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Old England’s characteristic iron façade, built in 1899, is a wonderful example of Art Nouveau in Brussels. Photo: Bea Uhart
Old England’s characteristic iron façade, built in 1899, is a wonderful example of Art Nouveau in Brussels. Photo: Bea Uhart

Lifestyle

Beautiful architecture in Brussels

Brussels doesn’t have a museum of modern art, but in a way, the city itself is one. It houses some of Europe’s finest examples of Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings, many of them open to public.

We may not be far from the majestic Grand Place, but the medieval buildings of the city center seem a long way away. Next to the canal is the Citroën building, designed in 1934 by Alexis Dumont. The structure is a functionalist modern building with a hint of Art Deco and represents a time when the center of Brussels was still home to industry. In those days, the Citroën building was used as an exhibition hall and office building. Today, it has been bought by the city and there are plans to turn it into a museum of modern art.

Debate continues over the future of the Citroën building. Photo: Bea Uhart

“Brussels has the highest density of art collectors in the world, but no museum of modern art,” says Ward Verbakel who, nonetheless, is one of those who believe that the building is particularly unsuitable for the purpose.

This is Ward Verbakel

Age: 35
Lives: Brussels
What he does: Architect at his own firm, plusofficearchitects, professor at the University of Leuven. On the editorial board of the magazine A+ Architecture.

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“There are no walls to hang the art on – the entire building is glass,” he says. “Instead, we should make it a meeting place for creative activity. Brussels does not have many places where you can create.”

The way in which people move and function in the city is key to Brussels-based architect Verbakel’s approach to buildings. He returned to Brussels in 2006 after spending several years studying and working at Columbia University in the US. But then the climate for the new ideas of young architects began to improve in Belgium, and Verbakel wanted to be a part of it.

As we move closer to the city center, we see more from an architect who really made an impression on the city – Victor Horta. Horta lived in Brussels and was one of the leading exponents of Art Nouveau. His style developed towards Art Deco over the years: organic shapes became geometric, undulating lines became straight.

Horta’s Center for Fine Art – or Bozar as it is known – was completed in 1928 and it is an example from hit Art Deco period. We choose the Rue Ravenstein entrance, but there are several others – something that is typical of Horta buildings.

Verbakel talks about how Horta departed from the standard template and positioned the rooms in new ways to facilitate the movement of people and take into account the way the light enters the building. In Horta’s approach, you can already see the beginning of modernist concepts.

Galerie Ravenstein. Photo: Bea Uhart

Across the street from Bozar is Galerie Ravenstein. Here we step into something resembling an atrium. Mosaics adorn the walls and the light flows in from above through a glass dome with a circular pattern. The building was designed by Alexis and Philippe Dumont in the 1950s and also serves as a passage to Brussels Central Station, which is another Horta masterpiece.

Facts

Art Nouveau

Also known as Jugendstil, this is generally referred to as Art Nouveau in Belgium.
This style can be found in the architecture, design, and graphics of the period around 1890 to 1920. Belgium is one of the most important countries in the development of Art Nouveau. As the name suggests, the style was considered to be a break with traditional design. It was inspired by natural shapes, such as flowers and plants.

Art Deco

This style emerged after the First World War and its popularity waned during the late 1940s. Art Deco developed at a time of rapid industrialization and – unlike its predecessor Art Nouveau – it embraced technology. The style is characterized by symmetry, geometric shapes, and rich ornamentation. 

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Brussels has an abundance of Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings. The reason? Quite simply, becayse people could afford it, and the country’s economic prosperity attracted creativity from all over Europe.

“Brussels became a center for science and the arts. It attracted people such as Einstein and Chagall,” says Verbakel.

The bourgeoisie invested money in this new style of building, and these still adorn the streets of Brussels today, more or less intact. The vast majority are not museums, but the homes of ordinary people, including perhaps one or two Eurocrats.

The districts of Ixelles and Saint-Gilles are home to some of the grandest structures.
In Saint-Gilles we enter The Hôtel Hannon, which despite the name, is not a hotel. When it was designed in 1904 by architect Jules Brunfaut, it was as a residence for Eduoard Hannon, an engineer and amateur photographer. It is perhaps fitting that today, the building houses a photography museum.

The large windows with their swirling ornamentation are typical of the age, but Verbakel tells us that Art Nouveau architects did not use clean, closed circles. Instead, the curves change direction in the middle of their movement, giving a ‘whiplash’ effect, because the line closely resembles the shape of a whip. Art Nouveau also took inspiration from the plant world.

“The building is like a wooden tree growing out of the ground,” says Verbakel, pointing to the curvature of its foundations.

Hôtel Hannon is open to visitors, as is Horta’s own house just a stone’s throw away. To understand Art Nouveau properly, it is important to also look beyond the facade, because the buildings are an example of Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art’. The architects designed the interiors themselves or in collaboration with furniture designers, carpet makers and other trades. 

Egyptian architecture serves as inspiration at Villa Empain. Photo: Bea Uhart

The Villa Empain is just one example of the many impressive villas that line Avenue Franklin Roosevelt. Many are embassies, but the Art Deco treasure that is the Villa Empain is today owned by the Boghossian family and is a museum of contemporary art. It was designed by the Swiss architect Michel Polak and completed in 1930, and it should not be missed by Deco enthusiasts.

“Art Deco is the abstraction of pure shapes,” says Verbakel, as he points to the palm leaves in the panels that run along the ceiling – a typical example of the Egyptomania of the time.

Palais Stoclet, named a world heritage site by Unesco. Photo: Bea Uhart

We conclude our tour with a visit to the Palais Stoclet where it is interesting to discover that Austria’s finest Art Nouveau building is actually in Brussels. The architect, Josef Hoffman, was Austrian in any case. The building’s rectangular shapes and asymmetry ran counter to the style of the day and laid the foundations of both Art Deco and Modernism. On the inside, the walls are decorated with mosaics by Gustav Klimt. Unfortunately, the building is not open to visitors. It is still owned by the Stoclet family who only lend their palace out on special occasions, such as presidential visits. Verbakel longs to take a look inside – he has pulled strings and made inquiries. So far his efforts have been in vain, but even from the sidewalk the building is impressive.

 

Text: Marit Fahlander 

Last edited: May 29, 2015

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