Misfits’ Guide to BRUSSELS

I have architect Pierre Eyban to thank for most of the information in this post I’ve constructed from recollections of conversations we had while walking around Brussels. Any inaccuracies are mine not his. Big thanks are also due to Raphael without whom my visit would not have happened, and also to Fred, Kaja, Paul, Didier, Mircea and everyone else I had the pleasure to meet.

This was one of  the first things Pierre pointed out. Seven rows of dual-aspect tenement apartments, two to a landing – about 120 in all. I may be wrong, but the polychromatic brickwork suggests 1850–1880. The site slopes down gently to the west, with arched passageways and stairs linking the cross streets and undercroft storage provided in the level difference. Nice.

There’s architectural generosity to be seen and it’s so much the better for many people benefitting from it. The balcony balustrades would originally have been cast iron but their modern replacements have been fabricated with care and painted an apparently authentic colour rather than yellow or red to “brighten the place up a bit”.

The Place du Jeu de Balle and the Marolles flea market are immediately to the north.

It’s impossible not to notice the many fine turn-of-the-century school buildings still in use. I like a place that values education.

Brussels is a city that has been shaped by architectural competions. One of the first was in 1860 for the Palais de Justice (Law Courts) that now overlooks Brussels from the Galgenberg Hill. None of the entered designs was a winner and in 1861 Minister of Justice appointed Joseph Poelaert to design it anew. The first stone was laid on October 31, 1866, and the building was inaugurated on October 15, 1883, four years after Poelaert’s death in 1879. It’s a beast.

The Minister of Justice is probably responsible for the scale of the building, if not its design and, as a consequence, the mammoth building is sinking. A program of repairs was begun in 2003 but the building has been shrouded in scaffolding for so long that the scaffolding is now in need of repair. There are good views of Brussels to be had if you climb the scaffolding at night and risk a €500 fine but entry during the daytime is permitted and free. The grand and intimidating scale of the interiors will make you feel guilty anyway.

Brussels continues to be shaped by architectural competitions, with small or young practices having many opportunities to enter and occasionally win.

Flemish Library, Muntplein, Brussels, B-architecten, 2016

Brussel’s Flemish Library was formerly known as Hoofdstedelijke Bibliotheek Brussel but now goes by the name Muntpunt. The competition for its redesign for was won by Antwerp practice B-architecten [1].

The problem with the 1970s building was that it was not deemed “open” enough because the precast concrete cladding panels obscured the interior and did not invite people in. B-architecten’s solution was to remove them at the lower levels and then reconfigure the interiors now they could be seen. A unique building has resulted from doing the obvious, even if it only seems obvious after someone has done it. The owners now have a building that functions as they want it to and that no doubt cost a fraction of a new building, if that was ever an option. We need to update our definition of adaptive re-use to include selective demolition.

Sans Souci Housing Development, 120-122 Rue Sans Souci, R²D² architects

Next day the skies had cleared and I was walking (lost, as it happened) and saw this inner courtyard housing.

A little further along the street I was happy to see this project for 20 apartments for Brussels social housing provider Fonds du Logement.

This next image is from the website [2] of the architects R2D2 who, like B-architecten above, have solved the problem well and with a minimum of fuss and architecture.

I’ve never been to Vienna but I hear that new and old buildings coexist quite happily in the same street and this is the case here. There’s none of the British obsession with “lining through” or a restricted choice of materials. There is no obvious attempt to make this building fit in, and yet it does. Perhaps because it is similarly unpretentious.

Brussels seems to have a healthy relationship with its old buildings, fixing them and using them for as long as they can, until they can’t anymore. This next street is noplace special but it has six building in a row and I suspect not one of them was built within 70 years of another. Going by the many buildings with dates on them, the period 1580-1680 was a boom time. Many ordinary buildings from that period still exist but not because their builders were building for eternity. They were just building the only way they knew how and it happened to create buildings that didn’t need to be replaced soon.

Grand Place remains a well-preserved treasure but some are displeased the buildings now have much more gilding that they ever conceiveably would have had.

A bit of gilding certainly does look good on cloudy days but having no more than a healthy respect for the old has its benefits. The extension to this building does not apologize for being there.

It’s a tricky act to pull off however and I fear standards will slip.

Flagey Frites, Place Flaget

This unprepossessing little building is Frites Flagey, seller of arguably the best frites in Brussels.

The people of Brussels take their frites very seriously, along with their chipshops that they call frietkot. There’s a painter, Gilles Houben [1] who paints nothing else. This is his painting of Frites Flagey.

The city council apparently thought the freitkot rather shabby and you may have read about the architectural competition held for a freitkot redesign [2]. It was won by architect Thomas Hick but not everyone was won over by his “unassuming” design clad in mirrors – or his referencing Learning From Las Vegas. Now, as then, the new unpretentiousness is neither new nor unpretentious.

Looking east from Frites Flagey you’ll see this building with an elongated form, yellow brick and tower much like Robert Mallet-Stevens’ Villa La Cavrois.

In order to make its café and library appear more accessible to the general public, the front of the building has been “opened up” in the same way as Muntpunt. Models of re-imagined treehouses I saw through a rear window confirmed the presence of an architecture school.

Galeries Royales Saint-HubertJean-Pierre Cluysenaer, 1847

This is a delightful covered shopping arcade that predates Milan’s Galleria di Vittorio Emanuel II by more than twenty years. There’s an unbelieveable lightness to the arcade roof structure. Is it concrete and glass block? I have no idea. It’s lovely.

The apparent length of the arcade is reduced halfway by a slight change in direction where it links to a cross-street and a smaller arcade branches off farther down. I was pleased to see two two floors of apartments above the many chocolate shops.

Houses, [street to be confirmed], Architet B. Leroy (?), circa 1900

It must have been tough being an architect in Brussels working in the shadow of Victor Horta. Mon. Leroy isn’t listed anywhere as an important architect but he designed practically every house along one side of this street. He deserves our respect for making each house the same but different, skilfully varying the quantity and detail of his external motifs and decorations according to budget.

Horta House, 66 rue de l’Hôtel de la Monnaie, 1895(?)~1905(?)

Horta could have learned a thing or two because the construction cost of this next house caused the upper floors to be redesigned into smaller apartments before the house was even completed – perhaps a sacrifice accepted so the ballroom at the rear could be kept.

Outside, you can spend much time contemplating things we don’t contemplate doing anymore. Inside, the stairwell is the main architectural event. The sheer amount and degree of craftsmanship evident in everything is awesome.

I don’t normally think every single item and detail has to call attention to itself but it’s difficult to argue when everything is done with such thought and executed so well – that timber handrail for instance. The house isn’t included amongst Horta’s top four houses so I’m now curious to see what is.

Next time I will visit his 1893 Hôtel Tassel at least. Brussels Station was designed by Horta. The 1908 Magasins Waucquez now house the Belgian Comic Strip Centre and look rather nice. Not too far from the station is Horta’s 1929 Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels (BOZAR) in a building showing Horta drifting into Art Deco. I’m interested to see the plans now I’ve just read on Wikipedia that “it took more than a decade to complete the complex, which contains a large concert hall, a recital room, a chamber music room, lecture rooms, and a vast gallery for temporary exhibitions. [Horta] managed to put together this array of different functions on a rather small building plot with restricted conditions using more than 8 building levels with a large part situated underground.” For now though, all this has some place in some other blog. Brussels has a long history of fine art and I’m sorry to not have visited the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Even just walking around the city, you’ll notice Brussels’ new tradition of using buildings as backdrops for murals, art and comics but that too is for someone else to write about.

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  1. http://www.b-architecten.be [well worth a visit]
  2. http://www.r2d2architecture.be/projects/detail/2581
  3. http://www.belgianfries.com/bfblog/?p=798
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/23/battered-chip-shacks-of-brussels-in-taste-tussle
  5. [c.f. The Atomium, 15 April 2018]

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1 thought on “Misfits’ Guide to BRUSSELS

  1. Colin Bisset

    Thank you – lovely tour. I was blown away the first time I visited Brussels – I’d wanted to visit the Horta Museum and the Palais Stoclet but hadn’t realised the wealth of other fascinating buildings everywhere.

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