The 1970s was a decade in which tendencies of secularization, counter-cultural societal critique and emancipation of individuals overlapped with one another.1 During this period the intellectual and cultural climate in Flanders became increasingly less provincial and more mature. This certainly was true for the field of architecture, where the previous decade had seen only a scarcity of significant built work and a rather small amount of relevant publications.2 The launch in 1973 of the periodical A+. Architektuur, Stedebouw, Design, the monthly journal of Belgium’s architects’ association, was symptomatic of this situation: after La Maison was discontinued in 1971, A+ signalled the return of architectural criticism and of a livelier architectural discourse in Dutch. Many different themes were picked up in these years, and many intellectual trajectories were explored.

In hindsight, it seems that this fledgling cultural renaissance – which would lead to the emergence of an important generation of Flemish architects in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s – was fed to a remarkable extent by some intellectual figures who owed their erudition and their interest in the built environment to their religious and pastoral background as priests or monks. Geert Bekaert (1928–2016), a former Jesuit, was definitely the most important of these, but Brother Alfons Hoppenbrouwers (1930–2001) also played a paternal role for many graduate students of the Sint-Lucas School of Architecture. Similarly, the priest Jacques Van der Biest (1929–2016) was crucial in taking up the urban struggle in Brussels, where he established the Atelier de Recherche et d’Action Urbaines (ARAU) together with architect Maurice Culot (born 1937) and sociologist René Schoonbrodt (born 1935).3 They were part of a generation of committed Belgian clerics who, in the aftermath of May ’68 and after decades of theological reflection on modernity, reshaped their religious vocation into political action, cultural critique and social engagement.4

This article focuses on a lesser-known figure among this generation of clerics-turned-public intellectuals: sociologist and former Passionist Sieg Vlaeminck (1933–2011), member of the first editorial board of A+ and professor at the Provincial Higher Institute for Architecture in Hasselt since the early 1970s. Sieg Vlaeminck is mostly remembered today due to his active involvement in the fields of urbanism and heritage conservation.5 However, he was also an important advocate of a scientifically well-founded approach to the built environment, which brought him into the orbit of Human-Environment Studies, inspired by the work of Amos Rapoport.6 He labelled this approach woonecologie – the ‘social ecology of dwelling’,7 and devoted much of his energy and writing to propagating the cause of this envisioned scientific discipline. Even though many of his contemporaries did not share his strong faith in a scientific approach, they did value his search for new foundations in architecture, as he was counted amongst only a handful of significant voices in the 1970s.8 Vlaeminck’s quest for a scientific foundation for architecture was not unique. Architectural schools in many countries sought a firmer base for their teachings by offering courses in sociology and psychology, even inviting sociologists or psychologists to become members of their faculty.9 Equally widespread was a rising environmental mindset, which can arguably be seen as a pervasive epistemological transformation ultimately framing Vlaeminck’s scientific endeavours. His interest in ecology was shared by many architectural educators who were influenced by publications such as the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.10 The American counterculture that engaged with these ecological ideas was influential in Europe, too, and although Vlaeminck was far too conventional a person to be identified with underground or hippie subcultures, they indirectly impacted his work.11

Vlaeminck’s life trajectory played against a background of social structural change, and in that capacity can potentially point to wider shifting paradigms and lasting ideas in society.12 More specifically, his biography unites (1) a plea for sciences embodying a trend towards scientification, in particular felt in architecture, (2) a voice from outside architecture acknowledging its societal relevance and turning it into the object of a broad, public discourse and (3) a first-hand witness of and contributor to a growing secularization of religious culture. Thus, his plea for woonecologie can be approached as an expression of the entanglement of different forms of knowledges, mindsets and professions, and in this manner offers one particular entry in an often overlooked dimension: how the architectural culture of the 1970s benefited from the laicization that affected the Catholic Church.13

This paper will trace the transfiguration of Vlaeminck’s religious vocation into an architectural engagement starting with the challenges he identified during his Passionist years in the 1960s and the philosophical training he received in the 1950s. After situating his ideas within the rising interest in the philosophy of dwelling, his project of a woonecological science is further interpreted by pointing out how it challenged the architectural profession, resonated with a rising environmental mindset and connected to an evolution internal to the architectural scene.

Passionist Times

Vlaeminck was a member of the Passionist order and was ordained as a priest in 1959, after which he attended the Catholic University of Leuven, where he combined studies of Political and Social Sciences with the newly established programme of Urbanism and Spatial Planning (Fig. 1). The Passionist order was mostly based in Italy, but had some monasteries in Belgium, and in Flanders it had grown since the 1920s. The Passionists’ main goal was to teach people how to pray, and so focused on contemplative life and missionary work.14 It was in this context that Vlaeminck received his training in philosophy and theology. His writing abilities were deemed important by his superiors, becoming part of the editorial committee of the Passionist journal Kruis en Liefde (‘Cross and Love’) in 1963. He played an active role in the modernization of the journal, implemented by changing its name (it became Het Teken – ‘The Sign’), involving laymen and discarding the ecclesiastic imprimatur (Fig. 2).15

Figure 1 

Sieg Vlaeminck as pictured on the back cover of Het Teken (January-February 1967). Photographer unknown.

Figure 2 

The transformation of the pious Kruis en liefde (October 1958) to Het Teken (June 1965), embracing the modern world. The apartment block was seen by Vlaeminck as emblematic of that modern world. Illustrators unknown.

His contributions to this journal reflect a time when he still had a firm belief in priesthood and was not yet engaged with architecture.16 However, over the years his work developed a sense of history that would form the basis of his firm belief in the project of a new social science. He considered technological progress and urbanization inevitable processes and thought that the religious world should accommodate these ‘actual evolutions’, rather than condemn them.17 In this period, he saw architecture and urbanization as emblematic for the challenges that modernity posed to the religious world.18 City life, and in particular life in apartment blocks, was prefiguring tomorrow’s society, a reality which religion would have to deal with sooner or later. This view explains why his sense of history – ‘actual evolutions’ affecting people – found a spatial counterpart in the sociological notion of milieu (environment). This was seen by him as a fundamental part of human existence, in the city as well as in the countryside. Hence any consideration of people’s religiosity – under threat, according to many clerics, because of modernity and urban living – should respect and take into account their milieu, formulating an answer addressing the challenges emerging from this, rather than simply condemning people’s waning religiosity in absolute terms.19 In other words, the situatedness of human existence was his point of departure.

This argument was central to the mindset and wave of reflection on the role of religion in society that was epitomized by the Second Vatican Council (1962–5). These changes highlighted an anthropological turn in theology, where lay people and their religious experiences became more central in the Church’s teachings, redressing the hierarchy that positioned the priest above his parishioners.20 It meant an increased engagement with the contemporary world and, as this anthropological turn was particularly strong in Belgium, religiosity and social engagement were closer than ever in 1960s Flanders.21 As a consequence, the place of religion within society was understood differently.22 The influential philosopher Albert Dondeyne (1901–1985), for instance, advocated the idea that Christianity should dissolve into society, rather than hoping for a purely Christian society.23 Inspired by these progressive theologians, in particular Yves Congar (1904–1995) and Karl Rahner (1904–1984), Vlaeminck reasoned along similar lines when he insisted that the future of Christianity should be reoriented on the model provided by city life.24

Arguably, these ideas of religion dissolving into society, and in particular engaging with city life, were crucial in Vlaeminck’s decision to leaving the priesthood and take up a laic societal engagement through involvement with architectural culture and public debate.25 In fact, he did quite literally what Pope John XXIII, the initiator of the Second Vatican Council, gave as ‘pastoral exhortations’ in relation to science and professional experience in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in terris: ‘And yet, if they are to imbue civilization with right ideals and Christian principles, it is not enough for Our sons to be illumined by the heavenly light of faith and to be fired with enthusiasm for a cause; they must involve themselves in the work of these [secular] institutions, and strive to influence them effectively from within’.26 Vlaeminck’s articles anticipate such a trajectory, writing, for example, in 1967: ‘There will be a time – and the future has already begun! – that we will leave the Church in which people could enter, to go to the world of the people. In that world the Church will be allowed to live together very modestly and discreetly as a service to and in that world.’27 Like many of his peers, Vlaeminck gradually came to see social commitment as the essence of Christianity.28 In this spirit, he became more and more explicitly critical of the role of the priesthood, spreading the message in 1968 that the role of the chaplain would lose its meaning, and that young seminarians should prepare for this by acquiring a social profession.29

These signs of a possible reorientation towards a social profession are further amplified by Vlaeminck’s role in the late 1960s in Rooierheide, a socio-cultural-religious education centre and contemplation retreat in Diepenbeek. This centre organized reflection days and provided documentation folders for discussions on society’s most pressing issues, such as the crisis of faith, divorces, ecclesiastic authority and women’s emancipation.30 Vlaeminck was very much involved in compiling such folders, composing them out of extended quotes, book summaries, short statements, as well as practical questions for discussion, relying on sources generally less than five years old. This task provided him with the perfect platform to study more in-depth topical societal challenges, in particular the question of how human existence is related to its environment.

One particularly relevant folder was a 1967 monographic study by Vlaeminck on the place of the monastery as a living environment in society. He saw the rural, walled monasteries caught up by the broader urbanization process ‘and the accompanying ecological processes in metropolitan and urban connections’.31 Notably, Vlaeminck arrives here at ‘ecology’ as the adequate conceptual tool to probe one of society’s most pressing issues, explaining the term in a footnote as ‘the study of man in his dwelling area; interference of both’, thus prefiguring his later scientific endeavours.

In 1969, Vlaeminck finally transformed from a priest-sociologist to a sociologist-urbanist. After quashing the discussions that questioned celibacy (in Sacerdotalis caelibatus, 1967), Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae (July 1968) and its interdiction with regard to contraceptives had put the Church too far astray from everyday life and the inevitable ‘actual evolutions’ of urbanization. In a final article for the Passionists’ journal, Vlaeminck raised the question of ‘whether and to what extent one is still able to genuinely believe in the visible church [the Church as institute]’, dramatically juxtaposing the Biblical phrase ‘Because the kingdom of God is in your midst’ (Luke 17:21) with his own: ‘And this kingdom of God is much larger than the Church.’32

At the same time, around 1969, and in line with the aspirations of the Second Vatican Council to engage more with the secular sciences, one of Rooierheide’s documentation folders contained what can be read as Vlaeminck’s mission statement for the ensuing decade: ‘We need an understanding of the role of the dwelling. There is a need to make a systematic study of contemporary inhabitation and its tendencies … Not only social-scientific research of real situations in the present and the past, but also social-spatial models, which serve to determine the direction of the organization of space in the future.’33

Christian Existentialism

Vlaeminck’s interest in the organization of space and in human beings’ situatedness might also have had roots in his exposure, as a young seminarian, to Christian existentialism, as his contributions to Adimpleo, the Passionists’ student journal indicate.34 Like many seminarians of his generation, Vlaeminck was inspired by modern, phenomenological and existential philosophy, which he encountered through the works of Dondeyne and Josef Pieper.35 Through existential-psychological studies and literature on figures such as ‘the woman’ or ‘the priest’, the experiences and inner lives of ordinary people were presented by these philosophers as touchstones to form an understanding of the world. In particular the inner psyche of the priest, mediating between a celestial and a terrestrial world, but a person of flesh and blood nonetheless, became a popular topic in the Catholic literature of the time. Vlaeminck’s reading of writers such as Graham Greene and Charles Péguy is evidence of how much religiosity was understood as an individual affair, giving prevalence to personal righteousness over the merits of an organized doctrine.36 This shift had consequences for debates on religion’s place in society as well as on the understanding of the role of the intellectual. With the emphasis on the individual person, it was through the actions of these individuals that the relationship of religion to society was articulated. Hence the question of isolation and withdrawal from society was so important to Vlaeminck’s generation of seminarians, who argued that contemplation should not just inspire their actions, but should also lead to political action, thereby aiming to transform the world.37

In terms of the role of the (religious) intellectual, the Passionists were particularly dedicated to their mission of teaching people how to pray.38 With the post-war culture of religion actively turning towards more mundane matters and acknowledging people’s inner experiences, this didactic mission gained a new topicality. In a literary prayer in dialogue with Christ, Vlaeminck expressed this very clearly: ‘See Christ, You should place Yourself in my situation, and then reason as a human, a “weak” human. You reason in such a supernatural manner, that we are no match for You, that we can’t follow You.’39 The turn towards the inner lives of ordinary people came with the acknowledgement that Truth – divine or otherwise – is not evident in itself and that it is in need of active mediation. This is what Vlaeminck continued to understand as the intellectual’s task in society.

In Vlaeminck’s case, the reflection on the intellectual’s role in society was philosophically supported by his appropriation of a specifically Christian form of existentialism: Gabriel Marcel’s (1889–1973) work, with which he became acquainted in particular through Roger Troisfontaines’ 1953 dissertation.40 In the midst of Catholicism’s reluctant affair with Sartrian existentialism, Marcel provided an acceptable way to incorporate this modern philosophy while safeguarding ‘the other’ – so important in Christian tradition – from Sartre’s perceived solipsism: ‘Le paradis, c’est les autres,’ Marcel said.41 With Marcel, existentialism was fundamentally an intersubjective affair, and his reading of ‘love’ led Vlaeminck to begin formulating a critique on celibacy and convent life in isolation from society. If love is a fundamental aspect of being, and intersubjectivity an equally fundamental ontological aspect, then how does it concretely manifest itself in the life of a contemplating, active, Passionist conventual?42

This Christian existentialism not only triggered a reflection on religion’s role in society, which ultimately led to Vlaeminck’s career change; it also installed a fundamental image of human existence that made him particularly prone to the specific path in architecture he would later advocate, via the social sciences. In trying to give intersubjective relationships a more positive articulation, the human being is interpreted as being by nature an ‘announcement’: ‘il s’expose.’43 By emphasizing the other, this Christian existentialism argued for a less centred, or even decentred conception of the subject: the essence of the subject is not entirely to be found within the subject itself, but also in the others. Such an interpretation of human existence, with such an ontological importance given to the extra-subjective, opens the door to assigning an equally substantial, ontological importance to the environment of the subject. This explains Vlaeminck’s pleas to take the urban environment into account when discussing people’s religiosity.

Philosophies of Dwelling

The interest in existentialism and in human beings’ situatedness might also have brought Vlaeminck’s attention to the philosophy of dwelling. In 1965 two (untranslated) Dutch books appeared on the philosophy of dwelling: the Belgian Jesuit philosopher Libert Vander Kerken’s (1910–1998) Filosofie van het wonen (‘Philosophy of Dwelling’) and Dutch Catholic engineer-philosopher Frans Tellegen’s (1904–1985) Wonen als levensvraag: Filosofie van het wonen, apologie van het gewone (‘Dwelling as Life Question: Philosophy of Dwelling, Apology of the Ordinary’).44

Both authors draw on Heidegger’s Bauen Wohnen Denken (1951), but the two opt for a radically different approach – to such an extent that any intellectual engaging with the topic was implicitly bound to choose sides. Vander Kerken’s work is to an extent an ahistorical reflection on human existence, starting with his quest from the realm of thinking to reflect on the realm of dwelling, while Tellegen’s work starts from the concrete act of dwelling, drastically changed as it was by modernization, to reflect upon our ways of thinking. Their opposition can be reduced to their respective ideas on modernity: Vander Kerken is dismissive of modernity, seeing it as irrelevant for his philosophical inquiry, whereas Tellegen takes modernity as his starting point, giving himself the task to think upon dwelling in the age of modernity. The contrast between both somewhat resembles the reception of Heidegger in international architectural theory, where some built upon his critique of modernity, by stressing that the ability to dwell, which is threatened by modernity, nevertheless could be redeemed through architecture (cf. Christian Norberg-Schulz), while others argued that modernity’s disruptive effects were too profound to be overcome, and that dwelling hence could not be nostalgically salvaged by architecture alone (cf. Massimo Cacciari).45 Vander Kerken’s philosophy was closer to the first strand, whereas Tellegen’s position was more akin to the second.

Tellegen’s work was based on the labour theories of Arendt and Marx, which saw the relationship between the human and the world as a fundamentally active one. In such a framework, ‘to dwell’ (wohnen) is not merely an existential structure, but also a task, leading Tellegen to define architecture’s task as contributing to a ‘living area’, exceeding the individual dwelling, wherein ‘the fulfilling of life’ and ‘becoming whole’ can unfold.46 The impact of modernization – in particular the condition of mobility, or the absence of any attachment to the soil – is in the first place interpreted as impacting the structure of human existence as such, and is seen to contain a liberating potential, as long as the impact is not evaluated through an understanding of a form of human being that already ceased to be.

Vlaeminck clearly sided with Tellegen, virtually ignoring Vander Kerken’s work. In Tellegen’s approach he found the point of societal critique firmly located within the processes of modernization. This, furthermore, brought him to an appreciation of the social sciences. Indeed, whereas Vander Kerken’s philosophy deployed an ahistorical reflection on the immutable essence of human existence, Tellegen’s focus on modernization and its effects generated an interest in the relevance of social science, since it opened up the analysis to take into account a changing human existence.

There is another reason why Vlaeminck virtually ignored Vander Kerken’s book.47 Based on a section of Levinas’ Totalité et infini (but also on the works of Heidegger and Bachelard), Vander Kerken developed a philosophy of dwelling based on the dialectics of interiority and exteriority. Throughout his book, however, these dialectics gradually became pinpointed to one specific place, celebrating human existence’s attachment to the soil. What architecture had to do, according to Vander Kerken, was to open up the hidden potential of the earth in a human sense. This hidden potential was then interpreted by a more individualist, psychological phenomenology in terms of fundamental needs of human existence, the subtext being that ongoing modernization and its disruptive effects prevented these needs from being met. The ideal contained within this book was that of dwelling as an individual affair, as a relationship between the family and their own, fixed house as a safe haven from which to confront the outside world. Clearly this meant that the city was no competition to a pastoral village life. City life was characterized as one where individuality was lost in a mass spirit and where an existential joy of life was hampered by a ‘mental and spiritual detachment from the soil’.48

In this sense, Vander Kerken’s take on philosophy of dwelling was a reiteration of the strong aversion towards the city, shared amongst many of the Catholic intelligentsia.49 Even though the book dates from 1965, the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, with its openness towards more worldly and modern experiences, was virtually absent in Vander Kerken’s thought. This spirit, however, stood at the core of Vlaeminck’s religious formative years, and in particular the question of the urban was central to his more progressive views of Catholicism. Hence, it was most likely at this point that Vlaeminck disagreed most with Vander Kerken, as the latter’s fierce reluctance towards the city precluded any serious engagement with the urban question. Vlaeminck and quite a number of religious intellectuals wondered whether the inevitable process of urbanization was not transforming our faith, values and even our idea of human existence. However, this question received only a superficial treatment in Vander Kerken’s work. As such, Vlaeminck’s leaning towards Tellegen rather than Vander Kerken was symptomatic of his more progressive articulation of Catholicism.

Dwelling Ecology

In the early 1970s, while moving away from his religious identity as a Passionist and a priest, Sieg Vlaeminck took up a teaching position in the recently established Provincial Higher Institute for Architecture (PHAI) in Hasselt.50 Although it is not clear how this appointment came about, it seems in line with both his own life trajectory – carving out a possible living outside a religious institute – and the intentions of PHAI’s director Adolf Nivelle to add more scientific content to the curriculum of his school.51 Many architectural schools enriched their programmes around this time with courses in sociology, psychology and philosophy, in response to the call to link architecture more solidly to societal needs. Vlaeminck, who might have been known to the institute because of his work in nearby Rooierheide, was able to provide exactly that, while it was also hoped that he would launch a research line and a series of publications that would enhance the school’s standing in the institutional landscape. He would go on to establish the Research Centre for Urban Ecology in Hasselt, to which Francis Strauven and Roger Liberloo (born 1946) were also affiliated.

During his first years at the architecture institute in Hasselt, Vlaeminck established the theoretical base for his research interests by publishing a series of articles under the heading ‘Social-Ecological Explorations’ in Extern, a local journal for environmental sciences founded in 1972.52 These articles formed the academic backbone of his public and policy-oriented work in later years and dealt with two major themes: three articles focused on high-rise living, and another two refined his theoretical stance from a ‘social ecology’ to an ‘ecology of the dwelling environment’.

The latter theme demonstrates his interest in the rising domain of Environment-Behaviour Studies (also known as Human Environment Studies), wherein, for him, the challenge lay in creating a framework that was equally attentive to both the social and the spatial, without reducing human existence to an abstraction.53 His guide in this field was William Michelson’s Man and his Urban Environment (1970), which stressed the holistic dimension of the discipline by providing an environmentalized version of Talcott Parsons’s sociology: since the environment interferes with the whole of human life, it should incorporate and unite multiple disciplines such as environmental psychology, sociology and anthropology. Vlaeminck used the Dutch term woonecologie (ecology of dwelling) to label his approach.

The two themes underlying Vlaeminck’s first scientific ambitions are a variant of what was at stake in the dwelling philosophy discussion: firstly, that societal change can only be understood from within modernity, by taking its effects as a given, and secondly, that the way forward can only be provided by means of a more holistic approach. The combination of both elements stood at the core of Vlaeminck’s pleas for architecture to rely on social sciences, and both of them can be traced back to his earlier reflections as a Passionist trying to reconcile his sense of religiosity with the ongoing process of modernization. An indication that his scientific endeavours were a continuation of his religious reflections – and one of the sole, explicit traces of this prehistory after his career shift – can be found in his reliance on Harvey Cox’s The Secular City in these early studies on woonecologie. Cox’s work is a study of modern times from a theological perspective, and his arguments resembled Vlaeminck’s: the modern, urban environment should be interpreted as a pre-figuration of a transformed sense of religiosity.54

Woonecologie, however, never really got off the ground as a scientific discipline. Despite some similar voices in the Netherlands and elsewhere,55 in Flanders it remained very much limited to Vlaeminck’s own highly personal articulation of environmental studies. It remained more or less an all-encompassing term pointing to the most promising issues raised in these environmental studies, with an emphasis on psychology and sociology rather than biology. The final and most thorough synthesis of Vlaeminck on woonecologie was published in 1985 as an entry in the practical handbook Ruimtelijke planning (‘Spatial Planning’).56 The entry contained sixty-one pages and was described as ‘the interference between built environment and human behaviour’. This was above all a passionate plea for a sensibility to social matters when shaping space. Woonecologie was presented as the discipline that pursues this sensibility to the fullest, by trying to grasp the dialectically interfering process between humans and space. The reasoning behind it was that if science can make this interference more transparent, the built environment can be constructed in a more democratic manner.

To clarify this interference, the article was interspersed with many illustrations, diagrams and practical policy suggestions based on the literature of Environment-Behaviour Studies that emerged in the 1970s. In tune with the generalized (and mythologized) mistrust of modernist architecture (such as in the Pruitt-Igoe saga),57 an exemplary issue for scientific consideration was how high-rise living impacted the mother-child relationship, including some practical design suggestions for architects and urbanists.

In ten principles, Vlaeminck tried to uncover ‘the unconscious’ of this science, trying to avoid the pitfalls of reverting to a ‘determinative’ logic, or of believing this science to be ideologically neutral. Despite these caveats and many practical illustrations, the general principles he outlined were a somewhat loose and schematic basis of a proposed, independent field of thought. Nonetheless, these principles underlying woonecologie guided Vlaeminck’s writings in the public media, and the primary principle in this approach was to take the whole of human life into account through a holistic methodology.

Undoubtedly Vlaeminck’s work was more influential in expressing this urge for a holistic approach to architecture, rather than in any argumentative, academic or scientific aspects. Its weakness in this respect was exposed when his work was confronted by an international audience. In 1984, one of Vlaeminck’s books, co-authored with architect Jan Tanghe (1929–2003), was translated into English as Living Cities and subsequently reviewed by Amos Rapoport, founding father of Environment-Behaviour Studies and an inspiring figure to Vlaeminck.58 Despite his sympathy for the authors’ intentions, Rapoport, judging the book with academic standards, called it too polemical, too arbitrary and not up to date with recent research.59 This was rather unsurprising, since it was a belated 1984 English translation of Wonen of wijken?, a book written in 1976 without academic pretensions, aimed at polemics, to provoke debate and point to critical problems of urban policy that were leading to degraded cities and suburban flight.60Wonen of wijken? is an arranged collage of citations, cartoons, song texts, press cuttings etc., through which the authors argue the uninhabitability of their environment by relying implicitly on the above-mentioned sense of holism. It is a timely document, a written product that reflected a decade of urban contestation and activism, and in this form, it became an oft-cited book in many planning documents of Flemish municipalities aspiring to break with the past. Hence, it was an important publication in terms of its impact on planners and students, but far less so in terms of its scientific merit.


Vlaeminck’s position at the PHAI and on the editorial board of the Belgian professional architecture journal A+ ensured his standing as an important voice in architectural culture. But he amplified his impact – in line with his long-standing pastoral ambition to reach a wide audience – by also writing for De Standaard der Letteren, the cultural supplement to the newspaper De Standaard. During the 1970s, he thus had two main publishing outlets: over the course of the decade, over fifty articles appeared either as book reviews in De Standaard der Letteren, or as contributions to A+. Comparing these two series of articles aimed at different audiences puts the nature of his argument in perspective.

The newspaper De Standaard was directed at the upper and middle classes, with its roots in Catholicism and Flemish nationalism, reaching an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 readers.61 Part of its prestige rested in the above average attention to culture. Its cultural supplement consisted of extended book reviews that went beyond the literary realm, often taken as an opportunity to explore the world. In the 1960s, Guido Van Hoof – who was the editor responsible for culture since 1965 – refreshed De Standaard der Letteren to attract young contributors from the academic milieu to offer more space for the Humanities and Social Sciences.62

Hence, Vlaeminck found the columns of a renowned newspaper open for his contributions, and he became the main voice dealing with architecture in De Standaard der Letteren in the 1970s. These texts represent a way of writing that suited Vlaeminck best: creating awareness with the general public and sharing his indignation of the professional or political world with the public, where his arguments were guided by a woonecological mindset.63

These newspaper articles offered him the opportunity to follow a middle-of-the-road trajectory between common sense and science, expressing a recognizable and well-founded critique on current practice (Fig. 3). By reviewing recent literature, he brought critical voices from the architectural world to the broader public at a time when society became mistrustful of the figure of the architect.64 But he also took those publications as a springboard to broader arguments: he pleaded for better ways of evaluating architecture and claimed that every analysis which left out a societal component – ranging from psycho-sociological to socio-economic dimensions – was flawed.65 These articles were the product of a straightforward urge to improve the world through science. In his view, there was something fundamentally wrong in society, and he maintained that a better understanding of this is the first and necessary step towards improvement. Hence, societal critique was at the basis of his project of improving the world through science, that is, his plea for woonecologie.

Figure 3 

Vlaeminck’s newspaper articles reached a wide audience, often making the front pages of De Standaard der Letteren (here 22 March 1974). The articles were often sided by photos by Filip Tas (1918–97) reinforcing the argument that there are better ways conceivable to organize the built environment.

The inevitable referent from this point of view in architecture was Alexander Mitscherlich (1908–1982). This social psychiatrist reported on the unliveability of cities, and Vlaeminck was eager on communicating these ideas to the public in Flanders. A major example of this Mitscherlichian societal critique and of importance to Vlaeminck was the troubled relationship between the builder and the inhabitant. Vlaeminck saw this as the inevitable result of the processes of modernization, and hence was looking for a systematic solution to cope with this problem inherent to modernity. He suggested that the issue be resolved by the social scientist who could bridge the gap between those who build and those who dwell.

The ecology of dwelling as a field of science is situated in between the social sciences and architecture. It is concerned with the inhabitant; it puts itself on his side. Its essential, societal relevance should be seen in repairing the dialogue between client and designer, be it the architect, the urbanist or the industrial designer, through its intermediary position.66

Just as Vlaeminck was carving out a role for the social scientist in architecture, he was also writing for A+, giving a voice to this sociological approach. A comparison of his contributions to A+ with those in De Standaard der Letteren reveals the challenge he posed to the architectural profession. The A+ contributions sometimes feel strangely out of place in this professionally oriented magazine, due the paradox hovering over his argument: by making the act and experience of dwelling central to architecture, he often stretched the argument so far, that any intervention outside the world of the dweller seemed to become an unwarranted intrusion into their life (Fig. 4). It led him to position vernacular architecture and everyday ‘folk’ architecture as idealized versions of how to build. Whereas this reference to ‘architecture without a capital A’ was not without precedence in architectural culture,67 it presented an inevitable paradox within the context of a professional architectural journal, which aimed to disseminate emblematic ways of making architecture. The only way to represent these anonymous architectures was by putting them on a pedestal, thus breaching their anonymity and giving them a pedigree.68

Figure 4 

Especially in the second half of the 1970s Vlaeminck‘s influence on A+ (here no. 54, December-January 1978–9) was discernible. His emphasis on the dweller sometimes led to wonder how the architect fits in the picture. Photograph by Walter De Mulder.

This paradox pointed towards a difficult issue that architectural culture was dealing with during these years. Since architectural modernism had come under attack for mainly social reasons (because it did not satisfy the needs of its inhabitants), many voices, including that of Vlaeminck, called for a stronger anchoring of architecture and urbanism in a better understanding of its societal conditions. At the same time, architecture was thought to be in need of self-reflection, and many architects were convinced that the crisis of modernism should give rise to the development of new formal languages and stronger disciplinary contours. They thus advocated architecture’s ‘autonomy’ – its independence from external determining factors. Both views, although oppositional to each other, often were presented side-by-side in the magazines of the day, without their differences being articulated. The confusing years of the 1970s thus left architecture in search of its own terms and made it difficult to find a consensus on which to base a critical assessment of specific architectural works. As today’s architectural critics note, Vlaeminck’s sociological voice was contributing to an atmosphere where it became almost impossible to evaluate architecture.69 But seen from the positive side, he did help to debunk the old terminology of plan, shape and composition, and by putting all his faith in a science outside of architecture, he articulated the challenge for the architectural profession in the most radical way. The sharpness of his position meanwhile meant that his arguments were better suited for a newspaper directed at society at large, rather than for a professional journal of architecture. His main contribution thus consists in raising awareness, creating sensibility for social matters in architecture in the minds of public authorities, professional architects and the wider public.

For this ‘awareness campaign’, the societal critique within Mitscherlich’s work was crucial for Vlaeminck, yet he relied on him only for diagnostic reasons: to diagnose those problems inherent to modernization. The solutions proposed were less radical than those of Mitscherlich, who was, for instance, quite explicit in rejecting private urban land ownership.70 Vlaeminck was more reformist, working from existing structures in society, yet equally convinced that one should draw on science in the name of progress and more freedom and democracy. The basic message that can be distilled from his articles in De Standaard der Letteren is that progress in architecture can only be made by paying more attention to the inhabitants’ side.71 For Vlaeminck, the key to do this was by seeing architecture not as art, but as a form of climatology.72 These were the considerations that led him to plea for a more woonecological mindset, or even, a whole scientific discipline. While Mitscherlich strongly believed in the agency of space and that the ideal urban environment should force people to form a community, Vlaeminck took on a more moderate position, avoiding a too deterministic position. Yet the idea that the environment did somehow actively shape the people resonated well with other contemporaneous societal developments.


If Vlaeminck’s main contribution can be seen in addressing a wider audience, a large part of this is due to his reliance on a contemporaneous, omnipresent concept: the environment. From the late 1960s onwards, this concept saw a spectacular rise in common usage up to the mid-1970s, reflecting a rising societal mindset and a changing way of looking at the world, by repositioning the human being as an inevitable element of a larger ecosystem. One can speak of an epistemological transformation that turned this concept into a valuable way of looking at reality. In this sense, it is what Foucault called an episteme, a historically and society-wide substrate of thoughts, which proved fertile soil for Vlaeminck’s pleas.73

Broad, holistic and ambiguous as the term was, referring both to a science and to a philosophy of interrelatedness,74 what made the concept operative in everyday thought was the rather pragmatic fact that societies were putting forward a scenario of permanent growth, while at the same time there was an increasing awareness of the world as a limited system.75 It is in this duality that the concept found its primary force as an epistemological concept. Yet the broad impact of this epistemological transformation on architectural culture is still insufficiently grasped.76

It is easy to understand those approaches that rely more on the scientific paradigm of ecology, which focus on the managerial aspect it contained (and as evident in its etymological root of management of the oikos, the household): the concept of a closed system and its possible feedback loops gives rise to a series of possible managerial techniques. The historiographical ambition of Reyner Banham’s Well-Tempered Environment employs the term environment in this sense, as well as, in a more anecdotal manner, a more recent ‘history of ecological design’, giving much weight to, for instance, the closed space capsule or the Biosphere projects.77

More difficult to assess, however, is the other side of the coin, the philosophy of interrelatedness that came along with the rise of the environment.78 The ways in which this might have figured in architectural culture received far less attention. Yet it was arguably mostly this aspect that rooted its societal relevance, since activists focused more on the ethical side of interrelatedness: what you are doing impacts our world, hence our voices matter. In Belgium (and elsewhere) many environmental movements were formed relying on such arguments in order to become popular movements (rather than the elitist nature conservation movements of previous decades) with claims for societal change in the late 1960s, which dominated the public media in the 1970s.79 In realizing that their separate struggles were interrelated, many of these movements joined hands in 1971 when umbrella organizations such as Bond Beter Leefmilieu and Inter-Environnement were formed, creating an odd alliance of movements ranging from people wanting to save certain species from extinction, to people who opposed large infrastructural works or simply wanted their children to be able to cycle safely to school. Father Luc Versteylen SJ (born 1927) started with the movement ‘Anders Gaan Leven’ (To Go and Live Differently), which became the green party Agalev in 1977. All these movements found each other in the realization that they are all fighting for things that are closely related, since they are part of the very concrete living environment they all found themselves in.

Even though Vlaeminck was far from an environmentalist himself – traces of his engagement with the environmental ideal are limited to a favourable review of a book by the Ehrlichs and a study for Bond Beter Leefmilieu – it can be argued that the popularity of these environmental movements was of great help to Vlaeminck.80 Since he was articulating in the architectural world a similar claim for societal change based on a philosophy of interrelatedness, his arguments were in tune with the wider public. While most uses of the term ‘the environment’ were aimed at installing a managerial system or at focusing on global matters, the rise of the term as an epistemological concept opened up the possibility to use it in a different, limited sense, to break open fixed discourses and inject new modes of thinking in certain stagnant domains.

The fact that his arguments were based on the centrality of the human being more than on nature or the planet did not prevent them from resonating well with these early environmentalist calls – which back then were more overtly anthropocentric than today. Whereas the current environmental mindset comes with an undertone that the human world is destroying Planet Earth (cf. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth of 2006), in the 1970s the ‘human world’ and ‘Planet Earth’ were not yet so much conceived of as adversaries.

Vlaeminck’s continuous outcries for a woonecologie can today only be understood in this regard: it was the ambition of a sociologist to benefit from this societally wide supported epistemological transformation and its scientific offspring – the environmental sciences – to try and install a new set of paradigms, a new frame of reference to evaluate architecture’s merits. So the rise of the term ‘environment’, including its ambiguity of referring both to scientific discourse and to a philosophy of interrelatedness, provided Vlaeminck with the fertile soil to think about a woonecologie.

Environment in Architecture

Evidently, the rising notion of ‘environment’ had particularly strong consequences in the domain of architecture, and, likewise, quite a few architectural figures strongly contributed to these early environmental groups.81 With the term ‘environment’ becoming an important lens to look at reality, architecture found itself to be either part of it or ontologically excluded from it, leading to a dispute between those who brought in scientific methods based on the paradigm of ecology (like Vlaeminck), versus those who tried to reaffirm architecture’s autonomy.82 But the crystallization of architectural debate in these two camps was a gradual process, as the notion of environment was no stranger to architecture’s own history. On a pragmatic level, the term ‘environment’ provided the necessary tools for addressing the disruptive effects of modernization on the living environment. Hence, the term particularly suited architectural critics addressing the negative sides of post-war modernism.

Emblematic of this 1960s critique is Geert Bekaert’s and Francis Strauven’s Bouwen in België, which chose not to focus on the singular architectural object, but rather formulated its main question as an inquiry into ‘the specific role of architect(ure) in the construction of the living environment’.83 Addressing architecture through the lens of ‘the living environment’ (leefmilieu) – and thus ultimately resonating with the contemporaneous wider environmental mindset – was the outcome of a gradual process in which the terms with which to evaluate architecture shifted. The canonized works of Geert Bekaert – undeniably one of Belgium’s major architectural critics – allow us to take the pulse of this history, by focusing on the term milieu, in Dutch the conceptual herald of ‘environment’.84 It can easily be detected that in his earliest writings in the 1950s the notion is not explicitly thematized and simply figures as a set of formative influences on an individual, often used in someone’s biography to indicate which milieu he was coming from. A clear two-step shift can be observed in the 1960s: three articles in 1962 and 1963 mobilize the concept to point to the existential background that people need in order ‘to be fully human’, whilst stating that it is against this background that architecture should be evaluated.85 A second shift in meaning can be seen in another three articles, during 1964 and 1965, where milieu is not just a meaningful background to architecture; rather, it is the object of architecture itself, that is, what architects should attempt to construct.86

What this small survey of the term milieu shows, is that in the years leading to the environmental turn, we can see how an architectural critic confronted with ‘lifeless’ postwar modernist architecture felt the need to spatially extend the category of ‘the building’ in a search towards meaningful architecture. This spatial extension was based on existential arguments: if architecture wants to contribute to accommodating a full life, we have to expand our concepts in discussing it. The notion of wonen (‘dwelling’) was key in this regard as it quickly became part and parcel of architectural criticism’s shifting vocabulary – along with ‘living environment’ and ‘building’ (rather than ‘architecture’) – in order to ground architectural quality in the experience of its inhabitants.

Not coincidentally, Vlaeminck’s arguments for a woonecological science relied on the same vocabulary and were founded on a similar idea of existential holism.87 This idea acquired a specific articulation in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 1960s, owing to the commonly used notion of wonen.88 The rise of the notion of ‘environment’ in architectural culture, as discernible in Bekaert’s works and in Vlaeminck’s pleas, was strongly mediated by a tradition of the philosophy of dwelling in the 1960s, inspired, as we saw earlier, by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas.


We have portrayed Sieg Vlaeminck as a Flemish public intellectual who gradually brought the philosophical and scientific background he gained in a religious setting into a secular realm by writing for newspapers and cultural magazines and by teaching in an architectural school. He translated the Catholic existentialism of his formative years into a wide-ranging fascination with the interrelatedness between human beings and their environment, developing an approach he labelled woonecologie. In hindsight, his strongest contribution to architecture was perhaps his strong relationship with the public sphere, publishing many articles in newspapers and in policy and administration-oriented handbooks. There he brought problems of architecture from the realm of professional discussion to the public debate, with an emancipating idea in mind: informing the people to make them change the world. This sensitization of laymen and policy makers certainly contributed to the growing recognition of architecture as an important cultural field.

Because of this role, Vlaeminck might be characterized as a mediating intellectual, one who synthesized ideas from one domain – less accessible to the broader public – and launched them in small packages into another realm. Although his arguments were clear, they were more often articulated using other people’s voices – through book reviews, moderated discussions, juxtaposed quotes and recycled cultural images.

Perhaps more than on its own merits, his role as a public intellectual and his plea for woonecologie can best be understood as translating a changed environmental mentality into a scientific project. It was at the point when the notion of environment was gaining currency and the architectural discipline needed to reorient itself, that a scientific approach promising to deliver insights in the human-environment relationship was hailed. At that point in time, it sounded like a perfectly reasonable thing to advocate, both for society and for architecture. The shortcomings and pitfalls of this approach – its lack of feasibility, its disciplinary overlaps with other sciences and the risk of dissolving architecture into the environment altogether – came to the fore only later.

At the same time, Vlaeminck’s life trajectory opens up the possibility of seeing this episode of social sciences as rooted in other fundamental changes in society. His specific plea of woonecologie can be understood as the intersection of three distinct realms of intellectuality: a societal critique based on notions of liberation, emancipation and participation, combined with a faith in science; an existential phenomenological tradition, articulated in philosophies of dwelling and a more progressive side of Catholic thought; and all of this interpreted against the background of a growing environmentalism. As such, his personal account highlights continuities sometimes overlooked by historiography.89 The prolonged impact of religious culture is a case in point: it seems to disappear from the radar of historiography after 1968, dissolved without a trace into a secular reality.90

When Vlaeminck emerged out of a troubled religious position and started to actively engage with the spatial discipline, it was because of a reflection on spatial quality as part of a societally wide problem. With architecture on society’s agenda, Vlaeminck was one of those voices that took up that challenge, bringing along his own background, led to that challenge through the path of a modernizing Church. His project within the architectural scene, as a science that attempted to return to ‘the man in the street’, averse to institutionally or historically transmitted practices, seems indirectly to be a part of the legacy of the spirit leading up to the Second Vatican Council. Interpreting Vlaeminck’s entry into the architectural scene as marked by this legacy enables one to appreciate the prolonged and indirect influence of religious intellectuality on architectural culture well beyond the 1960s. This article thus articulated the assumption that Vlaeminck’s encounter with existentialism through the prism of Christianity, during his formative years, had a lasting impact on his later intellectual contributions to architectural culture. If the decade of the 1970s can indeed be read as the start of a blossoming architectural culture in the 1980s and 1990s, this might thus have to do with the transfiguration of a religious culture into a secular one of societal engagement, as exemplified in the case of Sieg Vlaeminck.