Ah, the town Christmas tree — a towering vision of evergreen boughs, twinkling lights, tinsel and ornaments proudly erected in a public square for all to enjoy. Many people look forward to the day it’s installed, gathering to watch as it’s hauled into place and topped with a star. So what happens when a city decides they’re going to move in a new direction with such a beloved symbol of the holiday season? If Belgium’s attempt at a modern interpretation is any indication, the answer to that question is “controversy.”
The city commissioned French firm 1024 Architecture to envision a different kind of holiday spectacle for Grand Place, the main public square in Brussels. They asked the designers to come up with something that visualized that year’s theme of “light,” and to find an environmentally-friendly alternative to chopping down one of the tallest trees in the forest for just a month or so of public enjoyment.
The 82-foot-tall ABIES-Electronicus structure does just that. An architectural sculpture made of scaffolding and fabric, the abstract interpretation of a holiday tree suggests the shape of a conifer with rectilinear “branch” elements that protrude from a vertical trunk-like core. The installation is augmented by video projections and an interactive soundtrack of electronic music. The public is even invited to climb inside to enjoy unprecedented views of the square.
The modern design is illuminated from within after dark, changing color from blue to green to yellow to red as the music plays. In the video above, you can see how the tree lights up in response to sound, with various “branches” glowing and then going dark. LED lights built into the framework twinkle, and projections bring the structure to life.
“We are originally from Strasbourg, THE Christmas capital, which boasts of having the record for the highest natural tree,” says 1024 Architecture. “Our metal shaft can be assembled and disassembled as a toy. It is made up of standard elements that are easily found nearby, without having to travel from distant countries… and contrary to what has been said, it is cheap, compared to the price of exceptional convoys, cranes and staff mobilized by these giant pines. And it’s more fun!”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of Belgium’s residents disagree. In fact, they hate it so much, they organized a protest and gathered 25,000 signatures calling for a real Christmas tree to be installed in the structure’s place. Not only are they arguing that the tree is ugly and too modern, they’re calling it an affront to their values and traditions, ascribing the abstract interpretation to the ongoing “war on Christmas.”
City officials, for their part, insist that the structure still radiates plenty of Christmas cheer, and note that there’s a manger display placed just a few yards away from the installation. Brussels is a multicultural city, and the annual Winter Fun festival aims to be inclusive to all residents, not just those who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday.
The “tree,” which was first built in 2010 and previously installed in France, definitely makes no attempts to hew to tradition, but is that a bad thing? What would you think if your city replaced its conifer with a creation like this one?