Last updated on 29/04/2019
Brussels abounds in architectural pearls...
BrusselsLife, in association with the guide De Rouck Geocart ("10 thematic walks across Brussels"), proposes you a ballad in the heart of Brussels.
Le Corbusier, one of the greatest architects, explained in his own marvellous and straightforward way what architecture is. "Take some stones, some wood, and some concrete; with the help of these materials construct houses, palaces. This is called building, in other words, it is a technical approach. But imagine that the walls of this building point towards the sky in such a manner that I am moved by it. Suddenly you touch my heart, you make me feel better, I am delighted and I say: "It's beautiful". That is what architecture is." This is the starting point for our walk which passes buildings representing the different eras of our history. Will you be moved to the point of exclaiming "It's beautiful"? Or rather, will simple buildings, technical creations, not touch you at all?
Start of the walk: Gare Centrale (Central Station)
This station, which is truly "central", is a late, posthumous work by the great architect Victor Horta. He received the order in 1910, at the time when the Jonction Nord-Midi works were beginning, but the definitive plans only date back to 1936. This explains why the Gare Centrale is more exemplary of the architecture of the period between the wars. You need to leave the building to observe it better. Stand on Boulevard de l'Impératrice in front of the Méridien Hotel, opposite the station. From this location, it is possible to observe both the main entrance and the two side façades.
The first impression that the station gives is that of a functional building. However, some elements, while they are certainly fairly discreet ones, do suggest the previous work of the master. Thus, the central part, including the entrance, is reminiscent of the Maison du Peuple (the "House of the People"). In fact, the upper façade, which is made of glass, presents the same concave shape as that of the famous palace which was inaugurated in 1899 and sadly demolished in 1965. Small bronze columns replace the iron columns that were used previously. The denticulated crown on the right-hand façade bears witness to a return to a certain classicism, while the central corbelled part, is strangely reminiscent of the bow window of the Tassel Hotel (1893), Horta's first Art Nouveau building. The enormous canopy protecting the entrance balances the vertical window. Enter the station by the main entrance in the direction of the booking office.
Inside, the monumentality and relative simplicity of the building is apparent. There is none of the famous dynamic of the Art Nouveau era here. The decorative language is purely geometric and angular. The cross beams are hollowed out with rectangular notches, as is the staircase leading to the secondary exit, while the banisters are of a linear shape and the ceiling is composed of square caissons. Did Horta convert to Art Deco? He did however remain faithful to himself in the way he used light: across the glass slabs of the ceiling, direct overhead light washes over the booking office room. Leave Gare Centrale via the staircase opposite the main entrance which leads to Cantersteen.
Today, just in front of us is the Galerie Ravenstein (Ravenstein arcade). Unfortunately, in order to see the next building, you need to use your imagination. Nowadays, Brussels no longer has a Renaissance palace. However, up until 1930, the Granvelle Palace was indeed situated here. The 16th century Bishop Granvelle, a great patron of the arts, had his residence built here, to the modern tastes of the era, which were for horizontality, symmetry and balance. The columns and triangular pediments which decorated it were inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity. Between 1910 and 1953, the Jonction works lead to the demolition of the entire Putterie area. The buildings which are visible today therefore date from after the Second World War. Leaving the station, turn left and continue until you reach a major intersection.
As you are walking along, make sure you admire the Shell building opposite.
The Shell building
Cross rue Cardinal Mercier and stand in front of the recent circular tower made entirely of glass which is a recent addition to replace the Loterie tower. From here you can enjoy a lovely view back over the Shell building, with its characteristic rounded corner and façade on rue Ravenstein. This building was built in 1931-34 by the architects Alexis Dumont and Marcel Van Goethem. You can admire the beautiful curve of the façade, the rigid elevation and the almost total lack of decoration. The fact that the upper levels are receding accentuates the horizontality of the building which stands out as a fine example of Modernism from the period between the wars. The origins of this movement can be found in the Netherlands, where it was given the name of "Nieuwe Zakelijkheid" (New Objectivity), and where quite a few Belgian artists and architects took refuge during the First World War. The use of reinforced concrete became widespread. If we can call the architecture of the Shell building modernist, then the Gare Centrale (Central Station) could be described as geometrical Art Deco. Without leaving this spot, have a look to your left at rue des Colonies which climbs as it turns slightly to the right.
Rue des Colonies buildings
The two corner buildings on either side of rue des Colonies date back to the years 1925-30. The one on the left, with its rotunda crowned with a turret, particularly bears witness to a deep nostalgia for the Belle Epoque. This retro style is known as "Style Beaux-Arts", after the famous Parisian School of Fine Arts which, after 1918, continued to teach a decorative language in the tradition of the styles of Louis XV and Louis XVI. It is curious to realise that this architecture is contemporaneous with the Shell building or Gare Centrale (Central Station)! Go up rue des Colonies and, at the lights, turn left into rue de la Chancellerie which leads to the Cathédrale-des-Saints-Michel-et-Gudule (Saint Michael and Saint Gudule Cathedral). The whole southern façade of this building can be seen from the next corner.
It is a superb example of the Gothic style. Contrary to what is often thought, the walls are extremely thin and to a large extent are replaced by walls with windows. The walls no longer have any load-bearing function. They could be taken away, and the arches would not move at all, because they are held up by a skeleton of stone. The buttresses and the flying buttresses make up the parts of this skeleton that are visible from the exterior. The buttresses which separate the windowed parts and thus accentuate the horizontal rhythm of the bays, transmit the weight of the building towards the bottom, that is, to the ground. But there is also a vertical thrust, which comes from the ridges of the arch. This pressure is transferred with the help of flying buttresses towards a second series of buttresses situated more towards the outside, and surmounted with pinnacles. The purpose of these pinnacles, which are in the shape of a small pyramid ornamented and decorated with finials, is undoubtedly more than simply decorative. Their weight contributes to ensure that the pressure which comes from the flying buttresses or the ridges of the arch is exerted vertically across the buttresses they surmount. In order to study this skeleton better, enter by the small side door or, if it is shut, by the main entrance that can be reached by going around the building to the left. Walk towards the main nave and look up towards the arches.
The Cathedral is arched by ridges. In each bay (the rectangle formed by four pillars) two ridges cross each another. The keystone, which therefore separates four triangles, really holds everything together. These ridges form part of the skeleton and send the weight of the arch towards the pillars. By looking closely across the high windows with clear glass, you can see the flying buttresses on the outside. This system of skeletal construction, which was developed in the 12th century in the North of France, has been widely imitated even by contemporary architects, as we will see later. Leave by the main door, located on the west side, under the large window representing the Last Judgement. Go down the steps and walk alongside the Banque Nationale (National Bank) to the right of the small park. Head towards the traffic lights where you can cross avenue Berlaimont. Look behind you to get a good view of the western side of the Cathedral.
This façade is somewhat similar to those of the great cathedrals of Notre-Dame de Paris, Reims or Amiens. In fact, our Brabant (Belgian) architects were inspired by the work of their French colleagues. And yet, certain peculiarity, like the absence of the large rosace, or rose window, between the western towers, is ample justification for speaking of a "Brabant" Gothic style. In the territory of the ancient duchy of Brabant, these rose windows, which are common in Picardy and Ile-de-France, are replaced by a large ogival window. The cathedral is surrounded by much more recent buildings, dating back to the 1950s. The Cold War era engendered an architecture which reflected the period: rectilinear, functional and cold. The architect who designed the office building to our right clearly drew his inspiration from the buttresses and the ogival vaults that are typical of the Gothic style. Cross avenue Berlaymont and continue along it to the right.
On the left pavement, you will walk past buildings in the functional style whose architects, such as Hugo Van Kuyck, André and Jean Polak, have acquired a certain reputation. Opposite, the most recent section of the Banque Nationale (National Bank) was built by Marcel Van Goethem and Alexis Dumont whom we met earlier at the Shell Building. This building is certainly not devoid of grandeur. Plans were drawn up before 1940, but building only started after 1948, in other words, after the Jonction was turned into a tunnel. This architecture appears very closed, mainly due to the succession of monumental pillars, 20 m high, made of prestressed concrete. This facade is covered by a facing made of white stone and extends over 200 m in length. To the few passers-by, the whole building looks like a bunker, closely protecting the financial deficit of the State. . Opposite, n° 56 was built by the same architects and houses the Printing Office of the National Bank. Go down the stairs on the left to rue des Comédiens.
The whole neighbourhood has greatly suffered from the building of the junction and has been slowly bandaging the wounds left by demolitions and the expansion of slums. The canker is slowly disappearing. As you descend, you will immediately notice a brand new apartment building. In the past, a giant hole defaced the neighbourhood. At the bottom, turn right into rue Saint-Laurent.
Until 1970, the left side of the street was totally occupied by the left-wing press. The tall brick building contained the printing house of the newspaper "Le Peuple" (The People), while its offices were located in the building next door. This masterpiece of modernist architecture was a sad ruin only a few years ago, after being abandoned by the Belgian authorities. It has now been superbly restored thanks to the great initiative of the Spanish region of Asturias. The architects Fernand Brunfaut and his son Maxime (the same one who completed the Central Station following the death of Horta) have achieved a great combination of volume, line and colour here. The completely transparent tower symbolises the light of socialism illuminating the world. It is balanced by a rectangular block, which has a wall covered in orange tiles. This is in stark contrast to the large glass walls fitted with balustrades which are reminiscent of the parapets of ocean liners. Turn left into rue des Sables.
Belgian Center for Comic Strips
The Old Waucquez Shops at n° 20-22 now house the Belgian Centre for Comic Strips, commonly known as the Musée de la BD. With this facade, the architect Victor Horta broke with his previous style, which had been so shocking to right-minded people with its floral ornamentation and, even more so, with its use of visible metallic girders. In 1905 Horta was becoming increasingly aware of the fact that other architects were copying his stylistic inventions, while showing no interest in his innovations with regard to interior design, which were much more important. Nevertheless, this monumental facade made of French white stone reveals Horta's genius through delicate touches. It appears slightly concave on both the horizontal and the vertical plane, while the upper edges of the windows display a stylish parabola. The facade is marked with numerous air vents: air, light and space are the key words in Horta's work. In the architecture of the master, interiors always prevail over facades, so let us go inside! Enter the Anciens Magasins (Old Shops) and walk to the Grand Hall. Access to the various spaces on the ground floor is free of charge.
The sense of space and light is stunning. Small columns and girders made of wrought iron constitute a load-bearing framework and replace the traditional walls. The entire space acquires an extreme transparency which is not unlike Gothic cathedrals. Art Nouveau and the Gothic style have many elements in common. Light enters liberally through the large glass roof, a constant feature with Horta, without being blocked by the intermediate floor as the floor is made of glass slabs. In the space located to the right of the central standard lamp, a small exhibition explains the birth of Art Nouveau in Brussels. Once outside, turn right and walk down rue des Sables which ends in rue du Marais. Turn left, then follow the first street on your right, rue du Persil, which will bring you to Place des Martyrs. Face the imposing monument which marks its centre.
The former place Saint-Michel
The former Place Saint-Michel, renamed after the Belgian Revolution which buried its martyrs there, is a fine example of neo-classical architecture from the end of 18th Century. It was the first square in the capital which was designed according to a rigorously symmetrical and coherent plan. The city architect, Claude Fisco, drew up the plans in 1774 in a style which drew its inspiration from Classical Antiquity, just as the Renaissance had done previously. Excavations undertaken from 1748 onwards in the Kingdom of Naples enabled the unearthing of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had been buried in 79 A.D. by an eruption of Vesuvius. These had an important impact on all European artistic milieux. Walk towards the small southern side.
Here we are far away from the light and joyful Baroque which will appear shortly in Grand-Place. The simplicity of the lines as well as the restraint displayed in the décor creates a harmonious whole. The central part juts out and is more pronounced with its triangular pediment. Below the cornice is a frieze decorated with bucrania (a sculpted ornament in the form of an ox skull), a design borrowed from ancient Rome. The Romans used to sacrifice oxen and nail their heads to the Temple's wall. After a while, all that remained was the skull, which then became a theme for sculptural decoration. Leave the square via the street located on the left of this little side, rue d'Argent, which leads to rue du Fossé aux Loups. Cross this street and go along it, bearing left.
Opposite, the monumental construction of the old Caisse d'épargne (Savings Bank) building, which is now Fortis, is a fine example of 19th century eclecticism. In architecture schools, regardless of whether they were liberal academies or the Catholic Ecoles Saint-Luc, learning the styles of the past was considered essential. The future architects therefore particularly learnt how to imitate these styles: Neo-Roman, Neo-Gothic etc. This facade is an example of the Neo-Renaissance style. Cross the street once again and continue to go along rue du Fossé aux Loups, using the left pavement.
Opposite is the Radisson Hotel SAS. This last building before the corner of rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères, which was built in 1990 by Michel Jaspers & Partner, proves that after decades of cold functionalism, colour, asymmetry and decoration are once again fashionable. Because of the borrowings from the architecture of the 1920s, this building could be labelled as Neo-Art Deco. Cross over once again (yes, again! ) and continue up rue de la Montagne aux Herbes Potagères, on the right.
Opposite is the EHSAL building, a tertiary business school built in 1983-1987 by Alfons Hoppenbrouwers, which is an excellent example of postmodernist trends. Within a rigid and symmetrical structure, certain decorative elements are included, which are often of classical inspiration and bereft of any functional character. The windows set in the roof repeat the rhythm of the ground floor arches. They are themselves surmounted by two bronze sculptures by Jean-Paul Laenen, representing Athena and Hermes. Rue de la Montagne aux Herbes Potagères leads to rue de l'Ecuyer, opposite the entrance to the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
This jewel of Brussels architecture and town planning was given an Italian Neo-Renaissance décor by the architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer. Wandering through the arcades, you cannot help admiring the glass roof resting on metal framework. This is an extremely early example (1847) of this type of passage which has since been widely imitated across Europe. Leaving the Galeries, take the street opposite and slightly to the right, rue de la Colline, a pedestrian mall which leads to Grand-Place.
Ironically, the beauty of this place can be attributed to Louis XIV's army which, in 1695, bombarded Brussels, aiming in particular at the arrow on the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). The reconstruction of the centre of the lower city, which was almost all destroyed, was carried out quickly and even quite economically. An exception to the latter was the central square, which was required to be even more dazzling than was previously the case. The Hôtel de Ville, whose tower and external walls had miraculously resisted the bombs, was rebuilt in the original Gothic style. For the rear façade, however, a more "modern" style was adopted: Classicism. Around the square, companies and trades had their hotels rebuilt according to the Baroque style, whose exuberant aspects were somewhat tempered here and there by more classical accents. The history of the Maison du Roi, opposite the Hôtel de Ville, is rather more complicated. The building, which in the 16th century had been given a Renaissance decor, was entirely demolished in 1873 and replaced by a Neo-Gothic construction attributed to the Town Architect, Pierre-Victor Jamaer. While the houses surrounding the square generally display a Baroque decor, their structure is often still Gothic. Thus, the ridge of the roofs is perpendicular to the alignment, which attests to a Medieval custom. In the 18th century, the ridge was parallel to the pavement The façades of the first houses of our cities were often wooden, and were surmounted by a triangular pediment. The use of stone gradually encouraged builders to adopt the crowstep gable. This tended to be rounded until the appearance of the Baroque volute gable, which was often embellished by other decorative elements. Grand-Place is the end of this walk dedicated to architecture.
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