Brussels is hardly picture perfect. With much of its original medieval architecture destroyed in the 1695 bombardment by French troops, its postwar urban evolution has been hap hazard and eclectic. The result is an incredible mix of architectural styles ranging from Gothic to Art Nouveau to concrete contemporary, most segregated into dissonant compartments. It is the dissonance, as compared to the copybook homogeneity of other European cities that, to me, is Brussels’ main appeal.
With our limited time in the city squeezed between four train rides, the logical option would have been to do a quick round of the main sights, then seek out a good chocolatier, or two, and end each day with beer tastings.
But my friend Rashmi and I ditched logic to time travel through 150 years of the history that sculpted Brussels’ physical landscape. (Or rather, I did, and Rashmi gamely tagged along. Will not be a huge surprise if she refuses to travel with me again.)
We hit the ground running – after a superb seafood lunch at Mer du Nord on Place Catherine – with a ‘free’ walking tour (Viva Tours) that proved a brilliant introduction to the city centre. The Grand Place is the most impressive of all the city squares I have visited so far, and remarkable in its commercial nature and the absence of prominent religious structures.
It is hard to imagine this rectangular cobblestoned space surrounded by opulent guildhalls as the swampland it once was, before rich merchants enroute to Bruges or Ghent or the (German) Highlands began to settle in the marshes on the banks of the river Senne, between the 9th and 11th centuries. The nameless settlement came to be referred to as Broekzele (old Dutch for ‘Home on the Marshes’).
The bilingual street names around the square still commemorate the outdoor markets that popped up along them around the 13th century. And the guildhalls on the square, specific trades and commodities. Their size and opulence directly proportional to the wealth of the particular association or guild.
The east wing of the Flamboyant Gothic Town Hall (Hotel de Ville (F) Stadhuis (D) ) is the only surviving structure from the original medieval group of buildings on the square. The rest are all a surprisingly harmonious mix of Gothic, Baroque and Louis XIV reconstructions from the 17th century-19th centuries.
In the 15th century the aristocracy – mostly French – decide to tax the increasingly prosperous merchants and build a symbolic counter to the strong municipal imprint of the Town Hall. They nam it Maison du Roi – House of the Kings – although no king ever lived there. It is still referred to as Broodhuis in the (more egalitarian?) Dutch though, after the old wooden bread market that existed on the site. Its 19th century Neo Gothic re-incarnation is a museum dedicated to the history and folklore of the city.
The Roman Catholic Church of St. Michael and St. Gudula – patron saints of Brussels – has evolved from a modest 9th century chapel (dedicated to St. Michael), to Romanesque church (when the remains of St. Gudula were brought here), to Gothic cathedral by the time of its completion in 1519.
Independence, in 1830, set off a building boom intended to gentrify a by then decaying city centre. The open sewer that was the river Senne, was cleaned up and covered over. (It still flows invisibly beneath the city!).
‘Lower class’ populations were relocated en masse and entire ‘outdated’ neighbourhoods fell under the hammer to make way for Haussmann inspired boulevards and classicist buildings like the Bourse and the Palais de Justice. And the loss of access to Dutch waterways demanded the building of the first railroads.
The original 12th century royal residence on the Coudenberg hill was destroyed in the fire of 1731. Its ruins and surrounding buildings were razed to the ground to make way for a new royal square. The present Royal Palace of Brussels started out as two separate 17th century structures near the original site. In 1871 the street between the two palaces was covered and the two structures conjoined.
The ‘modest’ palace was massively expanded in the early 19th century by Belgium’s second king: Leopold II, enriched by his exploitation of the Congo Free State. Although referred to as the ‘official palace of the King and Queen of the Belgians’ it has always been used for official receptions. The royal family continues to reside in the Palace at Laeken. The remains of the forgotten ‘burnt palace’ was discovered beneath the Rue Royal in the 1990’s and the excavation site is now open to the public.
It was around this time that Art Nouveau architecture, characterised by organic flowing lines and ‘whiplash curves’ drawn from nature, briefly flourished in the city. We utilised our lone full day in town to hunt down a few closely grouped landmarks:
Victor Pierre Horta’s 1895 Hotel van Eetvelden on Avenue Palmerston, is one of four ‘Major Town Houses’ that have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The exterior is relatively simple, but regarded as revolutionary for the extensive use of ‘industrial’ materials such as steel and glass. The interior, with its filigreed domes and skylights, African inspired plant motifs and Horta’s signature iron tracery, is considered a true masterpiece. Entry only on open heritage days or on private guided visits.
Designed by Gustav Strauwen, a student of Victor Horta, the 1903 residence of artist Georges Saint-Cyr is the most striking of all the Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels with elaborate tracery and almost theatrical wrought iron work. And at 4m wide, possibly the narrowest.
Artist and Art Nouveau architect Paul Cauchie’s home, Maison Cauchie (1905), narrowly escaped the hammer. The allegorical figures on its beautiful facade might seem painted on, but the effect is achieved by a technique known as sgraffiti where layers of tinted plaster are applied to a surface and then ‘scratched’ to reveal the underlying layer(s).
The words “Par Nous — Pour Nous” (By Us – For Us) seem to corroborate the theory that the facade was conceived as a billboard to advertise Cauchie and his painting tutor wife Carolina Voet’s professional artistic skills. The ground floor and basement have been restored and serve as a museum for their work. Sadly only open for visits every first weekend of the month. The top two floors are private apartments.
Around the time (1973) the Old England department store designed by Saintenoy in 1899, ceased trading, its wrought iron was stripped and its facade painted white in accordance with the building code of the royal district. The decision by the state to acquire the decaying building to house the Musical Instruments Museum in 1989, led to a decade long restoration to its old glory.
The impressive black facade and unrestrained ironwork deserve as much attention as the outstanding collection of musical instruments within. The restaurant at the top offers panoramic views and a mean (if pricey) tarte tatine. Disappointingly, both the museum and the restaurant close by 5pm. (The Old England was the last stop on our walk, being closer to the centre, but is grouped here with the Art Nouveau set for easy reference)
Our two hour walk in light drizzle, armed with a printed map and punctuated by waffle pitstops and a lunch break, stretched well into the afternoon when we discovered our metro station for the ride back was right in the heart of the European Quarter with its share of ‘new’ heritage structures.
This cluster of post modern European Union buildings is the result of another (post 1950) mega modernisation spree, that required more indiscriminate demolition of significant architecture. Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple is a prominent victim of the “haphazard urban development and redevelopment” that was subsequently termed Brusselization. Protests at the time underscored the thin line between ‘outdated’ and ‘heritage’.
To some extent, the eclectic nature of the Brussels cityscape is indicative of its enormous demographic diversity. It apparently is the most cosmopolitan of cities in Europe, and second only to Dubai in the world. I expected to pick a clear favourite (style). But I liked them all for varying reasons. To me, the patchwork of seemingly incoherent architectural statements tell a coherent enough story of the history and political ambitions of the Capital of Europe.
It would have been nice to have a bit more time to explore more of Horta’s works, inside and out, especially his atelier. And I hugely regret not having time for the ‘largest Art Deco edifice in the world’: the Basilica of Koekelberg. We also ran out of steam by our final evening, having postponed our return from Antwerp, for that gigantic showcase of Expo 58 and iconic symbol of modern Brussels: the Atomium.
What I have no excuse for missing however, is the 1958 shopping centre, the Galerie Ravenstein (by Alexis and Philippe Dumont), leading off the Gare Central, and Horta’s Palais des Beaux-Arts across the road on rue Ravenstein, considering we stayed in the Hilton, and were in and out of the station so many times.
Ah well…..another time. Now wishing I had stroked Everard t’Serclaes’s arm for good measure.