Dezeen Magazine

Ugly Belgian Houses: Hannes Coudenys creates an archive of unattractive architecture

Photo essay: for the last four years Hannes Coudenys has been photographing houses across Belgium but, instead of selecting the best examples, he only shoots those he deems ugly.

Coudenys, who isn't a photographer by profession, uses Tumblr and Instagram to document the properties he has photographed. His aim is to draw attention to what he describes as the chaos of Belgium's town planning – or lack thereof.

"[It is] as if we first crammed every square metre with buildings before then deciding to put some streets through here and there," he says.

In this essay, an extract from the new book Ugly Belgian Houses, Coudenys tells the story behind the project:

My name is Hannes Coudenys. I'm 33 years old. I have a blog about ugly houses. My own house, our home, is also ugly. My wife and I were very young when we went looking for our first home. We ended up buying a semi-detached house, which we renovated. An ugly, but practical house from the 1960s. I would have preferred a different kind of house, but that was, at the time, financially not feasible.

Ugly Belgian Houses by Hannes Coudenys

We have now been forced to sell our ugly house. It's going to be flattened and the site used for a new building project: a new school. Let's hope it will be a beautiful school. Now we can go hunting for a new house. Let's hope it will be a beautiful house.

In 2011, I started my blog Ugly Belgian Houses. My very first post – a photo of a local architectural disaster – made me realise that I was not the only one to find Belgium an ugly country, from an architectural point of view at least. The comments poured in and the "likes" went through the roof. Ugly Belgian Houses was born.

Following this first stroke of luck, I got a taste for it and carried on posting ugly houses on my blog. Anonymously, I have to admit. To top that, I added a snide, over-the-top comment to each photo.

After two months I received a letter from a lawyer: "Dear Sir, it has come to light that you have published a photo of my client's house on your website without their permission. Please find attached print screens of the photo of their property. In publishing this photo without my client's permission, you damage not only their reputation, but you are also guilty of invading their privacy and breaking copyright regulations. To this effect, I hereby formerly request that you remove the photo from all media concerned immediately."

Ugly Belgian Houses by Hannes Coudenys

I was petrified. I had visions of law courts and fines and therefore pulled the plug on the whole thing. I knew the lawyer was right: you can't just put a house online. I took all the photos offline and stopped my blog.

In the meantime I had made a name for myself on Twitter and was regularly interviewed about my collection of ugly houses. It was clear that I had touched a nerve in Belgium. The idea behind the blog continued to smoulder and one year later I could resist no more. Yet again, I found myself in a hideous housing estate and so I restarted my blog.

Ugly Belgian Houses by Hannes Coudenys

The website now attracts a few million visitors per year and followers from all over the world on Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. So many people relate to the blog. It's very time consuming, but it opens up so many doors.

Lawyers continue to threaten me, but less often. Nor do I worry so much. It clearly states on my blog that you are free for your house to be taken offline if desired. I then replace it with a big red cross. Around ten per cent of the owners make that request, which is not really that bad.

I understand though. People sometimes take it personally when their house is publicly ridiculed, or they are hounded by the press and feel picked on. That's not nice.

One architect told me that someday I would end up with a suicide on my conscience because of my bullying. Another accused me of drastically changing his children's future by making him redundant as an architect. For all these reasons it's important to be able to communicate in the open.

Ugly Belgian Houses by Hannes Coudenys

Other people just think it's fantastic. The child of one owner jumped up and down in excitement when we rang and asked for permission to use their house in our book: "I knew you'd come, at last!"

I have often banged my head against a wall about what really instigated my blog. To this day I still don't know. Was it a hideous house or did I just have the proverbial 'brick in my stomach'?

Above all, I think it's that I feel an overwhelming sense of clutter in our country. Spatial planning is a phrase you don't even need to utter in Belgium, because it is, in my view, nothing but chaos. As if we first crammed every square metre with buildings before then deciding to put some streets through here and there.

In the beginning I was just angry. I wrote texts with hundreds of swear words in frustration and incomprehension. When photos and these texts were immediately picked up on social media, I found a sense of acknowledgement. I even had the feeling that I should have started long before.

Ugly Belgian Houses by Hannes Coudenys

I became even angrier. And I loved it. And my followers loved it. Looking back, I went over the top. I have learnt an awful lot and now my approach is much more subtle. I make a sport of finding a snappy, funny caption.

In the meantime I know that there are architects striving for better spatial planning in our country. I also know now that it's not all just black or white.