Interview and Introduction Miguel Llona
Images Hannes Coudenys
There are ugly places, and then there’s Belgium. This is the impression that one comes away with after visiting Ugly Belgian Houses, a visual blog that both shames and celebrates the wacky architectural landscape of the Belgian countryside. The site is “an ode to the ugliness of Belgium,” as lovingly described by its mastermind, Hannes Coudenys, who has lived in the “nightmarish architectural Legoland” for most of his life.
Armed with a camera and a merciless eye for spotting kitsch in all its forms, Coudenys takes photos of Belgian houses he deems ugly and punctuates them with hilarious captions (“Luke, I am your house,” reads the caption for one that looks inspired by Darth Vader’s helmet). The simple formula of each post has netted Coudenys hundreds of thousands of followers, and even resulted in a number of books compiling his greatest hits of architectural misses. People are just drawn to poking fun at a poorly designed house, which its owner probably shelled out a life’s worth of savings for and awaited in starry-eyed glee as it was being built brick by brick, unaware that it’ll be the object of ridicule sometime in the future.
While Ugly Belgian Houses taps into our deep-seated desires to laugh at the failures of others, it also confronts us with the question of what is beautiful or not. Even Coudenys himself points out how much of a subjective exercise his blog is—browse through the comments of each post and you’d see that what he finds trash could be the apple of someone else’s eye. Some lambast him for his audacity, as though he was some snobbish gatekeeper of beauty. But even with all the captions that incite laughter, Ugly Belgian Houses elevates these houses into something endearing, simply by framing them in a gallery that celebrates their ‘ugliness’. It’s almost daring viewers to see these architectural monstrosities as some form of bizarro high art, especially after seeing them altogether or in succession. Because after all, at least they’re not boring—something that Coudenys believes is “the worst evil of all.”
Below is our short interview with the man behind Ugly Belgian Houses, as we grill him on his thought process behind starting it.
Can you recall the exact moment when you decided to start photographing ugly houses? What was going through your mind at the time?
The posting of the first house was a culmination of unprocessed trauma from my youth. I’ve been very mad with the chaotic building in my country and exactly ten years ago, I’ve had enough and posted a house. It had immediate success. Every Belgian recognized this love/hate [relationship] with our architectural crimes.
Other than eliciting laughs from your hilarious captions and the poorly designed houses themselves, what would you say is the mission of Ugly Belgian Houses? What do you want your followers to take away from your posts?
It started as something angry, but it has increasingly become a kind of ode to the ugliness of Belgium. One that we should celebrate so we can distinguish ourselves as Belgians, even if it is ugliness instead of winning the European Championship.
In an article you wrote for The Architectural Review, you described Belgium as a “nightmarish architectural Legoland.” What caused this epidemic of so-called ugly architecture to spread in your country, and who’s the most at fault for it?
Hard to explain. Because there were too few houses after the war, they had to build. And instead of doing it in the cities, people were sent to the countryside. Cities were places of destruction. Add to that a policy that allowed a lot, and behold chaos.
From that same article, you said something interesting, that “a boring house is the worst evil of all” as compared to a truly hideous house. Can you expound on this statement? What makes an ugly house more preferable in your mind than a boring, forgettable one?
Architecture is important. It affects our minds. It has often been there for at least 100 years, so I’d rather have a laughable house than a boring house.
Take us through your thought process when labeling a house or building as “ugly,” especially since some people will find it interesting, or charming, even. What are the criteria that you judge them by?
Also hard to explain! It’s a feeling. Does it have something special (ugly), and if I can say something about it. Am I missing the golden ratio? Is it crazy somewhere? And somehow, I find houses that match. I have noticed that many people do not look at Belgium with my eye. They often miss the ugliness.
Since beauty is subjective, I’m sure you’ve gotten into arguments with people regarding the aesthetics of a house that you featured (or should I say, “exposed?”)? How do these arguments usually go, and how do you defend the ugliness that you saw in the house?
For every house I post, 50% agree with me and the other 50% disagree. It’s the perfect ratio for a successful page. I don’t care and don’t care about the other 50% of their opinion, but I do enjoy the discussion!
Some would argue that these ugly houses are the results of people merely exercising their individuality and creativity, which is perfectly acceptable. But do you believe that there should be limits when it comes to expressing oneself in architecture?
Not at all. I totally agree with letting creativity flow. It’s only because of this that new things arise.
Would you say that some of the ugly houses you’ve photographed could be considered Deconstructivist Architecture? Why or why not?
Absolutely. There is a lot of vision in most of the examples I post.
What is your idea of beautiful architecture, anyway? How do you define beauty, especially in an architectural context?
Everyone has their own idea of what beauty is, and we all have our own preferences and tastes. That said, do you believe that people have a kind of social responsibility to erect a beautiful house or building—or something that isn’t an eyesore, at least—considering that it’ll be contributing to the public landscape?
I am indeed a big proponent of more general knowledge about architecture. Building something has an impact on the environment and it is good to realize what that impact is. It is good to realize that we are building the world together and that we should not only think about ourselves.
Great architecture, or any great work of art, can uplift the spirit. It could be said that these ugly houses that you photograph also uplift the spirit in a way, because being placed in a space celebrating ugliness turns them into something that provides joy and amusement (similar to the purpose of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades). Do you agree with this?
The side of Belgium they don’t tell you about at @uglybelgianhouses