As Hopes for European Unity Dim, New E.U. Headquarters Are Glowing


National leaders have failed repeatedly to reach consensus over how to manage the debt crisis in Greece that nearly sank the euro several years ago. They still are quarreling over how to handle a mass influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. That crisis could resume if a delicate deal with Turkey restraining the flow collapses.

At best, the new building might represent a fresh start for the European Union, along with its architecturally charmless neighborhood, known as the European Quarter. At worst, European leaders might end up meeting in their eye-catching new headquarters just as they reach the nadir in the struggle to determine the future of their troubled Continent.

The Europa features bespoke touches like dazzlingly colored carpets woven from New Zealand wool and designed by a Belgian artist, and a meticulously restored hallway from a previous building on the site, which once served as the headquarters for the German occupying forces during World War II.

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The largest meeting room inside the Europa building features dazzling wool carpets designed by a Belgian artist. The square and rectangle motif acknowledges the importance of color to national identity while avoiding patterns that recall any individual member state’s flag.

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Emmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The cost of the new building is galling for member states like Greece that have endured years of punishing austerity measures in exchange for loans to rescue their economies and maintain public services. It also angered David Cameron, who resigned as the British prime minister after Britain voted to exit the bloc. He had campaigned to keep Britain in a reformed European Union.

“You do wonder whether these institutions actually get what every country, what every member of the public, is having to go through as we cut budgets and try to make our finances add up,” Mr. Cameron said five years ago, after being briefed on plans for the Europa.

Ministers will move next month, and European Union leaders are expected to hold their first meeting there in March.

The leaders gathered two weeks ago for their year-end summit meeting in the Justus Lipsius building, an unloved venue that has been used since the 1990s. Named for a 16th-century Flemish stoic, the building evokes a postwar vogue for architectural Brutalism. Its interior is a matrix of dim hallways and soulless conference rooms.

The new project, next door, was conceived to improve the quality of meeting space in anticipation of bigger gatherings as a result of an enlargement of the bloc in 2004, when 10 nations, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, joined.

A huge conference space was later added to the plan to enable European leaders to convene international delegations.

The glowing central structure is intended to serve as a kind of “lantern” for Europe, said Mr. Samyn, the Belgian architect, who explained that engineering challenges had shaped his design choices.

Belgian law required preservation of the historic hallway from the previous building on the site, while the new building’s conference rooms had to be kept some distance from nearby railway tunnels for structural and safety reasons. (A subway line that runs below the Europa is just one stop from the Maelbeek station, the site of a terrorist bombing in March that killed 16 people.)

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The interior of the new headquarters. Some member states smarting from austerity measures have complained about the building’s $340 million cost.

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Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press

Mr. Samyn said that some essential elements of his design — a tiered structure that curves outward from a narrow base — came to him in a dream.

At its widest point, the orb has enough room for 330 delegates and 32 interpretation booths. Where it curves in at the top and bottom there are smaller conference rooms, dining areas and space for members of the news media.

Mr. Samyn festooned the structure with white strips to reflect low energy spotlights that make it glow after dark, even when no meetings are taking place.

A cube-shaped, see-through facade that encases the orb serves as a visual hymn to the European Union’s motto, “United in diversity,” Mr. Samyn said. The facade’s 3,750 panes of extra-clear glass have been mounted in refurbished oak window frames of different sizes, which were obtained from demolition sites in each member state.

The meeting rooms are laid with carpets and have ceiling coverings in 60 different colors, producing a mildly psychedelic effect. The square and rectangles motif, designed by Georges Meurant, a Belgian artist, acknowledges the importance of color to national identity while avoiding patterns that recall any individual member state’s flag.

The bloc’s leaders will sit at a round table rather than the one with sharp angles that is currently in use in the Justus Lipsius. That means they will no longer need to use video monitors some of the time to see who is speaking, making the atmosphere more intimate, Mr. Samyn said.

A less welcome reason for the increased intimacy: One fewer leader will be at meetings once Britain carries out its plan to depart.

With far-right, anti-bloc politicians in France and the Netherlands riding high in the polls ahead of elections in 2017, there is widespread speculation that Britain’s departure may be the start of a great unraveling of the European Union.

For the first time in its history, the bloc’s survival is being openly discussed. Unsurprisingly, the gloom that has descended on Brussels has given rise to a form of black humor, much of it directed at the Europa building. Among the quips: Rather than serving as a lantern, as Mr. Samyn has called his gently curving structure, it could one day be used as a giant funeral urn, to hold the ashes of a collapsed European Union.

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