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 of which is segregated into dissonant compartments.
It is the dissonance, as compared to the copybook homogeneity of other European cities, that 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. 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 names of guildhalls on the square reflect 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 an astonishingly harmonious mix of Gothic, Baroque and Louis XIV reconstructions from the 17th – 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 name 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 – 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 apparently 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 is supposed to be the most cosmopolitan of cities in Europe, 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. 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 delayed 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.
48 thoughts on “Brussels – Exploring History Through Architecture”
A most interesting view of a city that I didn’t think had much going for it, Madhu!
Me neither Sue. Would have allotted more time if I had researched a bit beforehand. But I think we did quite OK considering 🙂
I think you did!
Thank you Madhu for a great post.
I adore Brussels. Used to go there regularly in the 80’s for client meetings.
I still try to go every 3-5 years to complete my collection of Franco-Belgian comics of which I am an avid fan. (Did you see the murals with comics characters?) 🙂
I just managed one TinTin mural Brian, which wasn’t worth including in this already lengthy post. Missed the comic art museum which is a Horta building as well. I am a big city girl myself. Would happily return every few years if I could.
You too 🙂 Have a great day!
Well, the advantage of being “anchored” in Paris where I feel I have to go once a year, lest I go berserk, is that once there, it is easy to “hop” to London, Brussels, Italy, Germany, etc… Everything is so close. :
You will go back to Brussels one day.
Take care my dear.
Wow! What a lot of work has gone into this post, Madhu! Such a lovely surprise- thank you 🙂 🙂 It’s an interesting amalgam, isn’t it? Love your floodlit square and the shot down at cobbles level is great. And it’s another city with a river flowing beneath, like Bristol. I find that incredible. A really thorough and enjoyable piece of work. Thank you very much 🙂
Ha, that was indeed a bit of a marathon on the heels of my visit to check on my FIL! But I was determined to get it out today 🙂 Thank you for reading Jo.
PS: That cobble level shot is from the Visit Flanders site. Mine was cluttered with too many vehicles so decided not to use it.
It’s a great idea but I suppose you’d have to be there crack of dawn to get the place to yourself. 🙂 🙂 FIL ok?
Indeed 🙂 FIL’s doing well, thank you Jo.
I’ve seen Brussels as i’d never imagined thanks to you Madhu Shetty! Your passion for the different architectural styles took us on one of the most interesting & beautiful walks ever. I’d such a rollicking time all thro’ the trip with an extremely well informed guide in you…and you’ve such a spirit for fun & adventure. Of course, I’d travel with you at the drop of a hat. 😉
Ha, good to know Rashmi 😀 Here’s to many, many more such adventures!
I’ve been there and you reminded me of that magical time.
Glad this stirred fond memories Sally. Have a great day! 🙂
I knew nothing about Brussels: now I feel I do. You’ve interwoven images and history and architectural information beautifully. It’s always a good sign when you miss things – like a conversation with a friend that never ends, even when you go your separate ways. I loved the narrow art nouveau building particularly and that first shot of such absolute clarity.
Belated thanks for your lovely comment dear Meg. Have a wonderful weekend.
I know where every single one of these sites is! I love Brussels and never understand why others don’t. I’d happily live there. The culture, the history, and the architecture is fascinating to me.
Me too! I much prefer a layered, less perfect city to a picture perfect one.
What a wonderful introduction to Brussels. Being Australian/Canadian I love Europe for its layers and layers of history. And Art Deco is my favourite architectural style ever! Lovely to see so much of it.
It was fun hunting these down. Glad you enjoyed it Alison. Have a great weekend.
Oops! I meant Art Nouveau!
It may not be the belle of the European ball, but Brussels is certainly not a wallflower! Like other commenters, I find the Art Deco design and decoration a great accent against all that more typical architecture.
Indeed. The art nouveau Maison Cauchie was my favourite. Much belated thanks Lex. And happy weekend 🙂
I was in Brussels in the 70’s and my best memory is of the wonderful mussels. 🙂 Love the Art Deco things you shared and the whole post in general. Thanks!
Thank YOU for reading dear Janet. Have a wonderful weekend!
Wow, all those architecture are really beautiful… appreciate the history behind the story…👍😊
Much belated thanks Sha 🙂
I, too, only had limited time in Brussels during my month-long trip across Europe (gosh, I miss that continent!). But having my cousin (she was still living in Brussels at that time but then she moved to Birmingham and Cologne before returning to the Belgian capital last year) to take me around was a big plus. We did check out some of the city’s most iconic sights: Manneken Pis, Jeanneke Pis, and the Atomium. In Brussels, I got tipsy for the first time in my life — I remember the long walk I took to the bathroom at the bar; had a very delicious spicy chicken egg at my cousin’s Indonesian friend’s house after weeks without real spicy food; and was surprised to find out how good the French fries were in the land where the delicacy was born.
Thanks for this post, Madhu! Not only did it bring back some fond memories of the city, but it also inspires me to return to Brussels one day to explore those architectural gems you pointed out.
Ha, glad to have triggered that flood of memories Bama 🙂 Brussels could easily keep the likes of us occupied for days.
Looks absolutely beautiful!
It was indeed. Thank you for your visit and comment Nathan. Have a great day!
I didn’t expect to know that Brussels is the most cosmopolitan city in Europe,that’s an interesting fact!
It is indeed Kathleen, owing to its EU capital status.
Where are you off to next? 🙂
These pictures are amazing – looks like you had an adventure!
Oh yes I did. Belated thanks Megan. Have a fabulous day!
You’ve given a view of Brussels I never knew existed…wonderful look into this city. I like how you paint the changes the city has undergone throughout its history being incorporated in its architecture and the lifestyle of the people. Great photos ~ the first one I especially like, it makes the city feel very welcoming. Wishing you well Madhu!
Brussels was a huge surprise. As was Antwerp. Thank you very much for reading Randall. Have a great weekend.
Seems like I should pay a visit – never thought this city would have that much to offer. Thank you for this surprise!
Such an intriguing city. The buildings are just gorgeous. Would love to visit Brussels someday.
love the architecture. Awesome photos…just awesome!
Delighted you think so, thank you David.
Great photos, I love the one of the illuminated Grand Place, it looks stunning 🙂