in Brussels. In particular, in the second volume of his Chronique d’une capitale en chantier, under the title De l’Expo ‘58 au siège de la C.E.E., Demey illuminates the regional and national post-war efforts to reinvent Brussels as a modern, car-friendly metropolis and thus to position Belgium and Brussels as international players within a reorganization of order in Europe (Demey 1992).
In his book European Quarter Urban Regimes and Strategies. Building Europe’s Central Executive District in Brussels, the American political geographer Alex G. Papadopoulus focused on the political strategies and direct social effects of implementing a European Quarter in the city (Papadopoulus 1992). However, the author did not discuss these in the context of a secularized, modern society.
One of the most important works on the architecture of the European Union, and especially on its predecessor organizations, is the urbanist and architectural historian Carola Hein’s The Capital of Europe. Architecture and Urban Planning for the European Union from 2004 (Hein 2004). Her focus is on the choice of cities as sites for European institutions and the urban planning considerations, which she sees in the historical context of the state of development of individual organizations. This is central to being able to classify the early buildings. The representational aspirations of the European Coal and Steel Community at the time of its emergence clearly differ from those of a solidified European Union. Hein does not, however, analyze the architectures themselves in detail, arguing, among other things, that they cannot be perceived as an expression of the supranational organization’s will to represent since the majority of them were not commissioned by the user, the EU and its predecessor organizations, but were commissioned on a national level or locally by city governments and local investors.
This is where Sven Sterken’s article Le Berlaymont et la Transformation du Quartier Leopold comes in, illuminating the emergence of the European Quarter and focusing on individual examples (Sterken 2015). In particular, he looks at the planning and construction history of the Berlaymont building and provides valuable historical photographs of the structure.
From a sociological perspective, the sociologist Paul Jones approaches the question of architecture’s contribution to constructing identity (Jones 2011). In his monograph The Sociology of Architecture: Constructing Identities, he devotes one chapter to the European architecture in Brussels, which he contextualizes in the European political development. Involving in the discourse of contemporary and future designs, he seems to approve of the urbanist ideas of two “high-profile” architects, Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel, to foster iconic architecture in Brussels (Jones 2011, pp. 141–51).
Furthermore, the buildings of the European Union have so far received little attention in research. They are often considered unsuitable, unrepresentative, or unartistic. None of the buildings are official symbols of the European Union. Instead, rather abstract representations, such as the flag, the anthem, and the motto United in diversity, are official symbols. This is astonishing, as, since ancient times, architecture has been thought to convey political ideals and claims to power. Through their beauty or monumentality, buildings can have an intimidating or identifying effect (Boucheron 2008). However, the European Communities and later the Union seem to make little use of this approved strategy. Nonetheless, I argue that these architectures do reflect the high ideals of the community of states and also its constitutionality. In doing so, however, I do not succeed in a theological reading of architecture or an analysis of an aesthetic inspired by religiosity. Rather, I consider Max Weber’s thesis of a disenchanted world as the starting point of post-war modern reasons for the state, which are also reflected in supranational politics and their representation.

2. Disenchantment, Modernity, and the Berlaymont Building

The origins of the European Union lie in two parallel objectives: on the one hand, to economically bundle the ferro-carbon resources of France, Germany, and neighbouring countries and, on the other hand, to minimize warmongering tendencies between the large nations of France and Germany through economic proximity and mutual dependence (Hannecart 2006; Burgess 2002). The close linkage of these two goals, economic and peacekeeping, is closely related to established sociological considerations. The German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) had, especially in his large anthology Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Weber 1922), as well as in his detailed preface to Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (Weber 1920), defined capitalist economic acts as a system of formally peaceful acquisition opportunities (Weber 1920, p. 4). At the same time, Weber was a committed advocate of “constitutional division of powers, an ethic of responsibility for politicians, constitutional guarantees of civil liberties, and an extension of suffrage” as well as “strong parliaments” (Kalberg 2005, pp. 3–4) and bureaucratic, rational-legal authority. The latter, in particular, had become possible precisely because of the increasing ‘secularization’ of the modern world. Weber described the constitution of Western society in the modern era as disenchanted. While Weber used the term secularization in legal, historical terms for the transition of ecclesiastical law into secular law, he described the transformation of modern society as a process of disenchantment (Kippenberger 2019, pp. 89–90). He employed the term in his much-cited 1917 Munich lecture Wissenschaft als Beruf (Science as a vocation) to describe the character of a modernized, bureaucratized Western society. A society in which scientific and technical understanding is valued more highly than belief in spirits and magic (Weber 1919, p. 16). In this far-advanced process of intellectualization, the social worldview had become purified from magical notions and characterized by rationality. This rationality should also find expression in the legitimization and rationalization of rule.
“In einem modernen Staat liegt die wirkliche Herrschaft, welche sich ja weder in parlamentarischen Reden noch in Enunziationen von Monarchen, sondern in der Handhabung der Verwaltung im Alltagsleben auswirkt, notwendig und unvermeidlich in den Händen des Beamtentums. [...] Wie der sogenannte Fortschritt zum Kapitalismus seit dem Mittelalter der eindeutige Maßstab der Modernisierung der Wirtschaft, so ist der Fortschritt zum bürokratischen, auf Anstellung, Gehalt, Pension, Avancement, fachmäßiger und Arbeitsteilung, festen Kompetenzen, Aktenmäßigkeit, hierarchischer Unter- und Überordnung ruhenden Beamtentum der ebenso eindeutige Maßstab der Modernisierung des Staates.” (Weber 1918, p. 308) (“In a modern state, real rule, which is expressed neither in parliamentary speeches nor in the enunciations of monarchs, but in the management of everyday life, is necessarily and inevitably in the hands of the civil service. […] Just as the so-called progress towards capitalism since the Middle Ages has been the unambiguous yardstick of the modernization of the economy, so the progress towards bureaucracy, based on employment, salary, pension, advancement, professionalism and division of labor, fixed competences, file-keeping, hierarchical subordination and superordination, is the equally unambiguous yardstick of the modernization of the state.”)
With these words, Weber seems to have anticipated much of what today’s European Union seems to embody, as the European Union and its predecessor organizations are often seen as super-bureaucracies or bureaucratic authorities (Bach 1994, pp. 101–2; Anter 2019, p. 123). Indeed, Weber presented historically and sociologically argued proposals to the founding fathers of the European Communities. His texts on legitimate and, above all, modern models of rule and community, as well as modern, resilient forms of administration, must have been inspiring. Thus, in his chapter on bureaucratism in the fourth volume of his posthumously published anthology Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Weber 1922, pp. 12–45), Weber justified the democratic–political advantages of bureaucracy, especially for modern states. Notably, under the impression of fascist seizures of power a few years earlier, the masterminds of the European Communities might have been interested in Weber’s assessment that a “once fully developed bureaucracy [...] is one of the most difficult social domains to destroy. Bureaucratization is the specific means of transforming ‘community action’ into rationally ordered ‘social action.’” (“einmal voll entwickelte Bürokratie […] zu den am schwersten zu zertrümmernden sozialen Gebieten [gehört]. Die Bürokratisierung ist das spezifische Mittel, ‘Gemeinschaftshandeln‘ in rational geordnetes ‘Gesellschaftshandeln’ zu überführen.”) Thus, this quotation already reflects the core ideas of a Europe to be united: rational meaningful ‘social action’ in contrast to subjectively meaningful action, as well as bureaucracy as rationally legitimized authority.
Indeed, Weber’s assumptions were echoed after World War II in a wide-ranging debate about the end of ideologies, in which sociologists, based on the notion of advanced disenchantment, assumed that the breeding ground for (radical) ideologies had been exhausted (Bell 1960). A world ‘activated by ideologies’ was thus only plausible if it was a world ‘ridden by myths’ (MacIver 1948; Brick 2013, p. 91). In this context of Weber’s reflections on the legitimacy of rule, supranational cooperations can be read as manifestations of a disenchanted rationality that placed administration and the principle of collegiality above autocratic forms of rule (Mager 2019, pp. 144–45).
This political–sociological contextualization can thus be summarized as follows: The disenchantment and rationalization of the Western world diagnosed by Max Weber at the beginning of the 20th century inspired subsequent sociologists and political scientists to a new perspective on postwar society. They assumed that this Western world would—thanks to the level of rationalization achieved—automatically strive for bureaucratized and peaceful democracy oriented toward functionality and progress.
Central to the argumentation in this paper is that Weber’s disenchantment not only serves as a magnifying lens to analyze the supranationalization of Europe but is also suitable to better understand urbanism and architecture in the 20th century. Thus, by the 1960s, at the latest, the topos of disenchantment was also introduced to analyze urban societies. In his book The Secular City, the American theologian Harvey Cox discussed the role of the modern city as a technopolis in the context of an increasing secularization of society (Cox 1965, pp. 23–24).
“This disenchantment of the natural world provides an absolute precondition for the development of natural science. Since we have already shown that technopolis, today’s technical city, would not have been possible without modern science, disenchantment is also an essential precondition for modern urbanization. Science is basically a point of view. However highly developed a culture’s powers of observation, however refined its equipment for measuring, no real scientific breakthrough is possible until man can face the natural world unafraid. Wherever nature is perceived as an extension of himself or his group, or as the embodiment of the divine, science as we know it is precluded.”.
Cox argues that a scientific, rational view of the world is the basis that allows for the technologized modernization of cities that is to be strived for. Here, sociological considerations meet those of architectural theory. In the context of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), architects and urban planners had a lasting and formative discussion about what the role of architecture would be for modern society. Using the new technological possibilities, modernized cities were to be created for a new society and “a synthesis of organized life and technology” (Somer 2007, p. 74; Kohlrausch 2019, p. 80) based on—again—rationality, standardization, and functionality (Gold 1998, p. 230).
Closely connected to this was the hope that architecture could support a lasting process of democratization of societies. The urbanist project Democracity of the designer Henry Dreyfuss, which he created for the 1939 World Fair in New York, is one example that illustrates this hope (Mumford 2000, p. 143). Drawing on considerations of the CIAM group in the 1930s, Democracity comprises a representational urban center with several functionally separate urban segments linked by radiating and ring-shaped urban highways.
Brussels provided a broad substrate for these architectural and urban planning ideas of the functional city after the war. The director general for road construction in the Belgian Ministry of Public Works, Henri Hondermarcq, became an ardent advocate of the functional development of individual transport. From his point of view, this was indispensable for the economic and social progress of society and the vitality of city centers (Hondermarcq 1964, p. 14). Starting in 1950, he developed the plan for a comprehensive highway network in Belgium that would extend all the way to the center of Brussels (Demey 1992, pp. 16–17). The goal was to transform Brussels by 1958 in such a way that it could present itself to the expected international audience of the Expo 1958 as an exemplary modern and functional city (Demey 1992, p. 20; Hubert 2008, p. 3).
The 1950s also witnessed the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC), and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). As envisioned by early European masterminds such as the French civil servant Jean Monnet, their institutional core skills were based on modernization, efficiency, and rationality (Kindleberger 1967, p. 280). Now that they had been established, these institutions were looking for a base. In 1958, Brussels applied parallelly to other European cities to become the headquarters city for these new supranational organizations. In this competition, Brussels had good prospects and was selected as one of three temporary capitals: “Belgium was small enough so that other countries did not fear its predominance, and the city was large enough to accommodate the organizations” (Hein 2004, p. 72).
Due to their rapid and unpredictable growth, the institutions were forced to continually find additional office space. With several new buildings, the State of Belgium wanted to accommodate the European institutions and thereby consolidate its presence in Brussels. The Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, planned a monumental building for the EEC Commission from 1959 on. The occupation of the building by the European institution was not fixed at the beginning of the planning, so the ministry was under pressure to offer a suitably representative and functional building that the EEC would accept. Accordingly, the architecture designed by the Belgian architects Lucien de Vestel, Jean Gilson, and Jean and André Polak can be understood as an architectural courting for the headquarters’ settling (Figure 1).
The so-called Berlaymont building, still the seat of the EU Commission today, rises at the end of the long axis from the city center to Jubelpark.
For the diamond-shaped building site between Rue de la Loi, Rond Point Robert Schuman, Rue Archimède, Rue Stevin, and Boulevard Charlemagne, the architects developed an irregular x-shaped floor plan. Its tips spread out into the corners of the site. In the four wings, numerous standardized individual offices are lined up on both sides of the standard floors, which are accessed via interior corridors. The solid core of the building, where the four wings meet, is used for central vertical communication as well as for common and conference rooms on each of the 13 floors. The central helipad was highlighted in the contemporary perception as particularly modern and politically sophisticated. A multi-story structure was added here during asbestos removal in the 1990s.
In elevation, long continuous bands of windows connect the wings to form four concave facades, creating the impression of a modern seriality of offices. The shading screens, which were also added in the 1990s, disguise not only the sequence of floors but also the added roof structure so that the original impression of a 1960s administrative building disappears, but the uniformity of the facade is preserved.
The massive building originally appeared to float due to the open ground floor space, which was used for the convenient access and underpass of the state carriages. This space was closed for security reasons and is now used as an entry area. However, due to the recessed glass facades in this ground floor zone, part of the original effect is still maintained.
Hailed in the contemporary pro-European press as a technical and innovative masterpiece (Demey 1992, p. 189), it was particularly notable for its long bands of windows and apparent hovering above the ground. In this, the building conforms to ideas that were considered modern in contemporary architectural theory and practice. Simultaneously, the architects employed a formal language that seemed to them to be semantically established as international. However, what was considered international in the late 1950s and early 1960s?
The search for an architecture that could represent international organizations began at the latest with the planning of the Palace of the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1920s (Oechslin 1988; Roth 1988, pp. 20–29). The introduction text of the competition of 1926 requested a formal design suitable to symbolize the peaceful ideals of the 20th century (Schwarz 2016, pp. 195–247). If a neoclassical compromise was ultimately chosen here, the submissions in the competition influenced the discourse of architects and institutions about the appearance of an architectural language expressing internationality. Ideas and designs for the League of Nations Palace echoed in new tasks of the international communities after World War II. One of those architects who had a lasting influence on the discourse on modernity in architecture—through his architecture as well as through his writings—was the Swiss Le Corbusier. In his writing, Une maison—un palais. A la recherche d’une unité architecturale of 1928, in which he argues the design of his submission to the League of Nations competition, Le Corbusier lists various characteristics of contemporary monumental architecture (Le Corbusier 1928). Reinforced concrete, window bands, flat roofs, irregular ground plans, and traffic underpasses are considered by him to be characteristics of a new aesthetic, a modern system of order, and a qualité d’esprit, which he applies to a modern and international representative building (Oechslin 1988, pp. 14–15). In the context of the numerous historicist or palatial submissions and the eventual execution of the League of Nations Palace, Le Corbusier’s design clearly stands out. Together with other architects and urbanists, Le Corbusier founded the modern architectural movement CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), which aimed to develop and spread standards of valuable and functional modern architecture and urbanism. International Style was the name given to that manifestation of modern architecture since the 1930s that was based on designing space in an unconstrained but rational, ornate, and asymmetrical way while at the same time offering modular functionality.
Shortly after the World War II, the opportunity arose to apply this new, international architectural language in practice. In the process of identifying the site and the urban and architectural design of the United Nations headquarters, the French government appointed Le Corbusier as an official advisor to the UN Site Selection Committee, which—in the end—made him part of the large international team of architects that developed the building plan (Schwarz 2016, p. 251). Finally attributed to the architects Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, the UN headquarters relied on architectural principles that were—according to the architectural theory of the CIAM—suitable to represent the aims for international cooperation and peace of the United Nations. Instead of massive columns, monumental symmetry, and domed center parts—all hallmarks of majestic architecture—the buildings for the headquarters in New York (inaugurated 1951) take advantage of the new architectural language spread by CIAM and its famous founder Le Corbusier.
With similar aims but different results, the architects and engineers of the UNESCO building in Paris (by Pier Luigi Nervi, Bernard Zehrfuss, and Marcel Breuer; inaugurated in 1958) relied on those principles that were propagated as modern and especially international: again, building masses floating on piloti or pylons, long bands of windows, asymmetric plans, light efficiency, and a core of armed concrete. The EEC Berlaymont building follows the UNESCO building with its swinging spatial design, the floating impression due to its setting on pylons, its irregular star-like structure with four arms, its modern roof, and the broad facades. While the UNESCO building recurs to the principles of the International Style, the reference of the first building for the ECSC Commission a few years later is to be considered international on two levels, in the use of an architectural style recognized as modern and international in the Western world, on the one hand, and in reference to the new building of an internationally—beyond state—operating organization, the United Nations, on the other.
It was precisely this idea of international modernity that the Italian Commissioner Lionello Levi Sandri referred to in March 1965 when he praised the Berlaymont as a conception très moderne in a memorandum to all the commissioners and directors general of the EEC. The Berlaymont building does not evoke associations with palaces or government buildings intended to represent strength and rule. Instead, with its many uniform offices behind wide bands of windows, repeated floor by floor, it embodies a rational principle of administration, bureaucracy, and transparent efficiency. Here, the political–social desire for modernization and rationalization of the early community planning according to the French founding fathers of the European Community, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman (Kindleberger 1967, p. 281), meet with an idea of architecture spread by CIAM and publicly perceived as modern and rational. By doing so, the Berlaymont was considered suitable to express the rationalist and disenchanted founding principles of the European Project as well as was colossal enough to represent a monumental importance that the European Project aimed for as well.

3. European Identification, Re-Enchantment, and the EUROPA Building

In his publication Geschichte und Zukunft der Europäischen Identität (History and Future of the European Identity), the historian Wolfgang Schmale analyzed the symbolic identity policy of the European Union and did not confirm its resounding success. The official symbols, flag, anthem, and the motto United in diversity did not succeed in developing such a symbolic power as would be the case in a nation-state context (Schmale 2008, pp. 135–36).
As a matter of fact, major shortcomings in the identification of EU citizens with the European Union became apparent in the constitutional referendums at the latest in the early 2000s. Large parts of the European population did not seem to be able to comprehend the European project (anymore). The political scientists Udo Diedrichs and Wolfgang Wessels recognize several explanations for a lack of identification with the European Union: The main reasons for this are the EU’s structures, which are difficult to comprehend. This is also accompanied by fears of excessive bureaucracy. Even if the achievements of the Union and its predecessor organizations in securing peace in Europe and in post-war reconstruction are recognized, they generate little active identification with Europe (Diedrichs and Wessels 2005, p. 289).
A similar differentiation is also observed in sociological research in the 2000s on European integration. In her study, sociologist Sylke Nissen distinguishes between affective and utilitarian identity. While the former is based on loyalty and empathy, the latter manifests itself in material benefits and is reflected in whether EU citizens view the cost–benefit ratio of EU membership as positive (Nissen 2004, pp. 22–23). In line with a rationalist argumentation, Nissen sees a stronger need for a utilitarian European identity for the future of the EU than for an empathetic identification (Nissen 2004, p. 27). Herein she follows the rational motives of ECSC origin that Jean Monnet had foreseen, especially regarding economic cohesion and a strengthening of the member states.
While Nissen sees a rational–materialist motivation as necessary for the EU’s future viability, Diedrichs and Wessels name bureaucratization and rationalization—as laid out in Max Weber’s conceptions of a modern state—as hindering the identity-forming process.
In fact, the question of identification did not seem to play a role for Weber, any more than it did for the founding period of the European Communities, as Schmale remarks: “Für die politischen Entscheidungen, die den Grund für die Entwicklung bis hin zur EU gelegt haben, spielt die Identitätsfrage als reflektierte Begründung keine Rolle. Das ist umso offensichtlicher, wenn dies mit dem zentralen Stellenwert von Identität im aktuellen EU-Diskurs verglichen wird. Implizit wirkten aber leitende Gewissheiten über das, was Europa eigentlich sei: eine durch Demokratie und Rechtsstaatlichkeit sowie durch eine gemeinsame Kultur substantiierte Zivilisation. Europäische Identität war insoweit keine Frage, kein Problem, sondern sie war—vermeintlich—vorhanden, …“ (Schmale 2008, p. 114)
For the political decisions that laid the groundwork for the development up to the EU, the question of identity as a reflected justification plays no role. This is all the more obvious when this is compared with the central importance of identity in the current EU discourse. Implicit, however, were guiding certainties about what Europe actually was: a civilization substantiated by democracy and the rule of law as well as by a common culture. In this respect, European identity was not a question, not a problem, but it was—supposedly—present, …
Thus, the founding fathers of the EU assumed that the common European culture and, in Weber’s sense, certainly also a supposed occidental supremacy, already provided sufficient breeding ground for identification. The rational–utilitarian advantages of the community would permanently secure cohesion. Affective identification, as contrasted by Nissen with ultilitarian identification, did not seem necessary. The former had too much of an aura of the irrational, even magical, to be accepted in a political world characterized by rational disenchanted modernity.
Accordingly, the EU’s identity policy was slow to develop. The flag and anthem were not designated as symbols of the EU until 1985, and the motto United in diversity was not adopted at all until 2000. The impact of architecture on identification was also largely renounced. The buildings were to be mainly functional and large. A special affect-orientated expressiveness of architectural forms was not discussed in detail until the turn of the millennium. As demonstrated by the Berlaymont building, the architecture of the European Communities from the 1960s until the 1990s (see also the essay by Dennis Pohl 2021) conveyed principles of a bureaucratic ideal that renounced moments of enchantment and instead appealed to the rationality of people.
The myth of disenchantment formed by Weber, however, began to be uncovered as such at the latest in the 1990s. In his re-examination of Weberian disenchantment under the title Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millenium, the sociologist Richard Jenkins formulates the idea of an interplay of the three stages of (dis-) and (re-)enchantment (Jenkins 2000). For Jenkins, Weber’s unshakable belief in rationalism and bureaucracy is untenable. Rather, “formal organizations are not insulated containers of rationality,” but bureaucracies are also characterized by a wide range of collective enchantments, be they office rituals, corporate cultures, symbols, legends, and traditions (Jenkins 2000, p. 14). These contemporary ideas of increasing efficiency, rationalization, and bureaucratization are, in turn, to be understood as rituals and strategies of enchantment under the guise of Weberian disenchantment. Thus, Jenkins argues for a demystification of the assumed “enlightenment of modernity” and for recognizing (re)enchantment as “an integral element of modernity” (Jenkins 2000, p. 22).
Accordingly, the EU needed to recognize that a proper identity policy was increasingly necessary in order to strengthen the EU project not only at the rational and governmental level but especially at the level of the citizens. Significant steps in this direction were taken by Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission for many years, who wanted to give Europe a soul in the sense of an identity (Schmale 2008, p. 135). Thus, a turn in European identity policy that should touch the citizens on the level of empathy and affect began in 1985, which led to the introduction of a flag, an anthem, and a stronger history policy, which increased even in the new millennium.
The 2000s then provided an opportunity for new identity politics through architecture. In August 2004, the General Secretariat of the European Council announced a two-stage, strictly anonymous competition for the extension of the Council building in Brussels. For the evaluation of the six projects in the second stage of the competition, the jury had four clusters of criteria: first, “Townplanning, aesthetic and cultural criteria”, then “Functional and security criteria”, “Technical and budgetary criteria”, and finally, “Fees requested/Honnoraires proposés”. An Information Note of the General Secretariat of the Council sent 8 September 2005 (Archives of the Council of the European Union, 12078/05) informs about the results of the competition and gives an indication of what the jury looked for in the first category. Of course, the jury judged questions of urban planning and aesthetic values in general, but it also cast a keen eye on the symbolic qualities of the designs. For instance, the project in second place was characterized by a “very contemporary architectural expression” and an “urban expression in line with the symbolic ambition of the building”. Another one was positively judged as “symbolic and simple architecture”. In this category, some of the other projects were criticized as “urban expression too neutral and not in line with the purpose of the building”, “the overall expression towards the outside is that of an office building, lack of representative strength”, “the architecture not sufficiently contemporary nor convincing in its symbolism”. Especially from the negative judgments, we learn what expectations were placed on this new building. In fact, in addition to suitable functionality, the symbolic expression of the design, i.e., also the question of how the building could convey the purpose and content of the institution, was now considered a decisive factor.
The winning project by Philippe Samyn and Partners together with Studio Valle, in contrast, was praised for a “good interior symbolism [...] may be seen from outside”. The building, now known as the EUROPA building, was inaugurated in 2017.
As an extension of the council building Justus-Lipsius from the 1990s and the so-called Résidence Palace from the 1920s, the cube-shaped addition fits into a gap on the large Rue de la Loi opposite the Berlaymont building (Figure 2). Due to the metro line below the site, only the interior is suitable for the construction of heavy building masses. Numerous designs, including one by the architect Samyn, responded to this with a lightweight façade facing the street. This façade consists of a double structure: the inner layer of the façade, made of steel frame and bombproof glass, serves as a supporting structure and protection. This grids the translucent façade with a network of horizontal rhomboids. In front of this is an outer layer of countless, heterogeneous horizontal and upright rectangles that overlay the rhombus structure of the protective facade. The outer layer is composed of more than 3700 wooden window frames. These are—according to the symbolic narrative—collected from demolished buildings in the—at the time—28 member states (Attali 2016, pp. 12–14).
As the block edge of the building cannot bear much weight, the core of the building rests on a small central area. From that point, similar to a giant lantern or vase, a rounded amorph structure grows upwards, housing the plenary halls and numerous other large meeting rooms. The connected Résidence Palace offers space for smaller meeting rooms and representative as well as administrative offices.
Beyond this functional structure, the EUROPA building is characterized by several non-functional but iconic features that are clearly visible to the public. In a sketch, the architect outlines the concept of the combination of the inner core and outer shell in the publication of the new building (Attali 2016, p. 9). The aspects of the motto United in diversity are visualized here in two steps. The shell illustrates a diversity in which the individual material contributions from all member states remain visible as individual parts but nevertheless combine seamlessly to form an overall façade. The lantern inside, which shines through the outer glass façade at night, further reinforces the image of the United. No individual contributions appear here, but everything has come together in alternating movements. (see Figure 3 below).
Clearly, this building also does not show traditional characteristics of an architecture of power and renounces motifs of classical representation of power such as symmetry, domes, and monumental staging of the entrance. The offer of identification functions through the visualization of the EU motto and the indexical participation of all citizens through the recycling of historical building material in obvious unity on the facade.
Schmale describes the basic problem of European identity politics in the juxtaposition of national and supranational representation. While the former aims to symbolize the one nation, its one identificatory narrative as a master narrative, the European supranational representation faces the difficult task of representing a diversity of cultures and identities (Schmale 2008, pp. 136–38). According to him, the EU behaves similarly to a network that is stable on the one hand and fluid on the other. This idea of networking and linking of individual actors in the wooden window façade, on the one hand, and the simultaneously (viscous) fluid unification in the amorphous form of the lantern, on the other hand, is successfully depicted. The aesthetic and symbolic recognizability, on the one hand, and its symbolic ambiguity, on the other, make the EUROPA building an iconic architecture. Here, on a smaller scale, arises what Paul Jones describes in his chapter ‘European’ Architecture as a positive future development of EU architecture when he quotes the architect Rem Koolhaas as follows: “[The] iconographic message about Europe needs to be reinforced and modernized, becoming less reticent. We live in an era of branding and in a certain sense it is admirable that there has been no branding of the European Union: this has helped to maintain a greater authenticity. On the other hand, it is also sad because it leaves an important message misunderstood and ignored.” (Jones 2011, p. 149) The iconicity of the latest new building for the EU is indeed intended to achieve a kind of branding.
The sociologists Leslie Sklair and Laura Gherardi identified in their article Iconic architecture as a hegemonic project of the transnational capitalist class iconicity as new means of transmission of power. While “monumental” architecture had been used traditionally, it became more and more discredited as means of authoritarian regimes. They started a shift from monumentality to iconicity as a different attempt to display a capital or hegemonical status, particularly deployed by the transnational capitalist class (Sklair and Gherardi 2012, pp. 57, 59). As a “transnational capitalist class,” however, the authors name not only business groups or globalized cultural brands (such as Guggenheim) but also explicitly “Globalizing politicians and bureaucrats (state fraction). These are the politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of administrative power and responsibility, in communities, cities, states and international and global institutions who serve the interests of capitalist globalization […]” (Sklair and Gherardi 2012, p. 60).
Sklair and Gherardi go on to concede a high degree of success to the growing iconicity of the transnational capitalist class while illuminating a facet that is relevant in the context of this article: Thus, they also see in the celebrity culture around iconic architecture an enigmatization within an agnostic global age (Sklair and Gherardi 2012, p. 61). In doing so, they invoke the architectural theorist Charles Jencks, who saw the lack of belief and faith in postmodern society as closely related to the success of new iconicity. In his analysis of contemporary architecture, The Iconic Building: The Power of the Enigma, he formulated that the iconic emerged from a social longing for an enigma: “Given the desire of society and architects to have great icons and yet not to agree on any iconography, they will inevitably produce enigmatic signifiers of varying quality.” (Jencks 2005, p. 196)
So when the political scientists Diedrichs and Wessels noted above rationalization as an obstacle to a successful EU identity policy, in contrast, enigmatization promotes the production of what the Commission President Jacques Delors called the soul of the EU. The iconicity, therefore, can be read as a product of re-enchantment or enigmatization. The EUROPA building is thus an iconic signifier in the search for a successful European identity policy.

4. Conclusions

In conclusion, the comparison of the two exemplary buildings, the Berlaymont building from the 1960s and the EUROPA building from the first decade of the 21st century, can be summarized as follows. Despite the unchanging challenge of representing a supranational network of nation states, the architectural approaches differ fundamentally. The Berlaymont, for example, is not only explained by a contemporary architectural practice but is also closely related to a contemporary political, and in this case, supranational reason of state based on Max Weber’s disenchantment. The EUROPA, on the other hand, responds to the political need to provide the European population with a larger identification surface, primarily based on affect or empathy. At the same time, both architectural solutions avoid the one—non-existent—master narrative.


This research received no external funding.

Data Availability Statement

See References.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Berlaymont building by the architects Lucien de Vestel, Jean Gilson, and Jean and André Polak. © EmDee, 2019.
Figure 1. Berlaymont building by the architects Lucien de Vestel, Jean Gilson, and Jean and André Polak. © EmDee, 2019.
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Figure 2. EUROPA building, by Philippe Samyn & Partners and Studio Valle, 2004–2017. © Philippe Samyn & Partners, 2016.
Figure 2. EUROPA building, by Philippe Samyn & Partners and Studio Valle, 2004–2017. © Philippe Samyn & Partners, 2016.
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Figure 3. EUROPA building, wooden window frames on the outer façade. © Julia Rüdiger, 2023.
Figure 3. EUROPA building, wooden window frames on the outer façade. © Julia Rüdiger, 2023.
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Rüdiger, J. Architectural Strategies of Dis- and Re-Enchantment: Building for the European Union Is Not a Master Narrative. Religions 2023, 14, 823.

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