Canal bridge by night © David Karlin
Canal bridge by night
© David Karlin
The best clues to the mindset of a city can come from unlikely places – in Bruges, for example, by taking one of the many boats that will tour the city’s canals, giving you a water’s eye viewpoint, removed from the hustle and bustle of traffic but leading you through the heart of the city. As you go, ignore for a moment the guide, electronic or real, who is telling you about the churches and monuments, and focus on the architecture of the canal side houses. You will, of course, see the mediaeval red brick facades with stepped roof facings characteristic of the region, but you will also see that many of the buildings have been restored to a very high modern standard. You will also see some very modern creations of glass and steel, the metalwork painted deep red so that the new blends perfectly with the old.

Where other European Habsburg-ruled cities – Austria, Budapest, Prague, to name just a few – like to look back on the great days of the Empire in the 18th and 19th century, Bruges prefers to look earlier, to its great days as a commercial centre up to the end of the 16th century, before the ambitions of the European Great Powers made Flanders into a semi-permanent battle ground. Linking the last half-century of peace with those happy days is an obvious thing to want to do.

Sound factory installation "OMNI" © David Karlin
Sound factory installation "OMNI"
© David Karlin
The desire to mix the ultra modern with the city’s past is expressed clearly in the Concertgebouw, built in 2002. The architecture is modern, but a tall tower is set against the belfries and spires that delineate the old city’s skyline, and the deep red tiles that face the building’s exterior give a nod to Bruges’s ancient brickwork. Inside, we are decidedly modern, with a great deal of unpainted concrete set about with conceptual art: ex communist-era loudspeaker horns, turned upside down to look like bells, play sounds of the beehive; in another room, an angel and a harp adorn a wall, painted onto the concrete and artfully lit. The building houses “The Sound Factory”, a series of installations which invite visitors to make soundscapes with devices ranging from historic city bells through to a giant multi-coloured synthesizer pad.
Sound factory: Carillon bells
Sound factory: Carillon bells
In another, people make sounds by physically connecting themselves together and touching metal posts.

The fusion of the antique and the new happens inside the concert hall itself. The acoustics of the hall are created by a series of panels which have hard surfaces and are each based on a pattern of pseudo-randomly positioned strips. These cause the sound to reflect in an incoherent way, which results in loud reverberation which is limited in duration: a live, vivid feel but without the spreading of notes over several seconds. The majority of these panels are solid and line the walls and balconies, but in some, the strips are on a hollow frame: these can be made into movable partitions and placed behind or at the sides of the stage to create different acoustic effects; more effects can be created by opening up or closing off an internal tower. Perhaps surprisingly, the musical periods that are most enhanced by this modern technology are the baroque and the renaissance: the richness of the reverberation adds colour and volume to the sound of period instruments, while the lack of a long reverberation time means that the flowing lines of early music do not get blurred by a sonic wash from the room. The Concertgebouw’s resident orchestra is Anima Eterna Brugge, who are at their heart an early music band, even though they have recently branched out into more modern repertoire.

Concertgebouw interior showing acoustic panels © David Karlin
Concertgebouw interior showing acoustic panels
© David Karlin

The Concertgebouw isn’t the only piece of architecture to blend old and new in an interesting way. Bruges is particularly adept at lighting its old buildings: if you go to the Burg at night, the buildings around the square are beautifully lit. At first, you can’t see how it’s done, but look carefully at the very old-fashioned looking lanterns: on each one, the side facing the building discreetly houses a distinctly non-traditional floodlight.

City carillonist Frank Deleu at belfry keyboard © David Karlin
City carillonist Frank Deleu at belfry keyboard
© David Karlin
An improbable musical outlet for the old-new combination is the city’s famous belfry. On the one hand, there is tradition: its forty-seven bells can be played by a marvellous drum mechanism which is essentially an over-sized music box (currently, in view of the focus on World War I, putting out songs like “It’s a long way to Tipperary”. But the bells can also be played manually (the current carillonist, Frank Deleu, is just the 27th incumbent in the position since records began in 1533) using a keyboard and foot pedal mechanism which is new, shiny and extremely precise.

Job security: the roster of city carillonists © David Karlin
Job security: the roster of city carillonists
© David Karlin
When Belgium and Bruges is mentioned in England, the thoughts of many will turn to beer or chocolate (or possibly, if you’re more historically informed, lace). And it’s true that Bruges contains plenty of lace shops, that if you go into Cambrinus near the Grote Markt, the beer list feels more like an encyclopaedia than a menu, and the mean distance between chocolatiers on Steenstraat (Bruges’ main shopping street) is probably no more than 20 metres. But ask anyone involved in Bruges tourism about beer and chocolate and they will roll their eyes gently upwards: yes, they will admit, these things are there, but there is so much more on offer.



David's visit to Bruges was sponsored by Visit Flanders. You can read his review of Anima Eterna playing Czech music here.