‘Better ugly than boring’: book celebrates bizarre Belgian houses

Hannes Coudenys’ Ugly Belgian Houses updated with more from the ‘chaos known as Belgium’

Ever since he was a child, Hannes Coudenys had been annoyed by the “visual chaos” around him. On the road from home to his school in Bruges, he found a mishmash of architectural styles – haciendas, villas, farm-style houses, all mixed up with boxy malls and carpet shops.

One day, as an adult, still exasperated, he took a photo of a house that was split into two jarringly different styles: a grey urban semi whose other half was a jaunty brick cottage. He put the photo online with the title “ugly Belgian houses” and an internet trend was born.

The cover of the updated 10th anniversary edition of the book.
The cover of the updated 10th anniversary edition of the book. Photograph: Kevin Faingnaert/More Ugly Belgian Houses

Ugly Belgian Houses became a blog, then a book. Last month, a decade since posting that first photo, a second edition came out: More Ugly Belgian Houses.

Coudenys, who has no architectural training, said he was just responding to the “chaos also known as Belgium. Because we are such a small country it is very visible how much chaos there is”.

“Ugly” is in the eye of the beholder, and the book is a celebration of architectural whimsy and homeowners who let their imaginations run free. There are redbrick suburban pyramids, houses clustered with turrets and crenellations, a student accommodation block where the door frame and windows tilt at a woozy 45-degree angle from the ground. There are houses with bricked-up windows, and houses with headache-inducing jangles of windows of different shapes and sizes.

Then there are no-nonsense solutions to building repair: a crumbling facade replaced with black corrugated iron sheets, for instance. Or just the eccentricities of personal taste, such as a facade in clashing pink, white, black and brown, a giant model dog guarding a doorway, or walls festooned with murals of classical warriors in the style of an ancient Greek urn.

Many people were not pleased to find their home on a website called Ugly Belgian Houses. “Dear Mr Asshole, if you want to avoid a lawsuit, I suggest that you immediately delete your post about our house from your ridiculous website,” one complained. “What gives you the right to call these houses ugly?” wrote another.

When Coudenys compiled his first book, few wanted to be included. The book contained only 50 out of the 500 houses in the blog, as publishers struggled to get permission from residents and architects.

This pile dwelling was built in Thailand, where it was demolished before being shipped to Belgium and rebuilt from scratch.
This pile dwelling was built in Thailand, where it was demolished, shipped to Belgium and rebuilt from scratch. Photograph: Kevin Faingnaert/More Ugly Belgian Houses

Coudenys, who runs a creative agency helping companies with social media, said the second edition was much easier. Ugly Belgian Houses has now gained a life of its own. The site has 150,000 Instagram followers and 115,000 Facebook likes. He believes his blog inspired others, such as Ugly Irish Houses and Ugly Melbourne Houses. He also took part in a Flemish TV show where he visited the owners of “ugly” houses in a segment called “Hannes says sorry”.

He was not apologising for calling their house ugly, he makes clear. Rather, he was sorry “for the fact that I might have given them some extra trouble,” he said. Meeting residents was a nerve-racking experience but he was well received. “Most of them weren’t angry. They said: it’s my taste, not your taste, and I am very happy here.”

A passive house, with slanted walls that create shadow and prevent the sun from shining straight into the house
A passive house, with slanted walls that create shadow and prevent the sun from shining straight into the house Photograph: Kevin Faingnaert/More Ugly Belgian Houses

The show taught him about the houses and the people who lived in them. What looked like a crooked wall was in fact an integral element of a “passive house”, designed to maximise energy efficiency. Two identical detached houses, each featuring a turret in the middle, belonged to twins, who shared a plot of land and the same taste for mock-Tudor design.

One wooden pile dwelling came to Belgium from Thailand, where it was painstakingly reassembled piece by piece over a pond. Some occupants, however, admitted they might have given too much free rein to their architect. “To be honest I don’t really like it,” one homeowner told him.

Coudenys has also changed his mind about some of the supposed ugliness. Rather than rant about the architectural mishmash, he now respects Belgians’ willingness to experiment. Ugly Belgian houses, he has decided, are part of his country’s surrealist tradition – something he would not change for the generic developments he has seen in the Netherlands, France, the UK – and increasingly in Belgium, too.

“I have come to the conclusion that I am quite fond of what we have here,” he said. “It’s nice to know that you have this kind of freedom to build and experiment. You don’t have to like my experiment, but I think it’s nice that we can be creative.

“The credo of my blog nowadays is that it’s better to be ugly than to be boring.”


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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