Capital of Europe 1: Houses
Obligatory holiday picture post
Brussels is bourgeois. So bourgeois that Marx and Engels despaired of this most industrialised part of continental Europe ever becoming revolutionary, and hence it's the perfect place for the headquarters of the bosses' utopia that is the European Union, and for NATO. Thing is, in making Brussels the capital of Europe, combined with the linguistic and tribal chaos of Belgian politics, the EU managed to accidentally create a diverse and I almost hesitate to say vibrant, multicultural city. In doing that the weirdness already at large in the capital is positively amplified, and pointing out this weirdness is key when arguing with little Englanders who seem to imagine the European capital as being full of glass buildings housing potato-measuring bureaucrats. There are many of those, but many, many other things. I'm not going to talk about many of them, but instead about the radically bourgeois architecture of the capital of Europe, and the sporadic attempts to make it less bourgeois. The first part of this will be on houses, the second - sometime this afternoon or tomorrow, depending on whether I do any proper work - will be on public buildings.
Due to an ordinance which made the repetition of buildings practically illegal, apparently more because of a rash of lawsuits between Belgian architects rather than a disdain for uniformity, any Belgian street looks vastly different to any English, German or French street. You don't get terraces, you don't get semis, and hence you don't get repetition. This doesn't actually lead to the riot of ideas you could naively expect, and in poorer areas like that around the Gare de Midi, you get the same architects hanging minor variations on fairly uniform façades. Even in the best instances, it's a matter of small details and dressings rather than fundamentals. In practically every case, we're dealing with three and upwards storey townhouses and flats, without gardens, clinging to the streetline, with very few experiments at anything other than the level of style, design and placement of balconies, materials, etc etc. In this Brussels is especially bourgeois, in that there is much ostentatious individuality, but nothing truly nonconformist or revolutionary. Yet, if you take the view that architecture is scenery, and are not especially interested in interiors (I'm not) then this is not necessarily a bad thing - there is lots and lots to see. Most of these photos are taken in the area around the lunatic 1930s Koekelberg Basilica that towers over the north of the city (more of which in part two!), and which show how the same basic idea can be given all manner of surface treatments. It also marks a rare foray of this blog into the world of uncaptioned architectural porn.
Brussels is where Art Nouveau architecture was 'invented'. All this lot support the general idea of art nouveau as architectural frippery, an irrelevant detour from the true path of modernism. Which is not entirely the case, as we shall come to later. Above you have none of the really wild examples of the style, but rather lots of slightly Victor Horta-esque ornament, fancy ironwork, and occasionally huge windows and other more advanced accoutrements. What is interesting in Brussels is that when Modernism came along, it was for the most part slotted neatly into exactly the same system of streetline and ostentatious individuality. This system could accommodate very tall blocks of flats, and in a couple of cases a bit of Brutalism as well, without the essential rectitude of the streetline being broken up, without buildings going off into their own space and orientating themselves in some more 'rational' manner. As with art nouveau, the most interesting things are small details - the fronts of doorways, the edges of balconies, odd little ornaments. It's the sort of thing proper critics would have called Moderne rather than Modern, although see if you can spot the one of these by a CIAM member. Also, bear in mind this is suburban housing of the interwar years - compare the Tudorbethan semis built in London at the same time, for a pointer to what happens aesthetically when you fail to fully complete your bourgeois revolution.
The two below are by Fernand Bodson, who straddled art nouveau and modernism, mostly in partnership with Antoine Pompe - and who at least had the wit to describe himself as a 'pseudomodernist'. Note the space for cars within the facade.
Joseph Diongre was responsible for this bit of intriguing glam-deco ostentation. Like many other Belgian architects he went from traditionalism to an opulent non-mainstream modernism - there don't seem to have been many Blomfieldesque ragers against Modernismus here. Diongre's most famous Brussels building is this piece of nautical Mendelsohnery, whose stern can be seen for miles.
The Brutalist one at the end has a tap.
To see exactly what makes Modernism as a movement different from this play of styles, the contrast between the Cite Moderne and the houses which surround it (many of which are above) is instructive. The Cite Moderne was designed in the early 1920s by a team headed by Victor Bourgeois, but it is the least bourgeois thing in the area. The Modern City is probably the earliest of the famous White Modernist estates of the '20s (early enough that its derivation from the pre-war ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright and Tony Garnier is easily spotted), and like those in Berlin, sponsored by a housing co-operative. Everything about it proclaims collectivity. Here, maybe because of some legal loophole or other, is repetition, but in an enveloping, friendly manner. Here there is an aesthetic consistency, and also lots of what Brussels had very little of at the time - gardens. This was at that strange point where it was Modernists rather than their opponents who favoured family houses with gardens over flats. There's also a lot of cubic topiary, De Stijl stained glass, games with right angles, and a monument to Bourgeois added at the estate's centre in the '50s. Just to remind you of the politics, the roads here are called things like 'Co-Operation Road' or 'Evolution Road'.
These are new houses being built at the edge of the Cite Moderne, which are scrupulously 'in keeping' - an exemplar of the changing priorities of bourgeois taste if ever there were. On the way back to the Metro station, I spot this Corbusian block. Many of Brussels' poor live in these slabs on hills at the edges, looming down on the bourgeois city.
I accept responsibility for all the photos, except the one at the very top which was taken by Frances Hatherley.