EC gets back to building in Brussels

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BRUSSELS - Life in Brussels is getting back to normal, at the symbolic level, anyway. The EC Commission is drawing up plans to move back into the Berlaymont building, its star-shaped home, writes Andrew Marshall.

After finding it to be dangerously full of asbestos, the Commission left the building, long a symbol of bureaucracy or the joys of integration, depending on your viewpoint. Its evacuation in 1991, at the time of the signing of the Maastricht treaty, seemed to epitomise the sudden change in the EC as it entered a period of crisis. The sombre black block still stands, windows empty and flagpoles bare, in Brussels' European quarter.

The publication of the Commission's new plans, in a document, on the day of Denmark's referendum on the Maastricht treaty, also had a symbolic value. The Belgian government, which owns the Berlaymont, has said it will renovate the building. But in the sensitive post-Maastricht atmosphere, the Commission has made it plain that there is to be no new Versailles. Lessons have been learnt from Jacques Attali, the president of the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, who got into trouble for his flights of marble fancy.

The renovated Commission building will be no taller, will have the same number of people in it and the same parking capacity. 'The Commission wishes that the renovated Berlaymont keep its symbolic character while assuring optimum functionality, without luxury,' says the document. It will be 1999 before the removal of asbestos and the reconstruction of the building is complete.

The Berlaymont, with four wings bent at slightly odd angles, still exercises a bizarre fascination. Its architectural origins seem to lie in Belgian design mixed with ideas from the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. An exhibition last year of Belgian art in the 1920s featured a picture of a building with marked similarities.

Meanwhile, construction is proceeding apace of new buildings in Brussels for the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers - rather more frivolous than the Berlaymont, more a cross between City merchant banks and a smart university. But the pounds 1bn parliament project, also due to be completed by the end of the century, duplicates a project in Strasbourg, the home of the European Parliament. The EC seems to be following its agricultural policy by creating HQ mountains.

There is one new building, however, that does not even have a home yet, let alone an architect, and that is the European Central Bank. With disputes raging between London, Bonn, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Lyons, the EC could yet add more palaces to its existing stock.

(Photograph omitted)