Luxemburgische Zeitgeschichte

‘As Efficient as a Factory’: Architectural and Managerial Discourses on Government Office Buildings in Belgium, 1919-39

This article investigates the impact of managerial ideologies on projects for new
governmental office buildings in Belgium in the 1920s and 1930s. Following the prewar
publication of F. W. Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ theories, the scientisation of
office activities was propagated by efficiency experts throughout the western world. In
Belgium, as in France, the work of the mining engineer Henri Fayol was particularly
influential. According to Fayol, private and public bureaucracies had to follow identical
managerial principles, notably that all employees were to observe one another as much
as possible. These ideas of visibility overlapped with the emphasis on transparency and
open planning coming from quite a different quarter, namely Le Corbusier, Hannes
Meyer and other modernist architects in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet how Fayol’s ideal was
to be realised without compromising the traditional need for privacy for high-ranking
office workers remained unresolved. The article explores the ideas of two crucial expert
groups — architects and managerial experts — over these issues as they developed in
Belgium in the inter-war years. In the 1920s, the mining engineer Max-Léo Gérard called
for ministerial buildings that facilitated ‘collaborative work’ and the information scientist
Paul Otlet advocated an ideal type of government offices based on an architectural
diagram that facilitated mutual observation. In the 1930s, the architect Stanislas Jasinski
proposed remodelling the centre of Brussels as a series of office blocks, in a design copied
from Le Corbusier’s cruciform skyscrapers in the Plan Voisin. Such ideas received official
endorsement with the Royal Commissariat for Administrative Reform under Louis Camu,
which proposed to strengthen the societal role of governmental bureaucracy by rehousing
the civil service in an enormous office complex close to the parliament. Contrasting with
the idealism of these unrealised plans was one of the few government projects actually
built, the Ministry of Science and Arts headquarters designed in 1929 by the in-house
architect Georges Hano.

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